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MTV Video Music Awards live performance reviews: Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Green Day and more

September 13, 2009 |  6:45 pm


The MTV Video Music Awards are set to feature performances from the likes of Janet Jackson, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and more. Pop & Hiss presents somewhat instant reviews of all the performances at the show -- typos and all.

1. Janet Jackson's tribute to Michael Jackson. Madonna opens the show as a surprise guest, telling an extended story about having dinner with Jackson, as well as revealing her thoughts on the pop star. The crowd stands as Madonna, in a slick black outfit, drops a bevy of personal details into her speech about Michael. "I never had a mother, but he never had a childhood," Madonna observed. "When you never get to have something, you become obsessed by it." She notes that she and Michael were "not great friends," but talks of going to dinner and movie with him, and having to coax Michael into removing his sunglasses. She ends by saying, "My sons, age 9 and 4, are obsessed with Michael Jackson. There's a whole lot of crotch-grabbing and moonwalking going on in  my house."

Then it cuts straight to a dance tribute, which may have been a lot fun if you were in Radio City. Our pals in New York insist it was brilliant live, in the audience. But on television, it just didn't translate. The live moves were professionally grand, and gave a wham-bang highlight of Jackson's career, But on the small screen, the moves were completely overshadowed by clips of Jackson's videos, including "Thriller" and "Bad." Janet wasn't seen until a few minutes in, when she came out for "Scream," her glitchy rock 'n' roll duet with Michael from 1995. She was fierce, fast and held back the tears, but it doesn't justify multiple days of hype, nor was it as clever as MTV's gloves-raining down on Manhattan videos. Madonna: A. The rest of the tribute: C+

2. Katy Perry, "We Will Rock You." The pop star comes out to show off her rock 'n' roll side, covering the Queen classic for a few minutes. It's mainly a gratuitous intro for host-comedian Russell Brand, and not so much a performance. Her white circus outfit isn't as fun as her giant fruit props from last year, and it's a song that begs for crowd pandering. Perry's cover follows suit. D.


3. Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift. After the Eminem/Bruno moment at the MTV Movie Awards, it’s hard to believe anything is not 100% scripted at these awards. So here’s what happened: Taylor Swift was  a few seconds into her speech about how she was amazed that a country artist could win this award and Kanye jumped onstage, claiming that the award should have gone to Beyoncé. Taylor looked shocked, and Beyoncé didn’t look pleased, but it’s half-expected that Kanye make a bit of fool of himself at every award show. Usually he’s complaining about his own failure to win. The crowd booed, and Taylor awkwardly walked offstage. If it was scripted, Kanye as egotistical shtick gets an F. If it was spontaneous (unlikely), then Kanye’s continued fearlessness and recklessness -- however misguided it can sometimes be -- gets an A. But someone needs to persuade him to stop caring about awards, and he should never steal the spotlight from another artist. 

Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me.” Turning the New York City subway into a set piece, the country-lite pop star starts out in a station, playing the part of an acoustic singer-songwriter. But MTV doesn’t do subtlety, and Swift quickly ducks into a train filled with kids singing along to every word.  Swift eventually comes running out onto the street to party atop a taxi cab, as the the people of New York get revenge on Kanye. This is Taylor’s year – make no mistake about it, and the massive crowd sing-along makes that clear. But pity the New York City commuters. B

Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi.”  A bit of a letdown, perhaps, for those wanting Gaga to completely control the crowd. MTV teased before the commercial that Lady Gaga would be coming up in a matter of minutes, and aside from a few seconds of manic pounding on a piano with her boot affixed on its keys, Gaga’s performance wasn’t one of high energy. While she didn’t stray too far from the Las Vegas performance art of the video’s clip, which is nominated at the awards, give one of the world’s biggest stars credit for inspiring quizzical looks from the audience. Bloody bikinis and a suicide finale hint that something serious was supposed to go down here, and maybe it did. The messages were obscured by the setting, but Gaga deserves a sold B for sounding sharp, and following up her million-plus sales with some ambition. 

Green Day, “East Jesus Nowhere.” The stop and start anthem is a blast on “21st Century Breakdown” and in Green Day’s live shows. The call-and-response vocals add a militant bent to the rebellious anthem, and drummer Tre Cool is the star of the song, fighting with lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong for all the attention. For his part, Armstrong’s snarl has rarely sounded this biting. But when Armstrong invited all the MTV VMAs to jump onstage and dance around as if they were trashing their parents’ fancy couch, the power of the song suddenly seemed muted. This is one stage were Green Day would have been better to go it alone. B-

Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” There was little singing in this Beyoncé performance, where she once again had the crowd marveling at her show-stopping dance moves. Beyoncé didn’t have to say a word, and this still would have been an electric award-show performance. Despite the song and its accompanying video becoming a YouTube hit, Beyoncé and her army of single ladies – and their accompanying leotards and heels -- never for a moment felt played out. A

Muse, “Uprising.” Would this band be here if it weren’t for “Twilight”? Unlikely, at least if these kind of glammy-goth anthems are the best they have to offer. Lead singer Matthew Bellamy drifts from moody detachment to a Thom York-like falsetto, and guitars mix with glum keyboards. The band’s choruses are getting bigger, and it’s a fitting soundtrack for a teenage soap opera. Little else. C-

Pink, ”Sober.” Briefly blindfolded and singing – sometimes upside down – Pink showed off her acrobatic skills. The fact that she performed the song nearly 100 feet in the air is certainly impressive. Pink was twirling and spinning and had the crowd in awe. Somewhere beyond all the spectacle was also a song, but the overwrought “Sober” wasn’t nearly as thrilling as the circus stunts. C

Jay-Z, “Empire State of Mind.” All the other celebrities were in the house for the whole show, but not Jay-Z. MTV followed him and his entourage in limos as they arrived at Radio City Music Hall minutes before his performance. Jay-Z certainly made a grand entrance, the camera following his back and framing him as a giant among the crowd – a classic rock ‘n’ roll image. Alicia Keys’ piano slowly teases out the drama, and builds to an anthem. The images were brilliant – Jay Z framed under all the New York landmarks name-checked in the song. It’s a big, powerful song, and here’s hoping you like it, as any televised mention of New York from now until 2017 will play a verse of this tune. B

--Todd Martens

Photo: Taylor Swift / Getty Images; Kanye West and Swift / Associated Press