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Small Batch: The VMAs, From Speeches To Singing To Squads

Kanye West accepts the Video Vanguard award at Sunday night's MTV Video Music Awards.
Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images
Kanye West accepts the Video Vanguard award at Sunday night's MTV Video Music Awards.

[You can hear Stephen Thompson and Linda Holmes chat about the VMAs on a Small Batch edition of Pop Culture Happy Hour by hitting the play button at the top of this post.]

There are awards shows bolstered by social media — Grammy telecasts, for example, that lend themselves to obsessive in-the-moment commentary — and then there are MTV's Video Music Awards, which seem engineered to generate GIFs, Twitter beefs and, once a day or two has passed, endlessly involved thinkpieces about What It All Means when Miley Cyrus interrupts Nicki Minaj or performs with an army of dancers, at least some of whom come from RuPaul's Drag Race.

Even if you didn't watch Sunday night's telecast — hell, especially if you didn't watch — here are five quick takeaways to help guide you through the next time someone corners you in the break room and asks for your take.

1. Kanye West announces his candidacy. In winning the Video Vanguard Award — a sort of lifetime achievement award for artists who've rarely even reached middle age — West gave a fascinating, rambling speech in which he began by attempting to atone for his VMAs appearance six years ago. That time around, he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech, gave the world the phrase "I'ma let you finish," and inspired none other than Barack Obama to call him a "jackass"; this time, Taylor Swift introduced West with a few kind words. West's own speech formed a sort of freeform burst of self-contradicting sincerity — worth revisiting, and utterly gripping in the moment — and concluded with an announcement of his candidacy for the presidency in 2020. At this point, why not?

2. Miley Cyrus is in for a long week. Cyrus gave the VMAs one of their signature moments two years ago when she introduced millions to the concept of twerking, and she returned Sunday as the event's host and ringmaster. But Cyrus' cheerful transgressiveness crossed a few lines. Often dinged for recent forays into racial appropriation — and for her tin-eared criticism of Nicki Minaj in the days leading up to this year's awards — Cyrus made matters worse by actually interrupting Minaj's victory speech. Backstage wardrobe malfunctions are one thing; if the instant social-media reaction is any indication, some of Cyrus' actions Sunday night will burn her for a while to come.

3. Same goes for Rebel Wilson. Someone, somewhere told white actress Rebel Wilson that it'd be funny to riff on police brutality while wearing a T-shirt that read, "F*** Tha Stripper Police" — see, strippers dressed as police ought to... oh, who even knows at this point? The optics of it all, especially by way of introducing the award for Best Hip Hop Video, were not great.

4. The performances were as mixed a bag as ever. It was a night of making nice for Taylor Swift, who performed with Nicki Minaj to open the show. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Demi Lovato each played outdoors nearby — the latter seemed particularly ill at ease — while Justin Bieber returned to the show for the first five years and commemorated the occasion by being hoisted high above the stage by a wire as he sang. (He later urged the crowd to "find your purpose," and yet millions at home kept on watching the VMAs.)

5. The VMAs are almost never remembered for the actual awards. And yet they still give them out: Taylor Swift won Video Of The Year and Best Collaboration for "Bad Blood," featuring an absent Kendrick Lamar, and also won Best Female Video and Best Pop Video for "Blank Space." Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars won Best Male Video for "Uptown Funk." Nicki Minaj won Best Hip Hop Video for "Anaconda." Fetty Wap was Artist To Watch, Fall Out Boy won Best Rock Video, and Big Sean won Best Video With A Social Message (for "One Man Can Change The World," with Kanye West and John Legend). And 5 Seconds Of Summer won, as might be expected given its name, the award for Song Of The Summer: "She's Kinda Hot."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 30, 2015 at 10:00 PM MDT
This post originally misidentified the dancers onstage with Miley Cyrus.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)