Back to top

On Sunday night’s VMAs, the cheerleader got deep, the bad boy said “sorry” (kind of) and the kids on the fringe dubbed themselves the “cool kids” at the party – and everyone else seemed to agree.

The MTV VMAs have never been predictable. But the “anything goes” mystique around this event (which first aired in 1984 with Madonna as its star performer) has always represented the iconoclastic image of its host brand. In more recent years, its stage has become a platform for bad behavior. A star whose shine has subdued? Kiss someone – anyone – but preferably the most shocking person you can find (see Madonna). Feeling a bit frisky? Fight a puppet – go ahead (see Eminem). And if you think somebody got robbed of the Moon Man? Say what you think. On stage. In the middle of her speech (Kanyegate).

But on Sunday night, the VMAs were a kinder, gentler event – even as they were hosted by the biting, brutal Chelsea Handler.

If this had been the “ordinary” VMAs, we might have seen a celebrity death match between Swift and West. Eminem would have taken a day off from redemption and gotten riled up. Sexuality would be challenged and played with – not taken seriously. And someone would wear an outfit wholey comprised of raw meat.

Well, that last one happened (see Lady GaGa).

But so did this…Taylor Swift took the high road, and instead of fueling the flames, she walked right into the fire. She showed a clip of the infamous incident from VMAs 2009, but quickly moved to her teenage diary entry, “An Innocent.” The lyrics, “you are not what you did” seemed to be directed to a certain someone in the audience…And while they resisted pairing up for an inauthentic duet, they did attempt to put the whole thing to rest, once and for all.

For his part, Kanye apologized all week via Twitter, and sought forgiveness again via his performance of “Runaway.” He did lace his apology with a pretty extreme number of expletives, but if he didn’t, would we doubt his sincerity.

Cher showed up. In the same outfit she wore back in her 1989 video “If I Could Turn Back Time.”

But perhaps GaGa was the thing that looked most different. It’s not that the VMAs haven’t had their fair share of spectacles (see Cher). And she delivered on the eye-candy front. The number of costumes she wore was just over the number of VMAs she received (that’s 8 for the record). But she also took the time, over and over again to give a shout out to her “Little Monsters.” As Mary Elizabeth Williams from wrote, “[She] loves her Little Monsters so much they may want to start screening her calls.” With a belting out of her mantra, “we were born this way,” Lady Gaga rallied her followers with love and acceptance, not anger and aggression. She brought the military to guard her – but she brought the soldiers expelled from the military because of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” On stage, alongside the cast of Glee!, it seemed clear that a different kind of queen had come home.  

But this isn’t the MTV of the old VMAs. This is a brand that followed the awards show with World of Jenks – a 30 Days-style documentary series in which the documentarian named in the title explores the lived experiences of people who live outside of most teens’ comfort zones (an autistic teen, for example). Its show, If You Really Knew Me, strives to bash stereotypes about everyone from gang members to gay teens. Can a brand be rebellious, romantic and relevant at the same time? For today’s teens, it seems to be a model to watch.