The whole of last night's MTV Video Music Awards felt angled toward its ending. The presentation of awards was rushed. Performances felt more like mere motions than actual artistic statements. And throughout, the announcers made sure we knew that She was coming to save us with a performance at some indeterminate "later" point in the show.
Beyoncé's Video Vanguard performance – a medley of 12 of the tracks from her self-titled album – capped the entire show, with even the Video of the Year award given out before she graced the stage. Looking back on the whole ceremony the next morning, that was for good reason. It was, quite frankly, as if everyone else knew what was coming and decided to not even try.
The strength of Queen Bey's performance felt out of sync with the rest of the show – and she wasn't even at her best. But the sound was well-mixed, a positively Herculean feat compared to some of the other performances. Far more impertantly, her performance was ambitious, while everything else felt like an afterthought. She stood far above the crowd.
Let's face facts: the VMAs were dull this year. Even the audience members couldn't pretend otherwise (shout-out to Sam Smith and Katy Perry, who especially couldn't be bothered to care in their cutaway shots). It was a bad, boring show that wouldn't crack the top 20 when ranked against the other ceremonies. But the problem was greater than just a bunch of mediocre performances. It was also a tonal mess.
Wedged in the middle of Maroon 5's outdoor performances, Miley Cyrus won Video of the Year for "Wrecking Ball." Instead of going up herself, she sent a homeless runaway named Jesse to deliver a speech about his experiences. The moment was reminiscent of when Marlon Brando refused to accept his Oscar, instead sending a Native American activist named Sacheen Littlefeather in his place.
Cyrus' gesture was pretty great – a nice moment of actual cultural importance in a silly awards show – but it was immediately undercut by directors cutting back to Maroon 5 right after.
This brand of strangeness happened twice prior during the show: when Robin Williams was "honored" in a 23-second tribute before a commercial break, while Common was brought out to ask for a moment of silence for Ferguson – then to immediately accept an award on Drake's behalf for Best Hip-Hop Video.
Mixing seriousness with the VMAs feels like a losing game, but tonally bizarre as they may be, they're the most relevant moments in MTV's annual programming. Speaking of, this brings us on back to Beyoncé, who included a portion of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "We Should All Be Feminists" TEDx Talk.
Feminism and the VMAs
Adichie, author of 2013's Americanah among other works, was a surprise guest on Beyoncé's last album. On Bey's "***Flawless," samples of Adichie's talk bridge two otherwise unrelated sections ("Bow Down" and "Flawless"). Taken as a whole, it's a powerful package, but it only works with the author's spoken bridge.
"We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller," she says on the track. "We say to girls: 'You can have ambition, but not too much.' 'You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man.'"
At the time, Adichie's inclusion seemed jarring. Now, it's an essential part of the album's centerpiece track – so much so that when Bey and Nicki Minaj left her out of the "Flawless (Remix)," the song felt emptier. The Queen didn't make that mistake in her medley; even though it was divorced from the rest of "Flawless," she found room for Adichie's words.
The image of Beyoncé standing in front of the word "FEMINIST" in big, bold letters bounced around Twitter quite a bit last night, and it's easy to see why, especially since we can't seem to wrap our head around the idea that Bey has been a feminist for some time. As Adichie herself said, "Whoever says they’re feminist is bloody feminist." If Beyoncé wants to stand in front of the word "FEMINIST" and use a feminist Nigerian author's words in her performance, that's simply spectacular.
But will any of this matter historically? These VMAs are likely going to be lost to history, a ceremony where we scratch our heads and struggle to remember what happened. There were no big moments – only a sea of meh.
Perhaps that's why reaction to Bey's solid – if slighly underwhelming –performance was so damn hyperbolic. ("The performance of her career!" E! Online screamed, clearly having missed her Super Bowl halftime show last year.) Desperate to make this ceremony memorable, writers declared that her medley was a Moment. While there were highlights – the Adichie inclusion, hearing album standout "Jealous" live for the first time, her closing rendition of "XO" – it just didn't live up to what the Internet wanted (needed?) it to be.
That said, and for Adichie's words alone, Beyoncé's medley deserved to be in a different VMAs. The same could be said for Cyrus' Sacheen Littlefeather moment. This is a ceremony that deserves its place in the annals of mediocrity. Those small beacons of hope, for their cultural significance and efforts to be relevant in a tonally disastrous show, deserved a better spotlight.