Ranking the MTV VMA Performances from Best to Worst

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Last night saw the MTV Video Music Awards come to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The best thing about the night was clearly Taylor Swift telling One Direction to “Shut the fuck up,” but beyond that, the show was, as ever, about the performances — all the post-event hysteria has been about Miley Cyrus’s… interesting rendition of “We Can’t Stop,” but there were plenty of other notable moments, including an N*Sync reunion and Kanye West performing “Blood on the Leaves.” So… from best to worst, here’s how we saw the evening’s performances.

Kanye West

“Blood On the Leaves” is a song that embodies all of West’s contradictions — it samples one of the most terrifyingly beautiful songs of all time and uses the sample to soundtrack a song about how he can’t sit next to his paramour at a basketball game — but let’s not underestimate what just happened here. This performance involved getting “Strange Fruit” played at the MTV VMAs, a forum that in recent years has had about as much political resonance as a chicken taco. Also, apparently the tree in front of which he performed was used in several lynchings, which lends the whole spectacle an even more disconcerting edge.

Justin Timberlake

The grand Timberlake extravaganza, featuring — as you’ve no doubt heard a bazillion times by now — a brief N*Sync reunion. Bringing out the rest of your old band for about two minutes as part of a gala tribute to yourself is a bit of a dick move, to be honest, but it’s impossible to deny Timberlake’s skills as perhaps the most consummate entertainer of his generation. Other things of note from this performance include: Timberlake’s customized “JT” earpiece, the weird Deadmau5/Pedobear stage set, the fact that “SexyBack” is still way better than anything on The 20/20 Experience, and Taylor Swift’s reaction to the appearance of N*Sync.

Drake

A curiously understated performance, and all the more effective for it. At a show where the sensory overload of lights and pyrotechnics don’t so much overshadow the actual music as render it pretty much irrelevant, this was a salutary reminder that one man with a microphone can be much more effective entertainment than a million gimmicks.

Lady Gaga

It kinda goes without saying that the music is awful, but Gaga always puts on a show — managing to pull off multiple costume changes while on stage is no mean feat. Funniest moment: when she screams “come on!” as she arrives back on stage in her Venus shell bra ensemble and you realize how low her mic is actually mixed.

Miley Cyrus feat Robin Thicke, et al

In which a 20-year-old girl expresses her sexuality on stage and America has a collective panic attack. Sigh. If anything, there’s something gawkily endearing about Cyrus’s “sexy” reinvention — it feels all too human, something that’s rare in the airbrushed world of pop music. She’s clearly working shit out, but look, she’s not throwing bongs out windows or shaving her head in public, so give her a break, eh? Also, let’s perhaps take a moment to think about the fact that, despite the hysteria, Cyrus dancing with Thicke is actually less offensive than the actual video to “Blurred Lines,” given the power dynamics at play — Cyrus is just as famous and successful as he is, and if she’s there, she’s choosing to be. (Both songs are terrible, obviously, but we can probably just assume that’s the case from now on.)

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Well, look, it’s kinda nice that he performed “Same Love,” which is, yes, a terrible song, but at least its heart is in the right place.

Katy Perry

In which a grown woman skipping in a faux boxing ensemble constitutes part of the evening’s entertainment. On the positive side, at least the song doesn’t stink quite as much as most of her others. Yes, we’re clutching at straws at this point.

Bruno Mars

A big old bucket of “meh,” even with the laser show and fireballs and etc. The abiding theme of the performance was green, which is generally how I feel after hearing a song with the lyrics: “Yeah, I got a fistful of your hair/ But you don’t look like you’re scared/ You just smile and tell me, ‘Daddy, it’s yours.'” Ugh.