The Kanye West/Taylor Swift kerfuffle stole the show, but the performances on Sunday's telecast offered many more wild moments

By Leah Greenblatt
September 18, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

While the one-man guerrilla theater troupe known as Kanye West may define the night, the 26th annual MTV Video Music Awards had a clutch of less…impulsive spectacles well worth noting. The best and the rest, below:

Janet Jackson
Voice hoarse, eyes flashing, a vinyl-clad Jackson honored her late brother Michael with a fierce reprise of their propulsive 1995 duet ”Scream,” rescuing an otherwise lackluster Broadway-style tribute — and earning a well-deserved standing O. B+

Taylor Swift
The idea of Swift as a platform-busking street urchin — and Manhattan subways as a haven for spontaneous, shiny-faced sing-alongs — may fly in the face of most NYC transport lore. But the 19-year-old’s rendition of her Moonman-winning hit ”You Belong With Me,” taken from the tunnels to the streets outside Radio City, was endearingly hokey-sweet. B

Lady Gaga
Would one expect any less from la Gaga than a baroque display of bunny ears, Phantom of the Opera set pieces, and a Dangerous Liaisons-at-the-asylum dress code? Her performance of ”Paparazzi” (chandeliers and wheelchairs and baby grands, oh my!) may have overdosed on concepts — et tu, stage blood? — but the Lady still left them gagging for more. B+

Green Day
A tight kick-out-the-jams take on the pop-punk overlords’ thunderous ”East Jesus Nowhere” was undeniably solid; in a night of spectacular one-upmanship shenanigans, however, it lacked that certain VMA je ne sais quoi — like, say, a triple-axel dismount, or perhaps unicorns. B

Taking the lyrics to her wrenching ballad ”Sober” literally — ”I’m safe, up high/Nothing can touch me” — the pop maverick proved she aced her summer at circus camp, executing acrobatic tricks both aerial and vocal. Thank the good Lord, though, for safety harnesses. Yeeks! B+

Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to out-Queen Queen. The gleefully grandiose Twilight favorites started strong, but their British prog opera ”Uprising” went on just a little too long, paving the way for a flash-mob pee break. B-

Night of a thousand Beyoncé The pop superstar began her now-iconic ”Single Ladies” alone, but was soon joined by a phalanx of gyrating backup dancers, fanned out like a spangly-leotarded super race across the stage. And yet, she never surrendered the spotlight for a moment. A-

Jay-Z and Alicia Keys
The buildup — blacked-out sedan rolling up to the venue; long, foreboding walk through the bowels of the building — may have felt overly dramatic. But the hip-hop superstar, his voice ragged and then fully warmed, brought some genuine street heat to the tongue-twisting torrents of his New York City love letter ”Empire State of Mind.” Keys, on piano and soaring chorus, brought the feminine strength and soul. Not even Kanye-style intruder Lil Mama, bounding on stage uninvited like a deranged Fraggle, could kill the moment. A