By Simon Vozick-Levinson
Updated September 13, 2010 at 07:39 AM EDT

Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesThe crowd settling into the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Sunday evening knew that anything could happen over the next two hours — primarily because anything did happen at the last MTV Video Music Awards. (Lil Mama, you are not forgotten.) I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in that auditorium wondering whether we were about to see any more jaw-dropping surprises when the lights went down at 6 P.M. West Coast time. But did we? Read on.

Hearty applause greeted Eminem’s forceful voice opening the show, subsiding somewhat when it became clear that he wasn’t on stage in front of us but at some brick-wall set elsewhere. By the first chorus of “Not Afraid,” he appeared in the flesh and the whooooooos resumed. They got louder when Rihanna joined him in white dress and flame-red hair for “Love the Way You Lie.” The night was off to a good start.

Everyone squealed wildly when the dulcet strains of “Bad Romance” came over the speaker system. Maybe they thought they were getting Lady Gaga, but it was just Chelsea Handler with a house on her head. An unruly dove flew from Handler’s costume to another part of the arching white stage set and was promptly wrangled by a (lowercase h) handler. The host drew scattered groans throughout the house with monologue gags about Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and Mel Gibson, yet enthusiastic jeering when she speculated on the STD status of the Jersey Shore cast. Notably, a substantial number of people cheered as soon as she mentioned Kanye West’s name in another joke. A sign of things to come? Yes and no.

Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” got the biggest applause when its name was read as a Best Female Video nominee. It won, a considerably less controversial result than last year’s in the same category. During her first acceptance speech of the night, Gaga told her fans, “You f—in’ rock!” I presume the censors caught that F-bomb in time for the TV audience, but the in-person crowd loved it.

Paramore, Muse, and MGMT all got bigger cheers in the Best Rock Video category than 30 Seconds to Mars, who won. But forget that minor injustice. It was Justin Bieber time! I hear his performance played well on TV. Inside the theatre, where it was just an image on the big screens, the fever was perhaps somewhat lesser. That drum solo was pretty sweet even so.

Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesBieber’s mentor, Usher, boosted the in-person energy levels right back up with his dual performance of “DJ Got Us Falling In Love” and “OMG.” Did his laser show look cool on TV? It looked absolutely oh-my-gosh awesome in person, where the huge green beams stretched out over our heads across the entire cavernous room. Usher lingered on stage for a few moments after his performance ended, smiling as he soaked up the crowd’s affection. I think my hearing might have been permanently damaged by the howling Usher fan seated behind me.

Drake got the bigger cheers for Best Male Video, but the award went to Eminem, who was already gone on a plane to New York for his and Jay-Z’s first Yankee Stadium show. Nicki Minaj looked a bit embarrassed by her fellow presenter Katy Perry’s risque line about stiff moonmen, almost as if it hadn’t been on the teleprompter.

It was clear that something unusual was coming our way as blue-skinned dancers filed out on stage and got in some quick stretches in preparation for the next performance. They ended up being there to support Florence + the Machine, who transfixed us all with her caterwauling and her flowing robes. After Florence’s “Dog Days Are Over” was regrettably over, Travie McCoy wandered out on a nearby walkway and rapped a verse from “Billionaire.” I can’t blame him for seeming a bit awkward. Florence was a very hard act to follow.

A palpable buzz went around the room as a sonorous voice announced that Taylor Swift was up next. First we had to wait through Best Pop Video, which went to Lady Gaga, of course. She seemed to be bonding with the Glee cast presenters, but who could focus on that when Taylor’s much-hyped “song about Kanye” was in the wings? As you know by now, that song ended up being way less specific and less scandalous than some had imagined it would be. The crowd stayed respectfully hushed during Swift’s performance, trying to discern her lyrics through a muddy live sound mix in the theatre.

The Drake performance that followed was less freighted with significance, but in its way it was more impressive. Drake’s stage presence has grown by leaps and bounds in the last year. He had this crowd in the palm of his hand. When he tossed his Rat Pack hat away, they dove right for it. Having Mary J. Blige and Swizz Beatz on hand as he performed “Fancy” didn’t hurt, but Drake is the one who deserves the credit for the night’s most evident rapport with the audience.

Two brief notes about the subsequent Jersey Shore cast cameo: At one point Chelsea Handler invited Snooki to “bring it f—ing on,” which I doubt made it to the broadcast; and real mops were required to clean up after that questionable jacuzzi.

After the absent Eminem claimed Best Hip-Hop Video came a very cool three-way performance courtesy of Bruno Mars, B.o.B, Hayley Williams and her bandmates in Paramore. Their seamless transitions from “Nothin’ On You” to “Airplanes” to “The Only Exception” were a marvelous bit of stagecraft. Williams’ vocal prowess has, I suspect, even more of a wow factor in person than on TV.

Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” deserved more than an interstitial spot, but she did what she could with that brief time. A few minutes later, Justin Bieber took the fan-voted Best New Artist award. Yay! Bieber! His fans sure do love him.

The theatre crowd seemed unsure what to do during Linkin Park’s performance, another one beamed in from off-site. The evening’s pace was beginning to slacken. Adding to this impression was the odd sight of house DJ deadmau5 shedding his signature freaky LCD mouse-ears helmet.

Cher helped keep us focused on the home stretch. Not just with her “If I Could Turn Back Time” jumpsuit, but with her patter, which showed comic timing above and beyond what was present in the teleprompter version. She introduced Lady Gaga, who made up for a rather unshocking Video of the Year win by giving us the night’s biggest legit surprise. The unscripted moment when Gaga not only announced her next album’s title (Born This Way) but sang some of its title track was pretty magical from just a few yards back.

Image Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.comAt last, we had reached the part of the VMAs that I and more than a few others were really waiting for. I’m talking, of course, about Aziz Ansari’s hilarious introduction of Kanye West. But also about Kanye’s performance. The auditorium was at war with itself as he walked on stage. Huge cheers mingled with an ugly undercurrent of booing. The crowd refused to settle at first, murmuring noticeably as he began picking out keys on a sampler. Soon enough he got everyone’s attention with the dark beat and self-lacerating lyrics of “Runaway.” Extra credit to the Clipse’s Pusha T, who might not be as recognizable a star as some of the other people on that stage before him, but who simply murdered his guest verse. By the time a curtain of pyrotechnic sparks fell, Kanye had done his job. The crowd chanted his name: “Kanye! Kanye! Kanye!” I didn’t hear a single boo.

Were any of you in the audience for the VMAs this year? What did you make of it all? Speak up in the comments.

More MTV VMAs coverage on

MTV VMAs: We’re live-blogging it!

VMAs: Video of the Year nominees

VMA nominees: Surprising winners and losers

Kanye West apologizes to Taylor Swift: ‘I only want to do good.’

VMAs: 15 terrible fashion choices