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August 21, 2018 at 08:24 AM EDT
We gave it a B-

MTV’s tagline for the 2018 Video Music Awards was “Everything might happen.” Hey, they said might. The 35th VMAs had some fiery performances, but the show never quite sparked.

The glam feeling was palpable, no doubt: Nicki in gold, Ariana in gold, JLo in golder gold, Maluma in silver, Rita Ora in the Emperor’s New Clothes. The excess trended mythic. Nicki Minaj performed in downtown Manhattan’s Oculus. The transpo hub already looks like some Kryptonians terraformed a Sam Goody inside a leviathan spinal column. Then Minaj came out looking like a watchable version of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, imperial dresswear, golden wings and golden throne and golden unicorns.

Meanwhile, Ariana Grande’s stunning number restaged an all-female Last Supper. “God is a woman” she sang, and the Leonardo da Vinci homage implied a Jesus-y deity. But then the Greek columns gave strong Athena vibes. Given the context, the swirling black hole in the background looked outright vulvar.

This was a reasonably satisfying awards show, not the boring trainwreck some VMAs have been, not the exciting trainwreck supernova some VMAs dare to be. There was a sprinkling of solid performances, Shawn Mendes getting Flashdanced under indoor rain, Panic! at the Disco floating down to earth, Ja Rule appearing because you whispered his name to the mirror 13 times.

If you were meme-hunting, Pete Davidson and Kylie Jenner gave just-okay cutaway realness, their entire beings bleached blonde, him chewing gum in a post-post-ironic NASA shirt, her in a white blazer dress that looked positively self-made. Meanwhile, Camila Cabello took over as the resident awards-ceremony Audience Dancer. When Bazzi performed “Beautiful,” the camera cut to Cabello mouthing along. Imagine, someone with talent singing a Bazzi song!

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Little bits felt amplified. The Radio City Rockettes took the stage as a punchline for some Blake Lively-Anna Kendrick banter. Travis Scott Zardozzed himself during his Astroworld medley, performing in front of a giant replica of His Own Head. Logic had the most timely performance with “One Day,” laundry-listing the latest political catastrophes, families reunited, children demanding you to acknowledge their humanity, the Border Patrol as a looming misery.

Some pulse was missing, though. Maybe a host would’ve helped? The ceremony started strong with Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart. “At this game, you guys are allowed to kneel!” said Hart, before just deciding to tell the president to “suck it.” Haddish compared Jersey Shore to herpes, smirkishly shaded the remaining four Fifth Harmonies. Not mind-altering material, but the riffs felt genially improvised, and the rest of the show was wound up tight. Jimmy Fallon made a joke about Post Malone’s face tattoos, so that’s the box marked “topical comedy” checked. Up-and-coming artists gave shortened performances, the live-performance equivalent of when iTunes used to let you hear 30 seconds of a song before buying it. (Ha ha, buy music!) Certain personalities were absent, no Carters, no Childish Gambino. Karlie Kloss but no Taylor Swift, which is how Generation Tide Pod describes sizzle sans steak.

“I grew up on MTV,” said Jennifer Lopez, accepting the career achievement Video Vanguard award. She could’ve meant it either way: Growing up watching MTV, growing up literally on MTV.  “God, I feel like I blinked and 16 years went by” — that was Lopez one day earlier, during the series finale of Shades of Blue, a series that defiantly existed for three whole seasons on NBC. The woman’s got hustle, real longevity. Y’know, just wrapping up my broadcast drama while I’m prepping a career retrospective on my music career: Some of us live whole career lifetimes without 24 hours that active. And 16 actual years ago, Lopez was releasing an album, two movies, a perfume line. We blinked, it was 2018, here she still was.

And Lopez’ presence in the ceremony centered the most intriguing narrative in this year’s show: A diva-centric, future-is-female populism. “I had a baby, I carried a baby, and now I’m still winning awards,” said Cardi B, and the camera cut to Lopez halfway nodding. Cabello danced with her mom offstage, Grande brought mom and grandma onstage: Cool!

RELATED: Best and worst moments from the MTV VMAs

But the big Lopez performance felt listless, especially compared to past Video Vanguard medleys. It was some Vegas-y song and dance, iTunes preview’d into unfulfilling microdoses. At one point, paraphrasing the “Jenny from the Block” phase of her career, the stage turned Bronxward, covered in street art. One line of graffiti just said “SEXISM,” another declared “AGEISM.” You feel relevance grasped towards. Pause to imagine the street artist spraypainting “AGEISM” outside a construction yard. Like, chin stroking, are they saying it’s bad, or good, or is AGEISM the name of the artist collective, or if we really sound it out does it produce some nasty wordplay?

That graffiti summed up the VMAs, actually: Stretching for big moments, imitating provocation. As the VMAs have weathered a few years of declining ratings, this show’s tried hard to leverage itself towards an audience young enough to barely understand cable TV. Because it’s a media event with tweetable cachet, this makes the VMAs an annual ritual for viewers of a certain age, a dangerous drinking game if you’re sipping whenever you have no clue who’s onstage.

This generation gap is funny to talk about — “I’m so old!” is something you hear 24-year-olds saying lately — but it’s starting to go dangerously textual. “The first one is my daughter’s favorite!” said A.J. McLean, beard guy from Backstreet Boys, describing a current nominee. Ken Jeong gave a shout-out to Barenaked Ladies, Smash Mouth, and Chumbawumba. Kevin Hart had a PSA for rappers half his age: “Stop writing on your face. It’s stupid.”

The old ways weren’t necessarily better.  The horrific final performance trotted out Aerosmith. Onstage with Post Malone, they personified an utterly mummified notion of rock. (Any children watching will flee into EDM forevermore.) More horrific, yet freakishly watchable, was the appearance by Madonna. She looked like, well, so much: Let’s go with “Bib Fortuna wearing an entire vintage store teaching yoga in a haunted castle.”

In a demonstrably failed effort to honor Aretha Franklin, she told a very long story. Her rambling suggested a sudden narrative tangent in an art movie you refuse to understand: “I left Detroit when I was 18,” “third-floor walk-up that was also a crackhouse,” “I left for Paris but I came back a few months later,” “Another anecdote I would like to share.” She said “quelle horreur” and “LOL” in consecutive sentences, pretentiously French and then pretentiously millennial. She was bleeped twice. Somewhere past Neptune she told the story of her very first performance at the very first VMAs, 34 years ago.

It was a ludicrous moment that kept going and going. Surely there are a thousand better ways to honor Aretha Franklin. And yet somehow this moment was the first to feel definable VMA-ish. At long last, we had literally no idea what was going to happen next.

Finally, Madonna announced the big prize was going to Camilla Cabello. Cabello came onstage, bowed to Madonna with melodramatic respect, thanked her family as seemed necessary, thanked her fans the way everyone does now. I don’t know. It was very nice, and Cabello’s a star, and you expect a brighter future. Imagine all the crazy stuff Cabello will say when she takes the VMA stage in 2042. God, just blink and the years will go by. B-

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