NPR logo Is That All There Is? (The Video Music Awards)

Is That All There Is? (The Video Music Awards)

Last night, I inadvertently ended up watching the first hour of MTV's Video Music Awards. Mostly, I was baffled by how little I know about popular music. Yes, of course I've heard of Lady Gaga, but who exactly is Justin Bieber? And why is he already so concerned about his hair? (His hair is awful, by the way, like the swishing backside of a freshly coiffed Pekingnese.)

The show began with Madonna paying tribute to Michael Jackson. Her speech was almost surreal in its sincerity. I imagined her writing down her feelings in a diary; the frankness and nakedness was so apparent, I felt like I was watching a spoken-word performance circa 1991. Her words contained none of the tacked-on, tried-on gravitas that Madonna has attempted to cultivate over her long career. Instead, she was heartfelt, even pedestrian.

Following Madonna was a music-video montage of Michael Jackson. Its highlight was not a fierce Janet Jackson — straining to infuse her song and dance with a succinct summation of her pain — but the shots of other musicians in the audience as they gleefully watched the videos, transported back to whatever moment they first discovered Michael Jackson.

Then there was the "Kanye West incident," which you've likely read about already. Basically, when Taylor Swift was named the winner of Best Female Video — the first award of the night — West jumped onto the stage, grabbed the mic and proceeded to tell the audience that Beyonce should have won. Cameras cut to Beyonce in the audience, looking stunned and a little embarrassed.

I'm fine with Kanye West being some sort of loose cannon, but I really wish he had better aim. The guy needs to pick his battles. West was on stage so fast, and with such indignation, you'd think some major form of injustice was going down. Beyonce really doesn't need anyone to defend her. Plus, she was up for eight more awards! Maybe if the night had ended with Beyonce being shut out — she won Video Of The Year, for heaven's sake — one could understand an extemporized moment of disbelief, or one of her colleagues giving her props from the stage. But all Kanye West managed to do was to stomp all over a 19-year-old woman's moment to be on stage and be heard.

Usually, something as branded and crass as a mainstream music-industry event tends to squash individuality and blend everything into a giant ball of gilded banality. But watching West's solipsistic outburst at the expense of Swift seemed to split the show apart at the seams. The moment revealed a gross (though not surprising) underbelly of ego, power, sexism and stupidity. But overall, the incident gave us a glimpse into something most of us already knew: that MTV and the Video Music Awards have very little to do with music. If we were tuning in to watch a spectacle, we got what we came for.