The musical performances at the 2011 Video Music Awards were pretty consistently great, if slightly flawed in certain ways. Adele‘s rendition of “Someone Like You” was ever-so-slightly sharp, but still brought the house down. Pitbull, Ne-Yo, and Nayer turned in perhaps the best “Give Me Everything” performance we’ve seen on television, but we’ve seen a lot of them in the nearly six months it’s been a single. Lil Wayne closed out the show with a two-fer of “How to Love” and “John,” the latter of which was probably really good, though we could hardly tell since it was so heavily bleeped. A pair of performances, though, stood above the rest (and two others fell a little short). Presenting the highlights (and lowlights):
Any eyes that weren’t already on Beyonce quickly turned her way when she intimated to photographers on the black carpet that she might be pregnant, and her performance of “Love On Top” was bookended by vocal and visual confirmation of the fact. Even Beyonce’s own pregnancy couldn’t take attention away from her performance, though. In a sequined suit, she cruised through “Love On Top,” perhaps the uncoolest jam on 4 (whoever said it sounds like Jonathan Butler‘s “Lies” was dead-on) and definitely one of our favorites from the album. Beyonce effortlessly hit all the key changes and brought back late 80s R&B in a big way. She’s so good at being “on top” that we almost feel like she intentionally set us up for that pun.
We wish we could say the same for B’s beau Jay-Z and his compatriot Kanye West, whose not-quite-surprise performance of “Otis” failed to wow. The pyrotechnics were certainly flashy, and Kanye’s back-pocket American flag kerchief distracted from his denim-on-denim look, but the beat was cranked way too loud, and the two rappers had to shout over it, losing timbre and nuance, which are a big part of what’s so engaging about their rapping voices. They’re great rappers, so the performance wasn’t bad, by any means, but it lacked the victory-lap feel it ought to have had.
Bruno Mars‘s tribute to Amy Winehouse, on the other hand, was a touching and effective surprise. The Hawaiian crooner was nominated for multiple VMAs and could easily have insisted on performing one of his own songs, but instead he gave a touching and well-delivered rendition of “Valerie” in honor of the late singer. By the way, those who complained that Bruno Mars ought to have sung a Winehouse original missed the point—part of her greatness was as an interpretive voice, and no offense to the Zutons, but Amy Winehouse made “Valerie” her own and then some.
“Valerie” was the best of a number of tributes throughout the night. The dance mega-medley of Britney‘s hits was a letdown compared to the rumored tribute, but still an acknowledgement of her skill as a performer in ways that echoed her own talents.
Chris Brown‘s “tributes” to the Wu-Tang Clan and Nirvana, on the other hand, made little sense and were more about Brown himself than the artists to whose music he danced. This narcissism is nothing new for Brown, but considering he was afforded quite a bit of time and performed two of his hits, the focus was excessively on his high-wire stunts and minimally on his singing. We’re all for spectacle, but this was mere dance braggadocio.