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MTV VMA 2015 recap: The biggest moments, best performances, and weirdest off-script asides

Kanye West accepts his Vanguard Award.
Kanye West accepts his Vanguard Award.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

While artists may care a great deal about who wins the moonman trophies at MTV's Video Music Awards, the main incentive for viewers to tune in is that the award show has a history of producing some of pop music's most iconic (and bizarre) moments. It also doesn't hurt that live broadcasts always have huge potential for going off the rails, a fact that made hiring Miley Cyrus as the host a strategic — and risky — choice.

While the 2015 VMAs had moments to write home (and/or tweet) about, for the most part, the show was disappointingly routine. Taylor Swift's wins proved the might of her social media following. She and Nicki Minaj addressed the rumors of bad blood between them. Kanye West made a confusing — but also illuminating, probably? — speech. Host Miley Cyrus, dressed like a series of rebellious My Little Ponies, reminded everyone how much she loves marijuana.

Like sand through the hourglasses, these are the award shows of our lives.

For a full list of the night's winners, go here.

For a more detailed rundown of the night's proceedings, read on.

The performances were perfectly adequate but lacking in all-time classics


How were the performances? Eh, solid B.

To be fair, the VMAs have set a high bar for themselves. Performances on the VMA stage often make the leap to legendary status, as with Beyoncé's gloriously indulgent medley from last year's awards or Britney Spears' snake wielding in 2001. These performances can also trend toward infamy, as with Robin Thicke and Cyrus' twerk-filled "Blurred Lines" in 2013 or Spears' sleepwalking disaster in 2007. No matter who wins which prizes, the VMAs have usually been able to deliver a consistently entertaining show.

But for all their pomp and circumstance, the 2015 VMAs served up largely routine performances.

Minaj's opening number at least offered one of the show's highest points. She stomped the stage to shreds in a theatrical red headdress, winding her way between her backup dancers to the beat of the underrated "Trini Dem Girls" off her latest album, The Pinkprint. Swift rose from beneath the stage to join Minaj on her club single "The Night Is Still Young," which quickly segued into a friendly rendition of "Bad Blood," lest we miss the message their joint appearance was meant to convey in the wake of the pair's short-lived Twitter feud.

Later, Justin Bieber emerged from hiding to perform "Where Are U Now," which became surprisingly emotional for an EDM collaboration with Skrillex and Diplo. Pharrell proved another standout, reporting to the VMAs from outside the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles. While performers like Macklemore and Demi Lovato also attempted to use that outdoor space to their advantages, Pharrell's slick rendition of "Freedom" was the strongest by a long shot, thanks to energetic dancers and a relentlessly catchy beat.

Most performances were just fine. The Weeknd did his best to own the stage with "Can't Feel My Face," and wild card Tori Kelly delivered a solid vocal performance. The only real record screech was A$AP Rocky and Twenty One Pilots, whose messy late-in-the-show medley was more confusing than anything else.

It would be surprising if any 2015 performances emerged as all-time VMA classics, because looking back, none stand out as particularly creative or awe-inspiring (despite the best efforts of RuPaul's drag queens, whom we will get to in a second).

Host Miley Cyrus was ... a lot. As you'd expect.

2015 MTV Video Music Awards - Arrivals

She even showed up in a weird robot gladiator dress.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

She kept the censors busy. That's for sure.

Anyone wondering what her hosting would involve probably doesn't follow her on Instagram, where she posts a constant stream of silly videos, late-night ramblings, odes to weed, and promotional material for the Happy Hippie Foundation, her nonprofit supporting LGBTQ youth.

Her hosting was more of the same, though she also had several costume changes that challenged the laws of gravity with a wink. (Cameras did eventually have to do some lightning-fast maneuvering, at which point all we could hear was Cyrus hollering, "What's happening? Oh sorry, is my tit out?") There were sporadic interruptions from pre-taped sketches with costars like Andy Samberg and Snoop Dogg, which, again, went in the directions you might expect.

(Miley Cyrus smokes a lot of weed, you guys.)

(Though in the Snoop Dogg one, he briefly turned into a pig. That was kind of fun.)

Cyrus' quick comic timing wasn't a surprise for anyone who has seen her on Saturday Night Live or, yes, Hannah Montana. What's more surprising is how her quickness led her astray when she had to improvise.

When Minaj was accepting the Best Hip-Hop Video Award for "Anaconda," she changed course after her thank yous and went after Cyrus, who had recently made comments on Minaj's issues with the VMAs and race. Cyrus deflected, blaming the media for quote manipulation while also shrugging off the importance of award shows in general (which, again, seemed to miss Minaj's original point).

It was a jarring moment, made more uncomfortable by the fact that it was hard to tell whether or not it was staged. But by the end of the night, no one had made a callback to the incident, which sure makes it seem like Minaj was for real.

Cyrus closed out with a final performance of "Dooo It!", a new song performed with her new band, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz (whose album had dropped online for free by the time the song was over). The performance featured the aforementioned drag queens, crotch fog cannons, and Cyrus alternately belting, "Yeah I love weed," and "Peace, motherfucker!"

It was a lot. But what else did we expect from a Miley Cyrus closing number?

Kanye West delivered a rambling speech and maybe announced a run for president

Taylor Swift presented West with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, which is basically the VMAs' equivalent of a lifetime achievement award (though often given to artists at the height of their careers). That was the first sign that this segment would lean heavily on that incident in 2009, when West interrupted Swift's acceptance speech for Best Female Video to say Beyoncé deserved the prize instead.

West played along with a game smile. But when he got on the stage to accept the award, he conveyed a rather different message than amusement:

It crosses my mind a little bit like when I go to the baseball game and, like, 60,000 people boo me...I think if I had to do it all again, what would I have done? Would I have worn a leather shirt? Would I have drank a half a bottle of Hennessy and gave the rest of it to the audience?...If I had a daughter at that time, would I have went on stage and grabbed the mic from someone else's?

It's unclear what West's answers to his own questions are. At the very least, it's clear that the night's incredible fallout, voracious coverage, and finding himself becoming a villain in the larger pop-culture consciousness have all been weighing heavily on his mind.

Overall, West's speech was clumsy, stopping and starting as he tried to articulate his complex feelings. Still, there was a lot of revealing stuff in there, between his command to "listen to the kids."

He called out MTV for milking the "beef" with Swift:

"You know how many times MTV ran that footage again? Because it got them more ratings? You know how many times they announced Taylor was gonna give me the award, because it got them more ratings?"

He stuck to one of the evening's most prevalent themes (a.k.a. "I like weed"):

Y'all might be thinking right now, I wonder, did he smoke some before he came out here? The answer is, yes, I rolled up a little something. I knocked the edge off.

He admitted to past insecurity, then just as quickly rejected it:

I just wanted people to like me more. But fuck that, bro! 2015! I will die for the art, for what I believe in. And the art ain't always gonna be polite.

Finally, he assured us that the 2016 elections are not the be all, end all:

And yes, as you probably could have guessed by this moment, I have decided, in 2020, to run for president.

Somewhere out there, Kris Jenner sat a little straighter, smiled, and whispered to herself: "First Lady Kardashian."

Swift's completely unsurprising string of wins accidentally defined the night

2015 MTV Video Music Awards - Fixed Show

Taylor Swift accepts the Video of the Year award while surrounded by many of her "Bad Blood" collaborators.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

To no one's surprise, Taylor Swift owned the night. The VMAs are decided by a fan vote, and Swift's social media presence is second to none for MTV's demographics. In addition to Female Video of the Year for "Blank Space," she took home Video of the Year for her action- and celebrity-friend-packed "Bad Blood." She even debuted a romantic new video for her song "Wildest Dreams," co-starring Scott Eastwood and safari animals.

There were other winners, of course. In addition to Minaj's Hip-Hop win for "Anaconda," Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson took home a moonman for "Uptown Funk." Fetty Wap, who was not present, won Best New Artist. But every time the focus threatened to shift elsewhere, Swift was right there to stand at center stage again.

And ultimately, "to no one's surprise" could describe the vast majority of the 2015 VMAs — which might actually come as a surprise to the show's producers. Allowing Cyrus free rein and throwing in as many "edgy" drug references as possible had all the trappings of an entertaining night, but in the end, these transgressions felt like calculated shockwaves.

Straddling the line between truly provocative and obviously staged is a delicate balance, one that the VMAs have achieved more often than not. This year, though, could be summed up in the one word the VMAs never want: predictable.

VIDEO: Minaj calls out Cyrus