As the writer Touré noted (via his tweetstream), last Sunday’s Video Music Awards was a veritable retro-fiesta.
It was almost as though MTV was purposefully presenting a smorgasbord of evidence to substantiate the claims of Retromania.
Accompanied by simple ‘n’ spare piano, wearing a vintage frock, her hand fluttering over her chest to signify the bursting pressure of all that heart ‘n’ soul, Adele’s “Someone Like You” – vowel sounds stretched out like lovesick moo-ing, a parody of Etta-circa-1965 passion.
The tribute to the late Amy Winehouse... Russell Brand and Tony Bennett both separately invoke Billy Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald as her ancestors. Proclaming Winehouse’s influence on contemporary pop, Brand singles out Adele in the audience as someone who’d gladly admit her debts to Amy. But how can someone so influenced and indebted herself actually be described as an influence, be deemed an artistic creditor? Footage of Bennett and Winehouse duetting just a few months before her death offers yet more grotesque caricature of bygone blackness in the grand Brit tradition of Joe Cocker.
The Winehouse tribute is completed by Bruno Mars’s version of “Valerie” , the singer, band, and backing vocalists all done up in Motown Revue- style suits. My wife says it sounded like a Wham! circa “I’m Your Man” B-side; I reckon more like a Jo-Boxers B-Side.
Lady Gaga’s drag king alter-ego “Jo Calderone”—greased back hair, cigarette tucked behind the ear, lip-curled sneer. A routine that commentators have variously sourced in Annie Lennox’s turn as a sideburned 1950s hood when Eurythmics performed “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This” at the 1984 Grammys, and “Johnny” in The Outsiders as played by Ralph Macchio. Personally I was reminded somewhat of Anybodys, the dykey tomboy Jets hanger-on in West Side Story who with painful-to-watch desperation wants to join the gang. But whatever it was meant to refer back to, a retro cliché all the way.
Beyonce’s “Love On Top” could be one of the non-successful follow-up singles to disco-funk smash “The Best of My Love” by The Emotions, who were Sister Sledge to Chic’s Earth Wind and Fire. There is nothing about it that couldn’t have been recorded in 1979.
Piece de resistance of the retrospectacle: Chris Brown’s Nineties tribute, a medley that ran through Wu Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” At the switch between tunes, a robot voice helpfully pinpointed the year: “1993”, “1991”. Then the femmebot voice declared “the present: the future”. Cueing a Chris Brown song from this year’s LP that sounds exactly like mid-Nineties trance. The music was overshadowed by the theatrics: oddly graceless and stompy dance routines, plus Brown upping the ante on Pink’s circus wire renditions of a few VMAs ago by doing aerial backflips hither and thither across the stage. Yet more proof that Las Vegas—in the Cirque Du Soleil/Siegfried & Roy sense--is today’s world capital of pop.
There were plenty of NON-retro things about this year’s VMA to bemuse-amuse the viewer: Pitbull’s red pants and white jacket combo; Justin Bieber making a point of thanking not just God but Jesus too; Tyler the Creator’s non-eloquence; Lil Wayne’s closing farrago of senseless gestures, climaxing with that most exhausted of stunts-- the smashing of an electric guitar.
But my enduring memory is of Kanye West, so excited by the spectacle he couldn’t stay in his front row seat but kept leaping up (rudely blocking the sightlines of the celebs behind). He seemed particularly mind-blown by the aerobatic exertions of Chris Brown. Alternating between jigging about and being frozen stock still, he appeared to be very much performing his own amazement, loudly signaling to everybody in the hall and out there in viewerland that “man, this is some next level shit” and “boy are we blessed to be living through such times as these”.
Kanye’s making-a-spectacle-of-his-own-spectacting flashed me back to something he said several years ago at a different American music awards ceremony:
“I wake up in the morning just thinking about which stereotypes I want to break … I see artists like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Chris Martin all in the same room, and we're going to push this music to the point where it was like in the sixties, in the seventies, where you talk about Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and the Beatles. We will be the new Beatles, the new Hendrix."