JASON DECROW / AP Enlarge
NEW YORK — Taylor Swift was relishing her unlikely win of best female video at the MTV Video Music Awards. The 19-year-old knew that the network doesn't exactly make a habit out of giving their moonman trophies to country music stars.
"I was standing on the stage and I was really excited because I had just won the award," Swift said after Sunday's show at Radio City Music Hall. "And then I was really excited because Kanye West was on the stage. And then I wasn't so excited anymore after that."
Taking the microphone, the rapper protested Swift's selection and announced that Beyonce, also nominated, should have won because her "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)" was "one of the best videos of all time."
As he had numerous times before, West made sure an awards show spotlight shone on him.
A stunned Swift staggered and didn't get to finish her acceptance speech. The crowd booed West, who shortly after was asked to leave the show and left the building.
But Swift got a chance to recapture her time in the spotlight. Toward the end of the evening, when Beyonce won video of the year for "Single Ladies," the pop star promptly invited Swift out on stage to properly "have her moment."
"They told me to stand by the side of the stage," Swift said. "I didn't really know what was going to go down, but I thought it was so wonderful and gracious of her to do what she's always done.
"I thought that I couldn't love Beyonce more and then tonight happened."
West later apologized on his blog to Swift, her fans and her mother.
Watching all this was host Russell Brand, who is no stranger to controversy, himself. As host last year, the British comedian made headlines for his jokes about the Jonas Brothers and their purity rings.
"You don't like to see people upset," Brand said backstage. "But I think it just gets exciting, live television, live events. People get worked up and things happen."
And that might as well be the VMA mission statement. MTV always seeks a combustible mix for their flagship award show, hoping for just the kind of attention West attracted.
It was a very VMA happening, at a VMAs that began on a more somber note. In remarks lengthy for the rapid-cutting MTV, Madonna introduced a tribute to Michael Jackson. The singer hailed Jackson as a hero who was "abandoned" by a public "busy passing judgment."
What followed was a medley of Jackson-esque dancers performing a thunderous foot-stomping and hand-clapping tribute to the tune of "Bad," ''Thriller" and "Smooth Criminal." In what was the most anticipated appearance at the award show, Janet Jackson emerged to honor her late brother, resolutely dancing to their duet "Scream." She didn't address the crowd, but nodded afterward, the dance sufficiently cathartic.
While the memory of Jackson made a distinct imprint on the VMAs, the show was — as ever — a pop culture circus with as many rings as possible jammed under one tent.
This year, MTV returned its most prominent spectacle to New York, its first time here since 2006. Setting up camp at Radio City, it looked as if a teenybopper atom bomb had been exploded in midtown Manhattan, leaving a crater 10 blocks in diameter of the young, the hip and the wannabe young and hip.
An elaborate red carpet was rolled out on Avenue of the Americas, where Lady Gaga (who tied for the most nominations with Beyonce) appeared with her face shrouded by a mask and with Kermit the Frog by her side. Hundreds of teenage girls were fenced in all around Rockefeller Center — all decked out in their finest neon colors — hoping for a seat.
Backstage, the atmosphere was just as chaotic.
Serena Williams, whose outburst with a line judge at the U.S. Open on Saturday provoked a Kanye-sized reaction of its own, mingled with the celebrities. Her request for gum was met quickly by stagehands — perhaps even quicker considering her profanity-laced, finger-pointing tirade at a linesperson for penalizing her for a foot fault that helped her lose the match.
Jack Black sat contentedly awaiting his turn to present. The comedian relaxed with a giant ax and a muscle suit on under his T-shirt. (The props looked natural enough, but were deployed to comedic effect in his presentation: a metal fan's prayer to Satan.)
Before the show, executive producer Dave Sirulnick summarized the ethos of the VMAs saying they're a chance for someone to tune in and see "what's hot right now." Such viewers would have likely discovered that currently "in" is "Twilight," ''Twilight" and "Twilight."
The teenage vampire romance — if you didn't know — is a sensation. The movie sequel ("New Moon") is due out this fall and the film's three stars — Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner — made a scream-inducing appearance to hype unreleased footage from the film.
While vampires, of course, avoid sunlight, the cast of "Twilight" avoided the stuffy backstage green room, showing that they also prefer not to sweat too much.
Many celebrities shuffled around backstage quietly following their handlers. Not Tracy Morgan.
Though the comedian had an early call-time Monday for "30 Rock," he was in constant motion. He sang Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" walking up and down the halls. Criticized for not smiling in a photo, he replied that he couldn't always be smiling: "I got to be casual in some."
These moments are the stuff of the VMAs. It's certainly not the awards, a few of which were handed out Sunday night. Besides Beyonce and Swift, winners included Lady Gaga for best new artist; T.I. featuring Rihanna in "Live Your Life" for best male video; Eminem's "We Made You" for best hip-hop video; Britney Spears' "Womanizer" for best pop video.