For Lady Gaga at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, grease was the word. Also, overkill.
Showing up in her Jo Calderone drag—previously seen in photo shoots and videos, but not awards shows—Gaga refused to break macho-male character, grinding the novelty into the ground with repeated appearances throughout the 140-minute telecast. It was daring, if you're too young to remember when Annie Lennox sang in a similar black pompadour and male drag at the 1984 Grammys. Of course, Lennox didn't show up again and again during that show to talk about herself in a meta way, pretending to be her own jealous boyfriend.
Gaga came close to being herself in the midst of accepting an award for best female video for "Born This Way." Even then, in the midst of the expected talk about gay/lesbian/transgender birthrights, she kept the fake deep voice and accent up. You half-expected her to end the speech by intoning, "Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold."
In lieu of the show having a host, apparently, MTV let Gaga-as-Jo precede "You and I" with a long monologue about herself. "She gets out of the bed, puts on the heels, goes in the bathroom, I hear the water go on, she gets out of the bath dripping wet, she's still got the heels on. And what's with the hair? At first it was sexy, but now I'm just confused." Which may have been the way much of the audience felt when Gaga was joined by a host of lookalike dudes for a number that felt like an out-of-town tryout for The Wanderers: The Musical.
The cutaway shots during all this were funny in a way the strained performance art wasn't. Justin Bieber: with those academic eyeglasses, studiously bewildered. Adele: just bewildered. Katie Holmes: laughing and pretending to get it. Bruno Mars: wondering if the usurpation of his pompadour might be legally actionable.
If the amusement value of Jo Calderone dissipated faster than the puffs of smoke he/she blew into the audience, the telecast did offer its share of hilarity, most of it unintentional. Here, a few of our favorite moments:
* Tyler the Creator said he was about to send out a message to "all the kids that's watchin'." His subsequent words were so heavily bleeped that no one watching at home, kid or adult, had any idea what his inspirational sentiments might be.
* Presenting a rock award to the Foo Fighters, Miley Cyrus said, "I have always loved rock music," in the same unintentionally patronizing tone a modern country star might use to talk about bygone hillbilly influences. Accepting his moonman, Dave Grohl said, "Never lose faith in rock music. You might have to look a little harder, but it's always going to be there." Rock fans had to look almost two hours into the show before the first and only performance by a rock band (the relatively unknown Young the Giant).
* Justin Bieber gave thanks "not only to God, but to Jesus." Per the usual awards show tradition, he'll presumably later use his Twitter feed to apologize for leaving out the Holy Spirit.
* Comic Kevin Hart said, "MTV felt like they didn't need a host this year," neglecting to add that this decision came just a few days ago after an acknowledged search for someone to follow in the footsteps of last year's underwhelming Chelsea Handler. Hart then proved the wisdom of hostlessness with a brief monologue as toothless as the one he did a few months ago as BET Awards host.
* Jay-Z and Kanye West doubled up for a performance of "Otis" that was so jumbled in both performance and mix, hardly a single word was comprehensible. An interloper jumped on stage, and Jay-Z turned around to stare at him, at length, possibly baffled at having had a civilian come within arm's length for the first time in about 15 years.
* Adele confounded the core MTV audience by just singing, and brilliantly, leaving millions of viewers to wonder if she had a broken leg like that Jessie J lady.
* In what was otherwise one of the better performances of the night, Bruno Mars' tribute to Amy Winehouse consisted of singing "Valerie," a Zutons song Winehouse merely covered on a Mark Ronson album. Presumably, doing any of the songs Winehouse actually wrote and was identified with would have been going "too dark" for a celebratory affair.
* Britney Spears refused the offer of a kiss from Gaga, saying, "I've already done that." Words to live by, Gaga!
* Upon being given the Michael Jackson lifetime achievement award, Britney's acceptance speech consisted mostly of introducing and pouring accolades upon the following artist, Beyonce.
* Beyonce's energized appearance—a great performance of an okay single—had everyone imagining her fetus, whose existence she'd just revealed on the red carpet, getting an abrupt lesson in doing the power stroke inside her barely bulging belly.
* Accepting the award for video of the year, Katy Perry began, "Tonight has been a night of firsts. This is my second moonman..." After that non sequitur, Perry never did get around to mentioning exactly what firsts she had in mind.
* Lil Wayne ended the telecast by picking up an electric guitar and throwing it to the floor almost as quickly as he'd picked it up, in what amounted, for about 10 seconds, to the second and final rock & roll performance of the night.