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August 30, 2011  | by: Kerri O'Malley

The Cartoon Known as Nicki

Though some may say that MTV no longer holds sway over the music scene, the VMAs this year served up a variety of acts and surprisingly dead-on awards that showed the channel still has the ability to put its finger on the pulse of the music scene (or recently hired a young, new staff…we may never know).  This year’s VMAs were different for a number of reasons.  The decision to drop the host was one of the most obvious, and possibly one of the best MTV has ever made.  Aside from improving the TV broadcast, the absent host showed that MTV is savvy on the new scene.  Music is no longer a guided tour, it’s a display, ready to be picked through and personalized.  Ultimately, the biggest difference in this year’s VMAs was not the structure of the show, but the nature of the display.  Watching this weekend’s VMAs, one thing was clear: We’re living in Toontown.

Give Porky Pig a high-five on the way in and put your cartoon hammer-proof helmets on, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the entertainment world is heading somewhere weird, somewhere animated.  The Sunday morning funnies have jumped over the line between day and night, TV and reality, to land with a splash on Nicki Minaj’s multi-colored outfit.  From Minaj’s signature doll-like eye flutter as she snuggled up to Beavis & Butthead to Katy Perry’s three costume/character changes to Gaga’s manly and persistent alter ego, Jo Calderone, this year’s VMAs represented the pinnacle of the new trend in performance: comical extremes, specifically the transformation of female performers from fetishized sexual objects to overblown caricatures whose roles as sex objects are more ambiguous.

Britney's A Slave to Sexuality

Consider what the VMAs usually are.  We got a little taste of that last night with Britney Spears’ retro rehashing.  Brit was the queen of the old pop scene, and her past VMA performances defined both her career and pop music’s success formula at the time.  Britney tore her clothes off to reveal a sparkly nude bodysuit in her 2000 VMA striptease to “Satisfaction/Oops I Did It Again,” danced dirty with a giant yellow snake to her sweaty single “I’m A Slave 4 U” in 2001, and kissed Madonna on the VMA stage in 2003.  So it’s pretty easy to say that the mantra of pop in the early 2000s was the age-old rule: Sex sells…and sells, and sells, and sells.

Music and sexuality are just as linked today, and the evidence of the old scene still lingers on.  Beyonce, one of Britney’s contemporaries, made a fairly traditional appearance (aside from her big pregnancy reveal) at this year’s VMAs, and Pitbull & Ne-Yo performed “Give Me Everything” with the usual plethora of half-naked dancing chicks.  But this performance, like the song (only meant to be consumed with alcohol), was particularly yawn-worthy.  This might have been a big performance as early as three years ago, but this weekend, it was one of the VMAs’ least exciting moments.

Gaga as Jo Calderone

Instead, the most interesting aspect of this year’s VMAs were the theatrics.  For a show that ended up emphasizing this aspect of modern pop music, it was only appropriate that Lady Gaga should start things off, and she did not disappoint.  Gaga appeared as Jo Calderone, never breaking character the whole night, whether it was during her performance, her acceptance speech, or presenting an award to Spears.  As Calderone, Gaga abandoned sex appeal (unless you’re into that), and headed straight for controversy, caricature, and performance.

The characters that Gaga creates range from sexy to otherwordly to child-like to, now, mannish.  As Gaga disappeared into Jo Calderone, she seemed to be refuting the Britney formula of sex sells, turning instead to her own formula of non-conformity, farce, and fun.  For Gaga, performance is a way into the soul of who she is; she’s not running from anything by embodying a character.  She’s instead more capable of exploring her identity by branching out and putting on.  At least, that’s the rhetoric of Gaga: Be who you are by being whoever you want to be.  We’re all superstars.

But other artists who have jumped on Gaga’s wild bandwagon to reach for success, such as VMA award winners Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, may have ulterior motives.  These two performers use their Gaga-inspired penchant for character-creating to transform themselves into little boy comic lovers’ wet dreams.  The two-dimensional characters that Perry and Minaj choose to present to the world are the ultimate compromise between sex-based marketing and pop culture.  These characters are so flexible, accessible, and impossibly sexy/innocent.  They are the Britneys that never shave their heads.  They live in an alternate reality where the rules are easier to break and emotions like stress play no part.  Read: an ideal world for Phil Spector-ish creations of Frankenstein/Stepford Wives women.

In those characters and those worlds, Perry and Minaj can go to the sexual extreme while still appearing innocent (think “California Gurls” and “Superbass“).  Their characters give them the leeway to embrace their freaky sides (“E.T.” and Kanye’s “Monster“), but more often than not, the girls turn away from this realm, back to sexual daydreams, most likely because this is what sells, and these characters are meant to market.

Katy Perry in "California Gurls"

Minaj and Perry have taken the fantasy to the extreme.  While Gaga’s many charades still seem linked to her unique identity, Minaj and Perry have lost themselves in their imagined worlds, worlds that often exist as little more than sexual fantasies, possibly even separating their true selves from the images they create and thus bringing female stars back to where they came from by projecting only what others want to see.  Oh Auntie Em, we never should’ve clicked those heels!

This weekend, Gaga accepted the Best Female Video award, dressed as a man and in character, but she still was able to deliver the most passionate, heartfelt, and powerful speech of the evening.  In her numerous distortions of her personality and dives into different characters, Lady Gaga still seems to rise above.  Gaga’s turn as Jo Calderone was unexpected and playful, but it also served as a stark contrast to the over-sexed comic characters her image helped create.  Perry and Minaj may think they’re playing the same game as Gaga, but what they’re really doing is inserting the old, claustrophobic and sexist formula into Gaga’s new rules.  My vote?  Banish them to the land of cream puffs and wigs from whence they came!  I’m ready to usher in a new scene under a freshly crowned pop queen who isn’t afraid to tone down the sexy and tune in the weird.  Gaga, let’s live your dream.

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