Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Beyoncé onstage together; Gaga kicking off the show in drag backed by a legendary rock guitarist; Adele pitting a stripped-down stage show against the likes of surprise performers Jay-Z and Kanye West's pyrotechnics; and legendary grunge trio Nirvana were name-checked by Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Chris Brown like it was 1991.
It was, of course, the 2011 VMAs. And women ruled the night.
No award was bigger than the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, given to Britney Spears. "I used to hang posters of her on my wall and touch myself when I was laying in bed," Gaga's Jo Calderone told the crowd before the pair introduced Beyoncé's performance together on the night before MJ's birthday.
Five of the eight televised awards (including, of course, Best Female Video) went to strong females: Video of the Year (Katy Perry), Best Pop Video (Britney), Best Hip-Hop Video (Nicki Minaj), Best Collaboration (Perry, with Kanye) and Best Female Video (Gaga). Best Rock Video went to Foo Fighters, Best Male Video to Justin Bieber and Best New Artist to Tyler, the Creator.
Of course, with all the uniquely thought-provoking, talented and awesome women in attendance, there was one particularly notable absence: Amy Winehouse. Tony Bennett and former VMA host Russell Brand compared the late singer to the legendary Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday during a moving tribute, which included clips of her singing with Bennett and a performance by Bruno Mars.
The Video Music Awards were back on the West Coast at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles for the second consecutive year. But there was no wisecracking host on hand (last year's show was emceed by Chelsea Handler and past VMAs have often been headlined by comedians like Chris Rock), as producers opted instead to let the music, the presenters and the outfits do the talking.
Gaga was last year's big winner with multiple Moonmen (eight, to be exact) and multiple wardrobe changes as well, including a headline-grabbing dress made of meat. The hashtag #WhatWillGagaWear became the #1 trending topic worldwide before the show.
She did not disappoint.
The "Jo Calderone" alter ego Gaga introduced on the cover of Japanese Vogue opened the show. With a dirty white T-shirt, black pants, boots and a pompadour to make John Travolta's character in "Grease" blush, there was nothing "Lady"- like about Gaga in drag as she took multiple drags from a cigarette.
Calderone tore into Gaga, declaring, "She left me! She said it always starts out good and then the guys -- meaning me, I'm one of the guys -- we get crazy. I did. I got crazy. But she's f---ing crazy too, right?"
The crowd roared continuously as the rant continued. "She gets out of the bed, puts on the heels, she goes into the bathroom, I hear the water go on, she comes out of the bathroom 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."
The diatribe concluded with Calderone recounting a particularly pointed "conversation" with Gaga. "I want her to be real. But she says, 'Jo, I'm not real. I'm theater. And you and I, this is just rehearsal.' "
With that, Gaga in drag jumped onto a piano bench and started to belt out "Yoü and I." As the beat kicked in, she joined a group of male dancers who were all wearing the same outfit as her. When she introduced legendary Queen guitarist Brian May for the song's solo, the camera cut to a visibly enthusiastic Dave Grohl clapping wildly from his seat in the audience. Gaga cracked open a beer, climbed on top of her piano and sprayed the front row with the alcohol. Britney's mouth was agape during the performance, and Katie Holmes was smiling. Lady Gaga kissed May's cheek before she exited the stage.
Comedic actor Kevin Hart didn't seem sure whether he was hosting, riffing for a long time about the show's lack of a host and making a few cracks at Lil Wayne and the "Jersey Shore" cast's expense and was even more uncertain about what everyone had just seen. "It's starting off weird," he joked of Gaga's performance.
"I didn't know where she was going with it. I didn't know what to think at first. It got a little masculine but then it came around." He asked the crowd to make noise. "Lady Gaga did her damn thing." Video skits that featured Hart alongside Best New Artist nominees like Kreayshawn played throughout the show.
The first Moonman of the night was presented by Nicki Minaj and Jonah Hill, who made hay with his very obvious weight loss and poked fun at fans on Twitter who've speculated his new physique might make him less funny. Minaj practically screamed "Britney Spears!" who collected the award for Best Pop Video.
"I wasn't expecting this," Spears said. She thanked God, her kids, her management, her beau Jason Trawick ("I love you!") and "Till the World Ends" director Ray Kay.
Pyrotechnics introduced surprise performers Jay-Z and Kanye West to the stage as the pair lit their microphones ablaze, trading verses from their landmark collaboration album, Watch the Throne. Jigga wore a much cleaner white T-shirt than Gaga while West was dressed in skintight denim and a matching button-up shirt, with an American-flag bandana in his pocket that matched their backdrop.
Rap gave way to rock as Shawn White joined Miley Cyrus to present the Best Rock Video award to the Foo Fighters. Cyrus professed her love for Nirvana, Joan Jett and Aerosmith just before Grohl -- who was joined by all of his bandmates except Taylor Hawkins -- told the crowd to "Never lose faith in real rock and roll music. Never lose faith in that. You might have to look a little harder, but it's always going to be there." He thanked MTV executive Judy McGrath as well as filmmaker Joel Schumacher, who directed the 1993 film "Falling Down," upon which the winning Foo Fighters clip for "Walk" was based.
Pioneering punk rockers-turned-rappers-turned-multi-instrumentalists brought it all together afterward, albeit in a very different form. The "Beastie Boys from the future," as seen in the recent short film "Fight for Your Right Revisited," dance-battled Odd Future. Will Ferrell (as Mike D), Jack Black (MCA) and Seth Rogen (Ad-Rock) presented the Best Hip-Hop Video Award for "Super Bass" to Nicki Minaj, who called Lil Wayne "the best rapper alive" in her acceptance speech.
Demi Lovato helped give the Best Collaboration award to Katy Perry and Kanye West for "E.T." "Now this is the time where you want to interrupt me, Kanye," Perry joked. West called her "brave" for inviting him on the track despite the controversy that surrounded his famous VMA interruption in 2009.
Paul Rudd and Rick Ross joked about being confused for one another by the public before they introduced a crowd-rousing performance from Pitbull and Ne-Yo, who were joined by a group of burlesque-type dancers and green laser lights to rival any planetarium.
There were no pyrotechnics, laser lights, fog machines, backup dancers or anything else of the sort for the breathtaking performance from Adele, who Katy Perry introduced as "one of my favorite artists." There were no theatrics, save for the acclaimed British singer's powerful voice.
Adele had her hair pulled back and was joined by nothing other than a silhouetted piano player and a microphone atop its stand, with a single spotlight highlighting her frame. She wore an elegant black dress, as if mourning for the broken relationships detailed in her songs.
A commercial break separated the mournful pathos of Adele's intimate tune from the stupefied sexual innuendo of Beavis and Butt-head, who teased their triumphant return to the airwaves due in late October. Nicki Minaj slapped Beavis and Butt-head's skulls together in a segment that mixed live action and animation reminiscent of when David Letterman fought the pair over a burrito at the VMAs back in 1994.
Kim Kardashian restrained herself from flirting with Justin Bieber when she handed him the Moonman for Best Male Video. His screaming fans enacted the "U Smile" title as he climbed the steps to accept. "I just want to say thank you so much not only to God but to Jesus because I wouldn't be here without him. He's really blessed me. He's put me in this position so I want to say thank you so much," he said.
Bieber called himself a "true fan" of all of the other nominees, which included Eminem, Cee Lo Green, Bruno Mars and Kanye West. "I want to share this award with all of them. You guys are amazing."
Chris Brown did some sharing of his own as he offered props to Wu-Tang Clan (with faux martial-arts dancing) and Nirvana (complete with flannel-shirted dancers jumping on trampolines) in the form of brief tributes during his performance of "Beautiful People." Clad in an all-white suit, Brown was backed by several dancers, lip-synching into a headset mic and flying into the air on wires.
Still in drag as her alter ego, Gaga returned to the stage to present Spears with the Vanguard Award. "When you're a struggling artist, literally starving for your dream, you gotta live off inspiration," she began. "One of my biggest inspirations was Britney Spears. Britney taught me how to be fearless."
Kanye grabbed Jay-Z by the shoulders enthusiastically after Beyoncé's performance, which saw the singer dressed in a sparkly purple blazer. Earlier in the night, before the show, Beyoncé beat out both Britney and Gaga in the choreography category thanks to her "Run the World (Girls)" video.
Standing beside Taylor Lautner, Selena Gomez pointed out that the Best New Artist Award had previously been won by folks like Eminem, Alicia Keys, Bieber and, of course, Nirvana. Winner Tyler, the Creator was joined by his crew as he rushed the stage and began an expletive filled acceptance speech.
"Yo, I'm excited as f--- right now. I wanted this sh-- since I was 9," he said. "I'm about to cry."
Young the Giant were also joined by friends on the VMA stage -- 250 of them, to be exact. The Irvine, California, group, which counts legendary singer Morrissey among their fans, played directly to some lucky supporters and were introduced by musician/actor Jared Leto and "Avatar" star Zoe Saldana.
Microphone problems didn't stop Cloris Leachman from trading blue humor with the girls of "Jersey Shore" before they presented the award for Best Female Video to Lady Gaga. "It doesn't matter who you are -- gay, straight, bi, lesbian, transgendered," Gaga, still in drag, declared. "You were born this way."
Russell Brand pointed out that Gaga is among those influenced by Winehouse. "Adele would admit her debt to Amy Winehouse," he said, as the camera cut to the singer nodding her agreement. "[Katy Perry], Florence and the Machine. ... When a talent like Amy Winehouse comes along, it affects everybody."
"The first time I heard Amy Winehouse sing, I thought, 'This isn't just another London chancer.' Not just another person milling about waiting to be famous," he said. A recovering addict himself, Brand made sure to mention that help is available to those suffering from addiction the way Winehouse suffered.
MTV's exclusive first look at the upcoming adaptation of "The Hunger Games" preceded the award for Video of the Year, which was presented by Katie Holmes. "Just like anybody else, when I listen to Katy Perry, I feel fiery and strong," she began. "The Beastie Boys make me want to party. Adele makes me want to kick the guy's ass who broke her heart and tell him never to do that again. Bruno Mars makes me feel romantic. And Tyler, the Creator makes me want to run in the other direction. Fast."
After smooching her husband (and former VMA host) Brand, Katy Perry went out of her way to walk over to Adele before she made it to the stage to accept the award for "Firework."
"I'm very proud of the song and what it stands for. And I feel like I'm doing something right when I sing that song," she said, echoing a familiar sentiment espoused earlier by Gaga about meaning in music.
Lil Wayne closed the festivities in a white T-shirt (a very popular clothing item this year, apparently) and sunglasses after a spirited introduction by Drake. His pants looked to be of black and white leopard print, topped off with a black fedora and ketchup and mustard colored Vans sneakers. He began "How to Love" like a sensitive crooner, talking with the crowd and casually walking to a microphone stand at first.
Naturally, his shirt came off and a band emerged to the riff from Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" as Wayne jumped around screaming "yeah!" and smiling wide. Wayne made his way into the crowd where he chest bumped Rick Ross and other friends. Wayne didn't even attempt to censor any of his lyrics, eventually making his way to a guitar which he threw on the stage after strumming briefly.