Lady Gaga promised a ''giant metaphor'' for her opening act, but delivered a fairly subtle song-and-dance instead. After a bizarro, bug-eyed, extreme-close-up opening with her face poking through what appeared to be a white wall, she stepped back and revealed a sort of nun's habit with pearls — which, naturally, was quickly stripped off by her dancers ... but not before a chorus of ''boos'' played.
This confusion quickly gave way to a sleek and fast-moving, if underwhelming perfomance. In her all-black leotard, she was able to blow through a series of surface-y costume changes, aided by her Sprockets-like dancers. Did Gaga reclaim the downward-spiraling Artpop promotional cycle? No. But she didn't let her concept drown out the music, either.
She has the eye — and the sports bra — of the tiger! Perry closed the show beneath the Brooklyn Bridge in the night's only remote performance with a full on Rocky-Balboa-with-boobs tribute, building a boxing ring in the shadow of one of New York's most classic landmarks. She shadowboxed, she jumped rope, she ''Roar''-ed. It was sincerely fun and a little bit camp and very very Katy. Exactly the kind of silly, no-subtext fun the VMAs are made for.
MILEY CYRUS AND ROBIN THICKE
Needs more tongue. And teddybears. Just kidding! Cyrus brought the only three T's that matter in Mileyworld (third one is ''twerking,'' doy) to her ''We Can't Stop'' performance. Like Gaga, she basically re-created her video live on stage — minus the wig changes, plus a vinyl bikini that definitely made Billy Ray cry, whipped out for Thicke's entrance. Robin looking like R&B Beetlejuice in a jailhouse-striped suit, perfunctorally sang a few lines of ''Blurred Lines'' but mostly played Miley's happy hump recipient. His brand-new single ''Give It 2 U'' got a bigger, spanglier run, with guest Kendrick Lamar. And that's when Miley finally stopped twerking. Juuuuust... kidding.
In keeping with his no-publicity publicity plan, Kanye performed most of his Yeezus stunner ''Blood on the Leaves'' shrouded completely in darkness, letting the song's emotional primacy take center stage. With an Instagram-y image of a tree projected behind him — an allusion to the iconic Nina Simone-via-Billie Holiday lynching ballad ''Stange Fruit,'' the song ''Blood'' samples — Yeezy's imposing black silhouette stood tall over the Barclays Center. Smart move all around: it was a simple pleasure.
Well, Will Smith loved it. And why not? JT's mega-medley included 12 straight-up great songs if you count the pre-taped intro (''Take Back the Night'') and the — YES! — 'N Sync micro-reunion (''Girlfriend,'' ''Bye Bye Bye''). Cruising through the arena trailed by dancers, stepping to the piano, and playing the air guitar, he kept things going for a full 15 minutes. If it weren't marred by terribly fuzzy audio throughout, it would've been the smoothest, most confident performance of the night up till then, from ''SexyBack'' to ''Mirrors.'' But it also might've ebbed into blandness if Timberlake's 'N Sync teammates didn't rise up out of the floor ... and disappear about a minute later. For once we might've asked an artist to indulge in a little more nostalgia.
MACKLEMORE & RYAN LEWIS
After an odd-couple intro from recently out former NBA star Jason Collins and an I-didn't-know-I-was-in-the-frame A$AP Rocky, the rap duo of the hour delivered a fairly faithful and straightforward take on their equality anthem ''Same Love.'' But hark, who is that stealing guest hook singer Mary Lambert's fire? Jennifer Hudson! In a crop top! First bona fide guest-star surprise of the night. Their diva face off was sweet, and kind of awkward, and then everybody got a high five. For equality!
Wearing all-black-everything, Drake posed in profile (a la the cover of his new album Nothing Was the Same — marketing!) while slow-jamming the audience with his R&B lovefest ''Hold On, We're Going Home.'' But that was just foreplay for the real event: Drizzy hopped onto the catwalk and slammed out an emphatic performance of ''Started From the Bottom,'' pyrotechnics included. It wasn't really fancy but it was a lot of fun, and not just for the totally ecstatic-looking fans he chilled with down in the pit.
The most elegantly designed and executed performance of the evening belonged to Bruno Mars, who performed ''Gorilla'' standing behind a mic stand high up on a simple platform, with a giant gorilla face behind him, lasers shooting through the room, and his crack band booting the whole thing along. But although there was a unified feel, with Mars staying put and the color scheme a consistent glowing green, there was plenty of drama — three parts human, with Mars belting with tremendous feeling and kicking over his mic stand, and one part fire, with the night's biggest pyrotechnics shooting off at the climax.