Graham: VMAs revel in celeb reaction shots

Adam Graham, The Detroit News
The most shocking thing about the infamous 2003 kiss between Britney Spears, left, and Madonna was seeing the reaction on Justin Timberlake’s face.

The MTV Video Music Awards have given us scores of indelible pop culture memories over the years: Madonna rolling around the stage in a wedding dress in 1984, Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley unconvincingly simulating the human emotion known as affection in 1994, Kanye West declaring his bid for President in 2020 at last year’s show.

One of the biggest events came during the opening of 2003’s VMAs when Madonna and Britney Spears shared a smooch. It was a moment that still reverberates today and helped shape the modern awards show landscape, but not because it led to mass intergenerational lip locks. It was what came afterward that mattered.

You’ll notice when Sunday’s VMAs are stuffed with shots of stars reacting to what’s happening on stage, which have become as commonplace as the bad jokes presenters read off the Teleprompter. In recent years, the VMAs — along with most performance-filled awards shows, from the American Music Awards to the Billboard Music Awards to the BET Awards — have one eye fixed on the stage and another on the crowd, always hoping to catch a shot of a celeb enjoying or side-eyeing the action at hand.

You can thank those 2003 VMAs. If you remember that fateful night, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera opened the show performing “Like A Virgin” in white wedding ensembles, an homage to that first Madonna performance 20 years prior. Madonna then rose out of a wedding cake in the middle of the stage, made her way down a flight of stairs and positioned herself between the two brides while singing her then-current single, “Hollywood.” “How could it hurt you when it looks so good?” she sang, turned her head to her right, and Ms. Spears laid one on the Material Girl.

“Breaking the internet” wasn’t a thing back then — many of us were still on dial-up — but the moment sent shockwaves through the pop culture universe. Yet there was no time to soak it in: Cameras cut immediately to Justin Timberlake, who broke up with Spears the previous year (and had burned her in his “Cry Me a River” video, which was up for several awards that night), and fixated square on his mug: a stern mixture of disappointment, shock and resignation. That reaction shot became as big as the kiss itself, and in that moment the modern televised awards show paradigm was set. Just watching was no longer enough, we needed to watch stars watching the show along with us.

Now, this usually results in copious shots of Taylor Swift, fully aware she’s being filmed, dancing with members of her squad. Ho-hum. But every so often cameras catch a glance or an eyeroll that will be dissected, shared and memed as much as, or more than, anything that happens on stage.

That’s because while the performances are rehearsed, the stars’ reactions to them are not. And those reactions are the most honest examples of human drama awards shows have to offer, serving up a glimmer of the “reality” we crave from celebs. (If they’re catty, that’s even better.)

Go back and watch clips from older awards shows, and constant cuts to the audience weren’t prevalent. (At one time, cameras focused on the stage and performers. Imagine that!) But the 2003 VMAs were awash in crowd cutaways: Before that infamous Timberlake reaction, cameras captured Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Guy Ritchie and the “Queer Eye” guys watching from the crowd. The Timberlake shot even took precedent over Madonna’s subsequent snog with Aguilera, which was only caught fleetingly and has thus been reduced to historical footnote. The decision to focus on Timberlake’s reaction over another major make out signaled a change was in the air.

Britney returns to the stage at Sunday’s VMAs, her first performance on the show in nine years. It’s a big moment for her, but just as important to the broadcast will be shots of Kylie Jenner or Kim Kardashian watching her perform. Nowadays, it’s all part of the show.

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Michael Jackson and wife Lisa Marie Presley at the 1994 VMAs.

‘MTV Video Music Awards’

8-11 p.m. Sunday