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Beyonce, 2016 MTV VMAs, Britney Spears

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Even MTV needed a minute to catch its breath.

"I think I need a moment after watching @beyonce's #VMA performance," read a tweet from the network after Beyoncé quite literally set the stage on fire last night at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards.

Then, in the wee hours this morning, MTV added, "Still trying to recover from Beyonce's #VMAs performance, tbh."

TBH, what turned out to be Beyoncé's show-dominating performance was barely on our radar beforehand, so focused we all were on Britney Spears' mega-hyped VMAs comeback performance, nine years after she prematurely took the stage, also under the guise of a comeback, and hurt her fans' hearts with a performance of "Gimme More" that left no one wanting any in 2007. Sunday night, however, was to be the ultimate confirmation, the final proof for any doubters, that she's back, baby, and as good as ever.

And TBH, she just might have been almost as good as she ever was (there's no shame in not being able to top one's own snake-charming theatrics).

But Britney didn't go on stage until after the mini Beyoncé concert.

 

Beyonce Britney Spears 2016 MTV VMAs GIF

MTV

Kanye West's speech raised maybe half an eyebrow, Rihanna's two performances (out of four for the night) had punctuated the night with welcome exclamation points but not a period, and there was no one host sucking up any of the air in the room.

But there was hardly any oxygen left after Beyoncé's relentlessly inspired, nearly 16-minute medley of songs from Lemonade that included one jaw-dropping sequence after another and closed the show an hour before it was actually over.

And yet, with even MTV needing a moment, there it was...

The onscreen message that Britney would be on in 10 minutes. Why was that, again?

Now, Britney hasn't been entirely absent from the VMAs for nine years, not at all. She won three Moon Men in 2008, including Best Female Video and Video of the Year, for "Piece of Me." But no performance, MTV (and Spears herself) perhaps still smarting from the stinging reception to the previous year's outing. 

You'd have thought, then, that 2011 would've been the year, considering MTV gave her the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award—the reason why Rihanna performed four times last night, and why Drakegot all dressed up for the prom.

Britney wasn't the first Vanguard honoree not to perform on the night of—Madonna didn't in 1986 (in case you thought Rihanna's award had come a little early in her career), nor did the award's eventual namesake, Michael Jackson, in 1988 (three years before MTV added him to the honorific). Kanye didn't perform last year (not musically, anyway).

But since in 2011 it had already been years since Spears had last performed...why not then?

Some fans blamed MTV but others surmised that Britney just didn't want to. She was on her Femme Fatale Tour at the time, her last mobile tour before she took up residency in Las Vegas in 2013 with Britney: Piece of Me.

But whatever, that was then. 2016 is now, and it was Britney's time once again. And she did... fine. Absolutely fine.

Beyonce Britney Spears 2016 MTV VMAs GIF

MTV

She of course looked fantastic, both physically and emotionally (remembering her heartbreaking critique of herself after 2007 suggests she wouldn't have hit any stage, ever, after that if she wasn't feeling comfortable). "Make Me" is a good song and seguing into "Me, Myself & I" with G-Eazy was a good choice (shout-out to Bebe Rexha, who recorded the song with G-Eazy). 

But all of it, every last bit, felt more than a little lackluster after Beyoncé had blown the roof off the place.

At first it seemed like the head-scratcher of all head-scratching production decisions. But did MTV do it on purpose? With intent, that is?

Here's the thing. Britney was only going to do so well. (Yes, every fan who's ever seen her live has come away, life changed, after having the best night everrrr. Years ago, in Vegas now, any time. Spears didn't lose herself any fans last night.)

The lip-syncing was only going to be so proficient (it was highly proficient!), the choreography was only going to be so energetic, the envelope was only going to be pushed so far.

In a vacuum, Britney did great for Britney. Out of the vacuum, she was third-best at most, on what any other night would have belonged to Rihanna anyway. 

Beyonce Britney Spears 2016 MTV VMAs GIF

MTV

But MTV, perhaps incidentally, perhaps deftly, preempted any real disappointment in Britney by turning her into an after-thought in the moment, after so much thought had gone into the anticipation. Instead, the angst was over why she went on right after Beyoncé, after Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, putting it on as hype men who are too social media savvy for their own good, had already eulogized the millions of people stopped dead in their tracks after Bey had slayed. Why couldn't she at least have performed before? Or maybe after Jimmy Fallon delighted Michael Phelpswith his Ryan Lochte impression?

The only conclusion possible was that Britney had done as well as she could, but she was no match for what had come before—and that wasn't her fault. It wasn't anybody's fault.

Britney didn't phone it in. MTV phoned in Britney's performance. But that was OK, because the 2016 VMAs were too Beyonciful to fail.