Living Inside The MTV Awards: Brooklyn residents see all the angles on Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga from their homes inside the Barclays Center staging area
By Alan Huffman and Christopher Harress
This story originally ran in International Business Times on Aug. 8, 2013.
A trio of teenage Brooklyn girls stood at a metal barricade before a friend’s townhouse, awaiting the staged arrival of pop star Katy Perry across the street at the Barclays Center, site of this year’s MTV Music Video Awards. It was the Saturday night before the event, and the friends, part of an extended Puerto Rican family whose building stands within the staging area, were hosting a stoop party.
For those who live within the perimeter of the awards zone, proximity was both an inconvenience and an opportunity, requiring them to endure construction, noise, street closures and checkpoints while conferring an elite, “insider” status upon them and anyone they smuggled in. Everyone who would later stroll the red carpet had to be invited; residents of the affected block of Dean Street did not. They were already there.
All of which meant that as a camera crew filmed Perry repeatedly walking out of the Barclays Center loading area, dressed in high heels and a gaudy gold and faux leopard-skin dress, the girls could stand and watch. It was basically happening in their front yard. Naturally, they all had their smartphones out, preparing to take keepsake photos, until a Perry rep in a suit with a shaved head approached and said, very politely, that he’d appreciate it if they didn’t photograph her, and that if they agreed not to, Perry would repay the favor by coming over afterward. “Seriously, Katy will come say ‘hi’ if you don’t take pictures,” he repeated. So the girls dutifully obliged.
“Meeting Katy Perry would mean everything to me!” one of them gushed. The girls then watched the heavily embellished singer walk out from the loading dock and up the steps into the trailer of an 18-wheeler painted gold with her name on the side. It wasn’t clear what the gilded 18-wheeler entrance and exit was meant to represent, but after several takes, as the girls eagerly waited behind the barricade, Perry and her entourage, including the guy with the shaved head, got in a black-tinted SUV and drove away without so much as a wave. That, of course, is how celebrity works: Someone decorates you, you walk around pretending to do things for the cameras, and your reps lie to ecstatic teenage fans whom you subsequently snub. Oh, and you sing. Did we mention that Katy Perry sings?
The girls were among the locals who populate the block of Dean Street adjacent to the Barclays Center, all of whom (including us) either live there or know someone well who does, which meant that for the weekend of the awards show we were The People They Had To Tolerate Inside The Zone. Apparently this was a first: Previous MTV awards shows have been held in easily contained venues in cities such as Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas, while the Brooklyn event unavoidably caught up four small residential buildings in its net.
The show had a Brooklyn theme, including a fake Brooklyn Bridge at one end of the red carpet and scores of “Brooklyn youth” hired to play the role of Brooklyn youth, but the real Brooklyn posed potential problems, not the least of which was that many people who live near the Barclays Center are not at all happy it was built there. So there was a bit of placating to be done, which included providing free tickets to the event to those who asked for them.
The surviving residential buildings along the Barclays block of Dean Street have not been gentrified, and so provided an odd counterpoint to the red carpet that ran along the other side. Who knows how long the buildings will survive, because the Barclays Center is gobbling up everything in sight, which has sparked its share of controversy.
On the Saturday before the awards show it was clear that some people thought the neighborhood belonged to the arena and MTV. Police closed the streets and set up multiple checkpoints, requiring proof of residency, which resulted in a few testy encounters, including one with a very angry woman on a bike who demanded to be let through and shouted at a nearby Barclays employee, “You ruined my life!”
Then there was Lulu, of the extended family next door to our building on Dean Street, who was thrlled about the awards event and welcomed everyone who passed along the way, including a British MTV VJ who had her picture made with “the famous Lulu” on her stoop. Everyone associated with the awards show knew who Lulu was, and it was she who finagled the Barclays offer of free tickets, and who, with her sister, cooked empanadas to peddle on the day of the event.
Unquestionably, the Dean Street stoops were the best seats, not in the house, but outside of it. For an alternative vantage point, residents also had the roofs of the buildings. There was, however, that feeling that some of the celebrities and organizers were dismissive of the neighbors, as if they were a nuisance to be managed, which rankled the otherwise affable Anna De Jesus, whose daughter Emily was one of the three girls who were lied to and snubbed by Perry. “We are the people who made these artists, and then they’re at the top and forget that,” De Jesus said. “For example: Katy Perry. She didn’t even pull her window down to say bye to the girls, and the girls feel so disappointed.”
Emily and her friends Roxi and Eve, all 14 years old, nodded enthusiastically at De Jesus’ assessment. “It ruined my day,” Eve said.
The girls, De Jesus pointed out, represent true Brooklyn; all go to school around the corner, and they’re a typical ethnic mix — one a blonde white girl, another Asian-American, and her daughter Dominican-American. They also are big fans of Katy Perry and represent an important part of MTV’s and the awards show’s target demographic.
The consensus on Dean Street, where for one day everyone lived inside the MTV awards show, was that regardless of where you stand on celebrity and the arena itself, this was the block party to end all block parties. Everyone got over the fact that some of the cops hassled them about producing ID, or that normal daily routines were dramatically upended.
There were public performances and dance routines off and on all Sunday that were impossible to ignore, but why would you want to? There was Lulu holding court from her stoop, waving and doing impromptu jigs for anyone who recognized her from the other side of the street. There was a big screen on the corner that projected video of the activities on the block itself, which was also visible on a screen on the side of the DirecTV blimp circling languorously overhead. There was the white-knuckled anticipation of celebrity sightings, even if you felt that celebrity was a horrible, false, cheap sort of thing.
There was Sara Champagne (disclosure: my roommate) getting into it with two rude blonde women with MTV passes who told Emily, Roxi and Eve to move away from the barricade where they were watching a dance routine so that they – the blonde women – could be positioned in front for the cameras. Seeing the trio acquiesce, Champagne intervened, at which point the two blondes began to berate her, calling her obscene names and summoning an MTV executive one referred to as “my [expletive] Dad,” who also berated Champagne. In the end, residency trumped connection, and the offending women were relocated to a barricade across the intersection. “Those girls, they’re the real Brooklyn,” Champagne said, still irritated an hour later, then took a very purposeful bite of one of Lulu’s empanadas.
The OMG Factor, Sunday night’s main event, was predictably extravagant, with several designer stages dominated by a 60-foot-tall inflatable moon man created by a Brooklyn designer known as KAWS. Miley Cyrus’s notably lewd performance was, if nothing else, in keeping with the show’s history of striving mightily to shock or surprise viewers.
The first VMA ceremony was held in 1984 at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, where Madonna performed her hit “Like A Virgin” wearing a combination bustier/wedding gown and rolled around on the floor. In that way, the stage was set. All forms of celebrity and extravagance have since ruled the day, which led Fiona Apple to entreat her audience while accepting the 1997 award for Best New Artist not to be enamored of celebrity culture. She proclaimed, “This world is [expletive],” and quoted Maya Angelou, which somehow managed to come across as equally artificial.
Among the subsequent VMA highlights was Britney Spears performing “I’m a Slave 4 U” in 2001 while dressed in “a very revealing outfit” and sharing the stage with a caged tiger and a live albino Burmese python on her shoulders, the latter of which attracted PETA’s ire.
And in an infamous episode at the 2009 awards, rapper Kanye West took the microphone from country singer Taylor Swift, who had won Best Female Video and was midway through her acceptance speech, to announce, “Yo Tay, I’m really happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” He then handed the mic back to Swift and gave the audience the finger. The VMAs were originally conceived as an alternative to the Grammy Awards (in the video category), and in the intervening years its show has become must-see TV for its demographic (Emily, Roxi and Eve don’t watch MTV except for the awards show).
The record viewership, in 2011, was 12.4 million, and a big part of the allure is not only the performances but what the celebrities do. As Champagne put it, “It’s like, ‘O-M-G, Lady Gaga arrived in an egg… More of the egg after the jump.’” Ultimately, it’s all about celebrity, and on Sunday, the Barclays Center was the pantheon. Tickets were reportedly selling for up to $2,500 online. Co-opting Brooklyn Brooklyn, as the New York Times noted in its article about the awards show, has a reputation for nurturing rap and indie music, yet “may not seem like the most obvious place to hold the Video Music Awards — with its emphasis on pop stars like Katy Perry and Bruno Mars.”
Though some locals saw the Brooklyn theme as a bit cheesy, MTV touted the connection shamelessly, showcasing brownstones and young Brooklynites. “You are going to get a taste of Brooklyn throughout the show,” Stephen Friedman, president of MTV, told the Times. The show brought millions of dollars into Brooklyn, but on the actual street level, the guy behind the counter at the Dubai Deli across from the Barclays Center said business was way down due to the street closings and reduced foot traffic, despite the hundreds of people working on staging the event. Notably, two teenage girls hid for a while in the deli, hoping not to be run off with the other local kids when or if MTV brought in hundreds of its “Brooklyn youths” who had been preselected by casting directors.
The Times described the area – technically part of Prospect Heights — as a neighborhood of “faded brownstones, modest storefronts, a corner bodega and a city playground” in the shadow of the intentionally rusty behemoth of the Barclays Center.
On Sunday, Sixth Avenue and Dean Street were carpeted in red, and some in Lulu’s family had retrieved scraps to create their own red carpet on their stoop, with heart-shaped cutouts. During the show, short films featuring Brooklyn scenes were shown on giant screens, and where they were needed, hundreds of 18-to-24-year-old Brooklyn residents “from Williamsburg hipsters to hip-hop b-boys” served as background or foreground crowds. David Sirulnick, a Brooklyn native who is an executive producer for the show, told the newspaper, “This is one of the few arenas actually in a neighborhood. It’s not going to be a red carpet show during which you can’t tell where it is.”
Lady Gaga, who will release her new album, “Artpop,” this fall, opened the show with her single “Applause.” As with everything that Lady Gaga does, her set was over-the-top and bizarre, from the moment she appeared on stage, dressed in something like a nun’s outfit with her head poking through a large white board, to going through five costume changes in as many minutes.
Otherwise, there seemed to be an underlying message and defiance within her stunning, energetic performance, a kind of Kanye West-like gesture aimed at her critics. The beginning of the song was accompanied by a chorus of boos, not from the fans but from the track itself. Once the boos died down, the real fans could be heard, apparently delighted with her “comeback.”
The music industry – one of the few sectors in which the United States is still the undeniable global denominator – is notoriously cutthroat and fickle, and critics and fans can be remarkably impatient and unforgiving. Celebrity is now a prerequisite, and it must be studiously maintained and reinvented. Lady Gaga is a product of this fast-moving industry in the same way she will be a victim when the next fresh-faced diva comes along.
Before arriving in Brooklyn for the awards show, Gaga was criticized by fans who observed that Katy Perry’s “Roar” was easily outselling “Applause,” so in response she urged them to buy multiple copies of her song and to ask for radio stations to play her music. In an ethically dubious, not to mention extremely tacky move, she also attempted to manipulate the Billboard charts by issuing a link for her 39 million Twitter followers that would allow them to watch her new video 150 times in a row, thus inflating her numbers. It wasn’t just about making money; it was about staying relevant. Despite being a big celeb and selling gazillions of songs, she is feeling the kind of pressure that has since more or less deflated Madonna, her obvious precursor.
Fans these days are easy to come by for global artists like Gaga, but given the plethora of talent waiting in the wings, they are also difficult to keep. On the other hand, performances by the man who can do no wrong, Justin Timberlake, went down very well. Timberlake is in an envious position because his full-scale attack on almost every medium means he captures new audiences every time he appears in a movie, TV show, music video or comedy sketch. He doesn’t need to force the issue to stay relevant, he just plays the game and meets the challenges of the industry as they come. He also comes across as a nice guy who makes time for his adoring fans, who range from children barely out of nappies to older men and women who remember him from his NSYNC days. His performance finale with his four former bandmates perhaps got the biggest cheer of the night, but ultimately, it didn’t live up to much and was merely heavy on nostalgia.
The artist formerly known as Hannah Montana was perhaps the most desperate of the night. Her tongue and bum were particular highlights, and it was clear to everyone, literally and figuratively, how low Miley Cyrus would stoop to get attention.
The very busy Katy Perry, meanwhile, closed the show with a rendition of “Roar” beamed in from a location near the Brooklyn Bridge. Why she wasn’t at the arena was never explained (and the walk to the gold truck the night before wasn’t included in the video). Perry is Gaga’s main competition, and the latter’s time away from the scene has allowed Perry’s stock to soar as the new queen of the industry. But three teenage girls from across the street might offer her a bit of advice in that regard: Remember who your fans are. Coming to Brooklyn should mean more than wearing decorative grills and posing before a false brick wall on Dean Street.
As it turned out, Emily, Roxi and Eve soon moved on from talking about Perry, helped along by an adolescent boy who they described as a “famous YouTuber” with the handle Lohanthony who stopped to have his photo taken with them. “He knows who his fans are,” De Jesus noted of Lohanthony. It also helped, she said, when Barclays community affairs manager Terence Kelly, hearing of the Perry snub, tried unsuccessfully to round up free tickets to the awards show for the girls. In the end, Kelly pointed out, “The girls will have the best view of all, right here in front of the house. Everybody famous will walk right by in front of them.”
Which turned out to be true. Also, from their vantage point in front of Lulu’s house they got to see what was happening off-screen, such as the drug- (or bomb-) sniffing dogs at the back door of the Barclays Center inspecting Miley Cyrus’s teddy bear props, which were featured in a video and in her show Sunday night.