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MTV Made The VMAs Matter Again

In a contest to see which pop star could give us the best GIF, Miley Cyrus was the clear winner. But hey, Lady Gaga and NSYNC did their best.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

MTV's annual Video Music Awards are judged mainly on whether or not the ceremony offered any truly memorable moments — ideally, something that seems genuinely wild and unrehearsed. Kanye West storming out during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech; Fiona Apple declaring that "the world is bullshit"; Nirvana's Krist Novoselic tossing his bass up in the air for it to land on his head; Diana Ross fondling Lil Kim's boob. You know, that sort of thing. This year's ceremony gave us a lot of great moments, maybe because everyone involved knew they were in a race with one another to star in the best GIF of the night.

That race has a clear winner, and her name is Miley Cyrus.

Miley inspired the best reaction shots...

And she gave us the night's best "ew...what?" moment when she stripped down to almost nothing and grinded on Robin Thicke's crotch while he was dressed up like a fancy referee and sang "Blurred Lines." This was actually a brilliant pairing because Miley and Robin have the two biggest pop hits of the summer and both kinda skeev everyone out with their flagrant sexuality.

Miley tapped into the same sort of wild, deliberately provocative spirit that has made Britney Spears and Madonna two of the most consistently great performers in the history of the show, and made the once edgy Lady Gaga and Katy Perry seem kinda old and a bit too classy.

But it wasn't all about Miley. I mean, Taylor Swift — the unrivaled queen of the awards show audience reaction shot — was there too.

Here's Taylor appearing to mouth the words "shut the fuck up" while One Direction was on stage...

And here she is dancing...

...and dancing some more...

...and dancing a bit more.

Taylor Swift loves to dance!

And there was other good stuff too, like when Justin Timberlake came out and played a bit of nearly every song in his solo catalog for what seemed like a solid half hour, and, somewhere in there, reunited with NSYNC for exactly 110 seconds.

Lady Gaga opened the show with a performance of "Applause" that hit the right balance of arty, weird, and intentionally funny.

Kanye West's performance of "Blood on the Leaves" went against the grain of everything else in the show. He went grim and ponderous while everyone else was either sexy or triumphant, and so visually static — he was in silhouette in front of a dimly lit still image of lynching trees — that he was basically un-GIFable.

The best VMA ceremonies capture a moment in pop, and this year's definitely pulled that off. To some extent, that comes down to MTV actually booking nearly every major player right now as either a performer, presenter, nominee, or in the case of Rihanna, a very high-profile audience member. The only major stars of the moment who didn't show up were Justin Bieber, Mumford & Sons, Maroon 5, Beyoncé, and Jay Z. (It's actually kinda strange that the latter two weren't there, since the show was broadcast from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and that's basically one of their houses.) But MTV clearly pulled out all the stops in putting this show together, and unlike last year's ceremony, it felt like a major event.

There's a pretty good chance you don't remember much about last year's MTV VMAs, or just didn't see it at all. That show, which aired on Sept. 6 and was hosted by Kevin Hart, was one of the least watched in the 29-year history of the annual event, and attracted only 50% of the viewers of the 2011 show, which was not only the most watched VMAs of all time, but also the highest-rated broadcast in the history of MTV with 12.4 million viewers. The drastic drop in audience was mainly the result of very poor scheduling: The awards aired on a Thursday night instead of the usual Sunday, and the program was up against Fashion's Night Out and the Democratic National Convention. (The show actually aired earlier than planned, to not directly conflict with President Obama's address at 10 p.m. ET.)

We'll find out pretty soon whether or not the star power at this year's VMAs drew a bigger audience, but it's safe to say that at the very least, MTV got its longest-running institution back on track, and made it seem like something that kinda sorta matters.