And the winner is... Chris Brown! No, Rihanna! No, Chris Brown!
You may be confused, but not nearly so much so as the presenters at the BET Awards, who couldn't quite figure out which performer had won the fan-voted video of the year award. First, they announced Brown had earned the top trophy, then quickly "corrected" themselves to say it was actually going to Rihanna. The featured artist on Rihanna's song, Drake, took the stage and accepted it on her behalf, saying, "This is awkward." But it only got more ridiculous when, at the end of the telecast, host Kevin Hart announced that they were right the first time and Brown—who was smiling silently at his side—was the real winner, not his ex.
Everyone knew that Brown was in the house and Rihanna was MIA, but for a second, you might have wondered if this was some kind of publicity stunt where the BETs were really going to declare that the two ex-lovers were deadlocked.
After all, early in the telecast, there'd been a "tie" for the Young Star award between Willow Smith and Jaden Smith, as their famous parents were seen beaming in approval at the dead heat. That statistically improbable head-shaker let you know right away that this show would probably not feature the traditional awards-show sight of Ernst & Young accountants coming out in tuxedos to testify to the veracity of the voting.
Rihanna's supposed win was the sole shock of the night—while it lasted—as the three-and-a-half-hour telecast clearly marked Chris Brown's re-coronation as a forgiven popular favorite. Giving an acceptance speech after winning the first award of the night, for favorite male R&B singer, Brown made only the most oblique reference to his controversial troubles and tantrums. "I know it's been a long road," he told the cheering throng at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium. "I appreciate every blessing that's in front of me... Public speaking is not my strong suit," he added—which may be the understatement of the year, after he was caught on camera last week uttering anti-gay epithets.
Maybe the BET Awards were doing Brown a favor, then, by denying him the chance to give his climactic acceptance speech and mistakenly giving that slot to Drake instead. The BETs do look out for their favorites.
That was clear despite the fact that Hart, a popular stand-up comic who was hosting for the first time, kept bragging about how irreverent he was. "Nobody is safe tonight, people!" he announced again and again—and again. But every star in attendance rested quite easy, as Hart never laid a glove on anybody, instead just throwing softballs how Puff changes his nicknames a lot, Snoop likes illicit substances, and Trey Songz takes his shirt off a lot. Bet he'll never work in this town again after those devastating jibes, right?
Meanwhile, what kind of jokes did Hart make about the night's star and its one genuinely controversial figure? Not a single one. On BET, King Chris Brown is too rehabilitated to be touched.
The epic-length show provided a somewhat unwieldy mixture of old-school and new. After an opening that featured Mary J. Blige joined by surprise guest Anita Baker, risque hip-hop aimed at younger viewers dominated the first two and a half hours of the telecast. But classic R&B and gospel took over in an older-skewing final hour that included a lengthy Patti LaBelle tribute.
The LaBelle homage was a highlight for many, in part because of the variety of performers paying homage to the soul queen. The irrepressible Cee-Lo kicked off the tribute by coming out in a porcupine-style wig, which he kept spraying with a bottle. He wasn't imitating just her vintage hair, but also her high notes, as he sang "Somebody Loves You, Baby (You Know Who It Is)." "He scared me!" LaBelle said later. The medley ended with gospel star Shirley Caesar doing a more (yes) reverent reading of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" before LaBelle herself got on stage to perform "Love, Need and Want You."
The BET Awards had some interesting juxtapositions. Hart emceed a short tribute to the armed forces, with several stone-faced members of the military joining him on stage. Immediately prior to that was the most outrightly sexual segment of the show, with Trey Songz tearing off his shirt within seconds of appearing on stage, as promised ("It wouldn't be me if I didn't get a little nasty"). He was soon joined by Kelly Rowland, who provided Songz some "Motivation" and did a partial strip-tease of her own... although, mysteriously, she left her oversized hat on. Some viewers didn't recognize the ex-Destiny's Child member until she was announced after the fact.
The strangest juxtaposition of all? Co-presenters Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber. There seemed to be a Mrs. Robinson scenario threatening to develop, as the not-exactly-demure Minaj asked, "Justin, do you drive?" "Yes, I drive," Bieber answered. "Can you handle curves?" "Yes, I can." To pretty much everyone's relief, that marked an abrupt end to the statutory banter.
If Bieber seemed an odd presence at the BET Awards, despite his R&B-flavored music, that was only underscored by the fact that the telecast misspelled his name as "Beiber" in the opening credits. (Nothing personal, or racial, in the slight, as Shirley Caesar's name was also spelled incorrectly.)
The most ubiquitous award would have to go to Rick Ross, who performed on three separate occasions. After the hardly slender Ross went shirtless in the first of these, Hart cracked that Ross "should put a sports bra on. It was all over the place!"
After her triumphant appearance at the recent Billboard Awards, Beyonce's performance was the most anticipated of the night... except maybe to those who realized ahead of time she would not be there in person. Her two-song spot was taped earlier in England during her headlining appearance at the Glastonbury Festival. The tour choreography was not quite so elaborate as what she recently pulled off for the TV cameras. But it was still the best-danced song of the night, and by general consensus, the new song she premiered, the quasi-martial "End of Time," is not nearly as off-putting as "Run the World (Girls)," the failed single she was promoting at the Billboards.
As for what happened with the Brown/Rihanna mixup, conspiracy theories may abound, but there's probably a simple explanation. Throughout the night, presenters read the winners off a smartphone they carried onto the stage, "instead of those pesky little envelopes that get stuck and embarrass us presenters when we can't open it." But when it came time to give away the top trophy, they had a prize winner in tow, who may have looked at the prompter and mistakenly thought that the first nominee listed there was the winner. When it scrolled to the next nominee, she likely thought that was the winner—not remembering to look at the mobile device that was to reveal the real honoree.
Next year, maybe the BETs will retreat to "those pesky little envelopes."