The surprises started early at MTV's 2011 Video Music Awards, with Lady Gaga kicking things off in drag as her male alter-ego (and looking somewhere between Al Pacino and Amy Winehouse) with an obscenity-laden rant about herself followed by a performance of her new single, "You and I." She was joined on stage by Queen guitarist Brian May.
After an early Best Pop Video win by Britney Spears -- who thanked God, her two sons and boyfriend Jason Trawick -- an even bigger surprise came with an appearance by Jay-Z and Kanye West, both purported no-shows at the VMAs. The fire and smoke-throwing performance energrized the crowd (though the open bar throughout the show certainly helped, too). Jay-Z and West were almost interrupted by a fan rushing the stage, which seemed more than a little planned.
Other highlights included wins by the Foo Fighters (Best Rock), Nicki Minaj (Best Hip-Hop) and Justin Bieber (Best Male), who suggested in his acceptance speech that Jesus was really the best male. Katy Perry and West took home Best Collaboration, with Perry teasing West during her speech: "This is when it's OK to interrupt me, Kanye."
Ladies truly ruled the VMAs, with British newcomer Jessie J serving as house band. Gaga returned to the stage, still in drag, to introduce Spears' Video Vanguard Award, MTV's lifetime achievement prize, though Gaga stayed onstage during the acceptance speech, stealing focus from her predecessor as both introduced a bigger-than-life performance by a newly-pregnant Beyonce.
But the night belonged to Adele, who brought the auditorium to a breath-holding standstill with a bare-bones, hearfelt rendition of "Someone Like You" with just a piano for accompaniment. More than halfway through the show, it was the evening's first of few standing ovations.
NIGHT OF LADIES, EVEN WINEHOUSE
Gaga defied those expecting another night of rapid costume changes by staying in her drag persona—even when accepting the Best Female Video award for "Born This Way." The female domination continued with Katy Perry's Video of the Year win for "Firework." Perry's husband, Russell Brand, introduced a touching, Tony Bennett-led tribute to one lady missing from the evening, the recently deceased Amy Winehouse. After Bennett debuted footage of a duet recording session with Winehouse from March, Bruno Mars took the stage to perform a Winehouse tribute.