Kicking off the show Sunday night with her new single, "Gimme More," Spears looked bleary and unprepared, much like her recent tabloid exploits on the streets of Los Angeles. She walked through her dance moves with little enthusiasm. It appeared she had forgotten the entire art of lip-synching. And, perhaps most unforgivable given her once-taut frame, she looked embarrassingly out of shape.
As The Early Show national correspondent Hattie Kauffman put it, "Her lip-synching and gyrating lacked punch."
Even the celebrity-studded audience seemed bewildered. 50 Cent looked at Spears with a confused expression; Diddy, her new best friend, was expressionless.
"I kind of felt sorry for her," hip-hop artist Common told Kauffman. "It didn't look like she was really into that performance."
"I don't think her head was fully into the show," singer-songwriter Akon remarked to Kauffman. " ... And I wanted to hear her sing."
Things didn't get much better when comedian Sarah Silverman followed Spears with a stand-up routine.
"Britney Spears, everyone. Wow!" Silverman opened. "She is amazing. I mean, she is 25 years old, and she's already accomplished everything she's going to accomplish in her life."
Silverman continued to draw less and less laughter with jokes about Spears' children and private parts, along with digs at Madonna and 50 Cent.
Though Spears' performance "fell flat," Kauffman observed, some in attendance wished Spears only the best, such as singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado, who commented to Kauffman, "I'm a mother, too, and I'm also an entertainer. It's a tough balance, balancing motherhood and the entertainment business. So I support her."
Gossip blogger Perez Hilton of PerezHilton.com predicted, "It's Britney Spears. Her new album will sell. Will it sell as well as the old one? No way."
The VMAs was hoping to reinvent itself on Sunday. After suffering poor reviews and a decline in ratings during the past few years, MTV moved the show to Las Vegas' Palms Casino, shortened the show from three hours to two, and changed the show's setup to focus more on performances than awards.
Thankfully, after Spears' dismal start and the lukewarm intro by Silverman, the show rebounded. Timberlake's suite was packed with revelers, alcohol and eight lingerie-clad stripper types on raised platforms. Before he accepted the Quadruple Threat of the Year award at his suite, the DJ summoned the partygoers to watch the monitor and go crazy if Timberlake won.
He did, they did, and Timberlake said: "I want to challenge MTV to play more videos!" Then he was whisked away by bodyguards and disappeared. He later won male artist of the year, and hit home on that point: "We don't want to see the Simpsons on reality television" -- apparently he's not a fan of either Jessica or Ashlee's MTV shows.
Meanwhile, Rihanna won Monster Single of the Year for her ubiquitous hit "Umbrella," and Beyonce and Shakira won Most Earthshattering Collaboration for "Beautiful Liar." Beyonce's shimmering gold dress barely contained her top; immediately after she picked up her trophy, she asked an assistant backstage to help fix her dress, apparently to prevent a wardrobe malfunction.
Other performers were appearing on the show's main stage, in front of an industry-only audience seated at tables, like at the Golden Globes. Chris Brown gave one of the evening's most extravagant performances -- a dance-centric, eye-popping spectacle that channeled Michael Jackson, right down to a brief "Billie Jean" imitation. Later, he was joined by Rihanna, who performed her monster single.
Timberlake and Timbaland's joint suite looked like the most exciting -- T.I., buffeted by pole dancers, delivered a rousing version of "Big Things Poppin' " while 50 Cent stopped by to perform "Ayo Technology" with Timberlake and Timbaland.
Not to be outdone, T-Pain and West danced high atop Las Vegas in one of the Palms' balcony suites as celebrated "The Good Life." And Lil Wayne, doing double duty in the Fall Out Boy suite, was particularly animated during their joint performance.
But the TV audience never got full views of those performances, though the network promised viewers more via its Web site and other "remixed" versions of the show. That might have been the purpose -- to whet the audiences appetite for repeat viewings by promising glimpses of what they missed during the traditional broadcast.
2Scores of bikini-clad babes and bare-chested hunks were downing drinks by the pool. Gift suites overflowing with swag, from diamonds and designer jeans to fancy shades and hotel stays. Concerts by Kanye West, 50 Cent, Maroon 5 and Joss Stone for crowds that included Jamie Foxx, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Paris Hilton and Ashlee Simpson.
The gift suites - including the Star Lounge at Hard Rock Hotel and the Style Villa at Caesars Palace - were hot destinations Saturday. Eve played Xbox and West kicked back in a poolside cabana at the Venetian. Ludacris and Nelly collected goodies at the Hard Rock. And 50 Cent picked up a $62,000 diamond-encrusted watch at Caesars. Other swag-collecting stars included Jennifer Hudson, Nelly, Lauren Conrad and Lil Jon.
The focus turned from freebies to parties once the sun went down. Christina Aguilera made an appearance at nightclub LAX, Pharrell Williams held a dinner soiree at the Venetian and Maroon 5 and Robin Thicke performed at the House of Blues. Maxim's bash at Mandalay Bay, which featured an hour-long set by Stone, drew rapper Chamillionaire and "Entourage" stars Adrian Grenier and Kevin Connolly.
The Hard Rock Hotel was packed to capacity as it hosted concerts by West, 50 Cent and Linkin Park. Hilton, Ciara and Mario Lopez took in a '50s poolside show. Spears and Combs dropped by his afterparty before leaving together for nightclub Tao.
Simpson brought two dates to see West perform at Rolling Stone's 40th anniversary party - her dad, Joe Simpson, and her boyfriend, Pete Wentz. Eve and Jermaine Dupri were also on hand to see the set, during which Foxx and rapper T-Pain joined West on stage.
The ever-outspoken West had some less-than-kind words for Spears and MTV.
"I can't believe she would perform. She hasn't had a hit record in years," he said, apparently miffed that MTV didn't invite him to open the show. "Maybe my money's not right. Maybe my skin's not right."
But producers who worked with Spears on her new album seemed confident she would regain her pop glory.
She will "surprise the world," said Sean Garrett, who collaborated with the singer on three new tracks.
On the red carpet Sunday night, 50 Cent had nothing but kind words for Spears. "There's so many people out there who would like to see her do bad," he said. "I'd like to see her do good."
The party vibe established at MTV's Video Music Awards continued long after the last moon-man trophy was presented.
Post-show soirees all over town boasted star-studded guest lists, plus long lines and crowds of camera-toting fans hoping to snap shots of their favorite celebs.
For many show guests and workers, the first stop was the poolside party at the Palms, site of the awards presentation. Hosted by Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, the "official" post-show event promised an open bar and an ample buffet.
Foxx was gregarious, dancing and rapping on stage as he poured fruity shots from a bottle directly into the mouths of thirsty women. He was briefly joined by Quincy Jones, who sipped from a pink drink as he boogied alongside a bevy of beauties.
Janet Jackson and beau Jermaine Dupri partied at Tao, along with T.I., Nelly and Travis Barker.
Sean "Diddy" Combs hosted a capacity crowd at Luxor's week-old nightclub, LAX. It was so packed that the staircase leading down to the dance floor was declared off-limits. Most late-arriving guests had to stay upstairs - except for one. Paris Hilton popped in just after 2 a.m. Monday and a trio of security guards immediately whisked her downstairs, straight to the dance floor.
MTV VMA Awards
Winners shown in bold
Video of the Year
Male Artist of the Year
Female Artist of the Year
Best New Artist
Most Earthshattering Collaboration
Quadruple Threat of the Year
Monster Single of the Year
Best Editing in a Video
Best Choreography in a Video