MIAMI — With performances by Usher, Outkast, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Nelly and Christina Aguilera (to name just a few) spilling over four stages, the floor and even the rafters, the 2004 VMAs were possibly the biggest display in the show’s history.
However, the show itself was just the tip of the iceberg. It might look effortless when dancers suddenly soar 20 feet above the stage, but every performance took hours, if not days, of preparation — and in some cases, it meant overcoming phobias, learning tricky dance steps or getting completely drenched with water. Despite the long hours, some artists still managed to have a little fun during rehearsal.
Outkast practically turned their practice into a party. Andre 3000 was the first to make the scene, looking dapper in the off-white vest, baby-blue button-up and straw hat he would wear at the show. Holding a guitar, the multi-talented MC fiddled with the frets until Big Boi arrived — but it wasn’t his partner in rhyme that entered the American Airlines Arena next. Instead, Mr. Farnsworth Bentley, parasol in hand, practiced his dance steps down the catwalk. Within just a few minutes, the suave and sockless Bentley had it down so well that he could take a call on his cell phone without missing a step.
When Big Boi and Sleepy Brown finally arrived, they were greeted with handshakes and hugs from Bentley and a troupe of backup dancers. Dre, however, couldn’t spend too much time with salutations; he was due across the arena floor to begin Outkast’s four-song medley by himself with “Prototype.” Big Boi made light of what felt like a Dre-dominated set by riffing off Nas’ “One Mic.”
“All I got is one verse,” he lamented in reference to his contribution, a portion of “The Way You Move.” Soon his dancers and Bentley expressed their unity, with arms and fingers pointed toward the sky. Big Boi was far from done entertaining: As the DJ kicked in with a beat, Big Boi started freestyling, briefly breaking form to give Mr. Bentley a turn on the mic. Perhaps sensing a threat to his rhyming skills, Big Boi attempted to turn the spare time into a rap battle. “I got a hundred on it,” the confident MC spit as Sleepy Brown echoed the sentiment.
The streamers that shot out at the end of Outkast’s set made for even more party props: Within a few seconds, Mr. Bentley was dripping in patriotic crepe, some of it falling naturally on his shoulders and much more of it heaped on him by his friends.
As Big Boi was throwing down and having all the fun on one stage, a still-noodling Andre stood alone across the room while the notes emanating from his guitar seemed to gently weep.
The real waterworks happened during Usher’s performance. Mr. Entertainment took full advantage of the multiple stages during his opening set by ducking out after getting soaked and slipping through a backstage alley in time to join his bouncing backup crew once Lil Jon’s intro was complete. And although it looked as if Usher and his non-tethered dancers had springs on their feet in order to achieve that huge vertical leap, a trampoline built into one of the risers offered a bit of help.
Kanye West’s performance of “Jesus Walks” wasn’t the only tune that raised spirits on Sunday night. The Polyphonic Spree’s colorful set literally lifted frontman Tim DeLaughter’s mind and body closer to heaven. Of course, the robed bandleader didn’t really levitate, but unless you were looking very closely, you might have missed the sneaky stagehand who snuck up and affixed a pair of cables to the harness under DeLaughter’s robe through slits that were cut before the show.
While rehearsing the song, DeLaughter’s other 23 bandmates shared his elevated excitement. As the stage was being set to accommodate the fascinatingly large group, Spree members were flitting around with perma-grins as the final preparations were being made. “And one more for Mommy!” French horn player Louis Schwardon pleaded to his photo-snapping bandmate, who was documenting the group’s most high-profile exposure to date.
Snapshots were also in effect at the Yellowcard/ Hoobastank/ Jet performance in the round. As the first two bands were capturing their first-ever VMA rehearsals on film, their Down Under counterparts in Jet left the picture-taking to the ladies who flocked to their sides once they left the stage.
Despite their best attempts at maintaining their cool, the guys in all the bands looked slightly nervous and intimidated by the elaborately tricked-out stages. Thankfully, Yellowcard’s Sean Mackin was on hand to calm nerves and soothe souls with a bit of classical riffing on his violin.
Christina Aguilera has confidently rocked many arenas in her day, but even she looked a bit intimidated by the size and scope of the VMA set. Staring up at the dizzyingly high platform — from which she would descend to present the Best Male Artist award — didn’t help the situation. Besides the suspended stage, so many props had been hung from the arena’s ceiling that the set designers checked with the building’s original engineers to determine just how much weight the ceiling could support. So not only was Aguilera’s perch high — it was dangerously close to testing the building’s load capacity.
Minutes after her arrival, she was whisked to the upper deck to acclimate herself. When her stage began its descent, she held her handler’s hand for security for the entire ride to the ground.
Meanwhile, Nelly was relaxing with friends while waiting for Aguilera to arrive. They said hello to Usher, who had just changed after his rehearsal and was on his way out, no doubt to celebrate in South Beach. Nelly and Aguilera were in the house for nearly a half hour before they finally met with hugs and kisses. After Nelly introduced her to his crew, which includes his sister, the two performers spent the rest of their rehearsal downtime talking by themselves.
Aguilera looked cool and composed, an air she carried over to the big show.
Catch all the sizzlin’, star-packed VMA action direct from Miami on August 28. MTV News’ preshow kicks things off at 6:00 p.m. ET/PT, followed by the big show at 8 p.m.