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Rihanna, Frank Ocean added to packed MTV VMA roster

August 28, 2012|By Randall Roberts | Times Pop Music Critic
  • Frank Ocean onstage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Frank Ocean onstage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. (Karl Walker )

In the world of 21st Century American musical spectacle, the MTV Video Music Awards exists in a category all its own. Way less reserved than the Grammy Awards (but no BET Awards), the VMAs have over the years provided plenty of water-cooler fodder, and this year's upcoming show has just added more bang: Producers just announced the addition of pop singer Rihanna and R&B crooner Frank Ocean as performers.

The performance roster was already pretty thick with superstars: Slated to gig live at the Staples Center during the Thursday, Sept. 6, live broadcast are country-pop princess Taylor Swift, Bay Area punk vets Green Day, resurgent pop star Pink, and Brit boy band One Direction. With the addition of Rihanna and Ocean, the lineup is dense with some of today's biggest-selling artists.

Which isn't to say the music world will necessarily be altered the next day. We know what a Taylor Swift performance is like, and One Direction lacks the heft to cause a commotion, let alone a magical moment. Whether Pink swings through the air on a trapeze is relatively unimportant, and Rihanna will walk the tightrope, careful to be just risque enough to keep the delay button at bay. Green Day will play punk rock like punk rockers do and, based on the show I saw a few weeks ago, will probably be pretty great.

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But the big question: What will Frank play? Will he be safe and do "Thinkin' About You," his lovely ballad? Or will the Los Angeles-based singer, whose full-length debut, "Channel Orange," is one of the best albums of the year -- and made news when Ocean openly discussed his bisexuality -- push the issue that propelled him into the spotlight and play "Forrest Gump"? 

That song, one of the highlights of "Channel Orange," is a first-person account of his relationship with a pseudonymous man and was one of the highlights of his recent sold-out show at the Wiltern. It's as powerful a song as you'll hear this year, regardless of the sexuality of the protaganists. Having that message beamed into households around the globe would send a strong signal of tolerance and would, in fact, alter things the next day. 

Whether Ocean plays it is an open question. Chances are he won't; Def Jam hasn't yet released it as a single (though it should, just to see how commercial radio programmers react), and Ocean may be uninterested in pressing the issue, understandably so. But if we're talking water-cooler moments, Ocean would be smart to play the song.

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