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Who needs a big moment at the 2015 VMAs?

Who needs a big moment at the 2015 VMAs?


There are serious stakes for some of Sunday night's perfomers

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It’s safe to say that no one watches the MTV Music Video Awards to find out which celebrity is going to haul the most Moonmen home. If there was ever a show defined by its performances, it’s this one: Britney, Christina, and Madonna kissing! Britney lurching her way through "Gimme More" like an exhausted husk just a few years later! Beyoncé rubbing her growing belly while her loyal subjects applaud the future princess! Even at an advanced age — this is the 32nd annual show — the VMAs are expertly engineered at least one memorable moment a year.

For the show’s performers, the VMA stage can serve as a sort of test, and that’s true no matter the stage of their career. Are they ready to assume the mantle of musical stardom? Can they silence the haters with a performance that brings out something new in their music? Can they deliver not only hits, but talking points? With those kinds of stakes in mind, I’m going to go through this year’s full slate of performers and rate the pressure that’s being placed on them this year using varying scales from 1 to 10. Let’s begin:

Demi Lovato: Demi has a ton of goodwill thanks to the success of "Cool for the Summer," but she could use a defining, powerful vocal performance to drive the song home. She has the pipes — if you were a Camp Rock fan like I was, you've known she can wail for a long time — but she's never had to show up on anything like the VMA stage. I'm hoping she can pull it together, and that her plan for doing so involves blowing everyone off the stage with the kind of singing I know she can do. 6/10

Justin Bieber: This is bound to be one of the night’s bigger performances. Bieber needs a strong showing here to seal in the transition from petulant child star to penitent, talented artist he’s been working on throughout the year. New single "What Do You Mean?" is solid, but it’s not exactly dependent on his charisma or vocal skill. If he can show those qualities off at the VMAs, it’s going to help the song grab hold of the charts and grant him some legitimacy; if not, he might be relegated to EDM hook work for the next half-decade. The clock is ticking. 8/10

People will lose their minds if Kanye does one cool thing

Kanye West: There’s going to be some scuttlebutt about Kanye needing to top what Beyoncé did last year after receiving the same award — she performed her whole damn album in 12 minutes — but it’s overblown. The whole point of the award is the recognition of his sustained excellence, and people will be primed to lose their minds given even a bare minimum of innovation; Kanye has a great sense of the moment, and I’m sure he has a visually engaging, daring mini-set planned. Most of the remaining questions, then, surround Swish, his long-awaited Yeezus follow-up: do we hear some new music? Does he trot out "All Day" and "Wolves" like they didn’t land with a miserable thud earlier this year? Is Paul McCartney going to be there? I demand answers! 7/10

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: Many people watching the show will be expecting this to be terrible — so if it’s mediocre (or better?), that’s a victory for Seattle’s finest. New single "Downtown" was widely panned when it was released earlier this week, which sounds bad at first... until you realize it pushed the bar for this performance even lower. The ecstasy of low expectations! 1/10

Nicki Minaj: If we’re lucky, Nicki will take a performance characterized by grace, charm, and professionalism and cap it off with a single withering glance in the general direction of host / provocateur / occasional dingus Miley Cyrus. (Cyrus gave the world the gift of her opinion regarding Nicki’s Twitter spat with Taylor Swift earlier this week.) With that said, I don’t think there’s actually any real pressure here — Nicki is widely beloved, she’s comfortable and experienced in this context, and The Pinkprint is over half a year out from its release. She doesn’t have to prove anything. 5/10

Pharrell Williams: I can only assume Pharrell’s going to perform "Freedom," his Apple Music exclusive that got played about once every half-hour on Beats 1’s launch day, to which I have just one response: who cares? I’m getting a snack during this one unless he comes on stage wearing a hat the size of Ariana Grande, and even then I’m only staying for a second or two. 1/10

The Weeknd: This is, without a doubt, the most important performance of the night. The giant wave of molly water and late night tears Abel Tesfaye’s ridden to the top of the charts is cresting, but he needs a signature show to lock it in; every nascent pop king needs a coronation. (It’d be silly to bet on anything other than "Can’t Feel My Face" for his number, but I’m hoping against hope he performs "Tell Your Friends," a song that contains one of the most concise and effective statements of self in recent memory: "I’m that nigga with the hair / singing ‘bout poppin’ pills, fuckin’ bitches, livin’ life so trill." It’ll never happen.) There’s a chance we look back on this moment as the few minutes where Tesfaye seized control of pop for the next few years; it’s either that, or he slinks back to a Toronto penthouse for more lechery. 10/10