Justin Bieber, screams and Swegways: backstage at MTV's Europe music awards

Preparations for the EMAs featured a party in a knicker shop, precautions against Pope-abuse and a VIP tequila bar built with Ikea shelves. We went behind the scenes to see how a pop ceremony really works. And to iron Ed Sheeran’s shirt

From the outside, Milan’s Mediolanum Forum is a wretched-looking concrete sports stadium situated underneath an electricity pylon, by a motorway. Inside, it’s a different story. Four metres away from me, Jason Derulo – the ludicrous pop entity who once broke his actual bloody neck executing a daring dance move – is rehearsing his MTV Europe music awards (EMAs) performance of joyously basic banger Want to Want Me, which involves a dance routine. And he is doing this dance routine on a Swegway.

Derulo on a Swegway is a tableau so powerful and laden with meaning that after his live performance I fully expect it to replace “Christ on a bike” as my go-to exclamation; a spectacle so quintessentially “late-October 2015” that MTV must be cock-a-hoop that it brought forward its EMAs to take place a month earlier than usual. In the awards’ previous November slot, this sight would have seemed hopelessly passé. Today, watching Derulo Swegwaying at high speed down a ramp, it feels like I am at the epicentre of now.

As music fans drift away from traditional TV, music awards shows occupy a strange space. Beyond monolithic ceremonies such as the Brits and the Grammys, most shows claiming to celebrate music are rather more keen to celebrate whoever invented the night.

Ed Sheeran in a splendidly starched shirt.
Ed Sheeran in a splendidly starched shirt. Photograph: Dave Hogan/Getty Images for MTV

Last year the BBC created a worthy “HERE ARE OUR VALUES DO YOU SEE?” borefest called the BBC music awards, essentially the Brits with some crowbarred-in Gregory Porter. Its inaugural year seemed like a cautionary tale in what happens when attempting to occupy the perilous middleground between Radio 1, Radio 2, 6 Music, Jools Holland and a primetime TV audience, but the Beeb is doing it again this December, so well done everyone. At the other end of the scale there are the YouTube music awards, a curious invention that came to life in 2013 as a rather charming live-streamed, Spike Jonze-directed shambles, missed a year in 2014, then reappeared this year with celebrity YouTuber Tyler Oakley at the helm.

Still, while the EMAs’ A-lister count doesn’t match that of its glitzier older sister, the VMAs, MTV can still pull in the stars and has decided to let me loose around the awards venue for the next 48 hours. The backstage village is a warren of grey partitions and security guards checking for the right type of wristband (of which there are 14) and laminate (of which there are 20).

Melon or marrow? ... Peter Robinson with one of the coveted awards.
Melon or marrow? ... Peter Robinson with one of the coveted awards. Photograph: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for MTV

In the artist area there are stalls for sponsors and brands; there’s a Guitar Hero section, for instance, and an Instagram booth. Patrón Tequila has established something called “Push for Patron” – artist dressing rooms have special buttons which, when pressed, will bring in booze on a trolley. Somewhat disappointingly, this is merely a series of wireless door chimes, but I’m pleased to see that the Patrón bar has been constructed using an Ikea Expedit. I try to engage the barman in some Expedit chat: it’s a design classic, the new Kallax has nothing on it, that sort of thing. He doesn’t seem to want to talk about Expedits. “We just needed somewhere to display the Patrón,” he shrugs. He makes me a Paloma cocktail. Much like its pop star namesake it’s nice enough, but you wouldn’t want more than one.

Along one side is a room with “anti-piracy” written on its door. The anti-piracy room is where things such as unofficial YouTube uploads of the show will be annihilated and it is not exactly LOL central. “We’re blocking live-streams, too,” says anti-piracy expert Deborah Robinson. “If you look online now, you’ll probably see that people are advertising that they’re going to live-stream the show. They’re not.”

At this point it’s suggested I get a massage from a lady called Olivia in the backstage spa area. Like most massages, it’s really just someone bashing you about for a bit and she messes up my hair. Afterwards, I ask Olivia if hers is basically the ideal job if you want to touch pop stars. “Yes,” is her admirably candid response. Last year, she reports, she had a go on LMFAO; this year she’s hoping for Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber.

Next I visit the press room, where winners will go after they’ve been on stage. I get to hold one of the awards – a stupidly heavy solid metal globe with an MTV logo attached on a boingy spring. When I ask someone from the press office to officially confirm whether the award is the weight of a decent marrow, she says “no”. “Watermelon,” she decides, and that is that.

Though the show is planned and scripted to the second, there’s still the element of uncertainty over unpredictable behaviour from pop star attendees. Obviously, awards organisers often hope that nothing goes wrong, while also hoping that something goes just wrong enough to generate headlines. I ask MTV PR bigwig Matt Baker what would be so bad as to require an apology. “As we’re in Italy, something like ‘Fuck the Pope’ or ‘The Pope’s a wanker’,” he decides. “I suppose we’d have to do some sort of on-air apology. But haven’t things moved on from ‘Fuck the Pope’ now? People can communicate with their audience directly using social media, they don’t need to make political statements on TV.” But surely they want some sort of talking point, right? “Of course – if the shows don’t have a talking point, you feel you’ve missed out. But I’d be hoping for a grade or two below ‘Fuck the Pope’.”

‘The Birth of Goulding’ – Ellie Goulding emerges from mirrors at the EMAs.
‘The Birth of Goulding’ – Ellie Goulding emerges from mirrors during her performance. Photograph: Dave Hogan/MTV 2015/Getty Images for MTV

By early evening, a cab’s whisking me to join 99 other journalists at what’s billed as “2015 MTV EMA Media Welcome Cocktails”. In reality, it’s a chance to consume orange booze and canapés in the basement of an underwear shop. I arrive just in time to see Charli XCX leave. “This is the weirdest party I’ve ever been to,” one journalist announces.

I meet Adam Egan, a producer at Associated Press. This is his eighth EMAs. “To be brutally honest,” he says, “they all meld into each other.” In the early days he’d edit footage on tape, advance book a satellite feed at vast cost, then take tapes to a satellite truck to feed out their material; nowadays it just gets whacked on the internet. I ask Adam what would make a good story tomorrow night. “Our clients would go nuts,” he says, “if Justin Bieber did something outrageous or snogged somebody on stage.”

A chap from the Sun, meanwhile, has high hopes for Derulo’s Swegway set-piece. “I hope he falls,” he says bluntly. “Fingers crossed!”

When the booze runs out at the knicker shop, it’s over to Piazza del Duomo, where British superstar Ellie Goulding, Italian superstar Marco Mengoni and Rio superstars Duran Duran are performing. Before she goes on stage, I ask Goulding what she’s doing on the show. “I come out of the middle of lots of broken mirrors,” she declares. Are you being birthed? “Yes!” Like Geri Halliwell coming out from legs at the Brits? “Yes, but I mean, not in the same way. Basically no.”

Jason Derulo safe on land.
Jason Derulo safe on land. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

“I think they’re a good award to win,” Ellie decides when I ask if the EMAs are actually any good. “I think they are. MTV, right? That’s pretty … Big? Yeah. I’m just not very good at awards dos – I get nervous. I looked awful at my first Brits, my hair was five colours. I don’t know how that happened. I was pretending to be cool but actually I didn’t know what I was doing.”

The open-air show takes place by a cathedral and before an imposing statue of King Victor Emmanuel II. Sadly, by now the complimentary drinks have taken their toll. The next day, when I examine the notes made during Duran Duran’s set, the only legible words are: “Imagine how amazing it must be to be Simon Le Bon.”

Back at the arena on show day, I decide that having received their massages and drunk their cocktails, it’s time to give something back, so I ask Zoe Holborough, who describes herself as the event’s “kind of head of wardrobe”, if I can do any ironing. I’m handed a white shirt Ed Sheeran will be wearing on stage tonight: a slim-fit job, with a 16.5-inch collar. I set about ironing it and start with the collar, and the result meets the approval of the wardrobe people. At one point Holborough looks me up and down. “If you had dodgy shoes on we wouldn’t be letting you do this,” she says. “You could be in Jason Derulo’s dance gang.” For a split second I feel immortal.

Later, I tell the founder of something called Red Carpet Magazine (it’s a website) that I ironed Ed Sheeran’s shirt, and he looks troubled. “Did you get the iron spec?” he immediately says. “I hope you ironed it right. Everyone has an iron spec. Listen to me – I started out life as a lawyer. If I was Ed’s lawyer, I’d have the spec in the contract.”

But the show’s due to start soon and there’s no time to ponder Ed Sheeran’s potential ironing clauses. For the red carpet, MTV has decided to let me pretend to be a photographer, which means the opportunity – all too rare in the music industry – to stand with some shouting men in their late 40s. US girl band Fifth Harmony kick things off, appearing on the red carpet to perform trumpet-bothering semi-megahit Worth It as they strut to a stage at the other end of the carpet, which is certainly one way to ensure you don’t have to stop and talk to Capital FM.

Pharrell Williams takes to the stage.
Pharrell Williams takes to the stage. Photograph: LaurentVu/SIPA/REX Shutterstock

Speaking of Capital, earlier this week Justin Bieber told one of the station’s reporters that these days the good thing about being Justin Bieber is that he gets to wear what he likes to award dos, and when he arrives on the red carpet it’s immediately clear that he’s using this freedom wisely, having come dressed head to toe in red. His red tracksuit and red T-shirt mean that he’s doing the red carpet literally dressed as a red carpet – a camouflage so effective that, from a certain angle, it briefly seems as if Justin has sent only his head to attend the show.

I take my seat half an hour before show time. The audience is already in place, cheering as nominees flash up on big screens. There’s a big cheer for Rihanna, then a bigger cheer for Taylor Swift, and an ear-splitting cheer for Ed Sheeran. Then literally nothing – not one scream (and I know you think I’m exaggerating here for comic effect, but I’m not because this makes me sad) – for Jason Derulo. Wait until they see the Swegway, I think. That’ll change their minds.

The awards show whizzes past. Bieber wins virtually everything. During the hosts’ rather stale skits, it becomes clear that Ed Sheeran’s a better actor than Ruby Rose, which may come as little surprise to anyone who watched the last season of Orange is the New Black. Ed also sports an exquisitely ironed white shirt, Tinie Tempah appears with two models, Novak Djokovic tells the crowd: “You’re probably wondering why a tennis player is at a music event – well, I’m here to celebrate the world of music,” and Duran Duran pick up their Video Visionary award. “When we started there was us and MTV,” Simon Le Bon tells the audience in one of tonight’s few moments of genuine emotion. “And we blazed a trail, and we were there for each other.” James Bay performs with computer graphics evidently conjured on an Amiga 500; big stars such as Taylor and Rihanna don’t even bother doing video messages for their wins. Jason Derulo’s Swegway performance is – as hoped – epoch-defining.

Duran Duran, winners of the Video Visionary award.
Duran Duran, winners of the Video Visionary award. Photograph: Dave Hogan/Getty Images for MTV

Near the end I nip backstage to see Pharrell Williams and his dancers huddle, heads bowed, in a circle, for either a pre-performance group prayer or the search for a missing contact lens. Either way, it’s successful: they give each other a round of applause and run on stage to close the show with Freedom, whose intro Pharrell changes to include a chant of “Let them in”. It’s not exactly “the Pope’s a wanker” but it’s the nearest we’ll get tonight to a political message, even if it later transpires that it’s all approved – it partnered with Unicef for MTV Freedom, which is aimed at raising awareness and cash for the refugee crisis.

With the show over, I head backstage and end up in conversation with James Bay. I ask him what benefit there is to playing the EMAs, hoping that he’ll say something along the lines of: “I’d hope to see a reasonable sales uplift, combined with a boost to my own personal profile that will in turn increase my earning ability in the realm of sponsorships, endorsements and the myriad ancillary income streams available and necessary in the modern music world, thus more than justifying the expense of staging the performance.” Instead, I get: “It was all live. I just wanna play all live. When I saw Foo Fighters at Radio 1’s Big Weekend ...”

Bay with Robinson.
Bay with Robinson. Photograph: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for MTV

And well, readers, it goes on. He talks about musicianship a bit. But this is not the time nor the place to talk about musicianship, so I ask if it’s true that he has a special flight case just for his hats. “It’s not a flight case as such,” he says, which is one of the various ways one might phrase the word “yes”. “There is a case. It’s kind of dome shaped. People say: what’s that? I say it’s my pet turtle. When I’m on planes, the stewardesses ask how I got a turtle on the plane.”

With no shortage of music awards shows, I ask Bay which would be the best one to win, and he invents one. “I’d like to win nicest guy award,” he decides. Clearly a genuinely nice guy would not seek to win such an award, a logic vortex that threatens to consume Bay, me and the rest of the stadium – but, before this happens, I take a short walk to the official VIP after-party where the booze is free, the dance music is generic and the attendees are totally leathered. This seems like precisely the sort of party I’d avoid if I were a pop star so, as it becomes clear that my dreams of meeting Jason Derulo will come to nothing, I call it a night.

On the way out I notice an illuminated billboard advertising a musical version of Pinocchio, which will be at the Mediolanum Forum later this year. If they promise to do Hi Diddle Dee Dee on Swegways, I’ll be straight back on a flight to Milan.


Peter Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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