Let’s just get it out of the way right up front: yes, Miley Cyrus slapped a twerking little person’s butt as she sang into a banana-shaped microphone while wearing a see-through white top and what looked like black masking tape pasties as diminutive dancers dressed as mushrooms, flowers and rainbows gyrated woozily like drunk Super Mario Brothers characters in a display of knowing kitsch or winking satire or unintentional career self-immolation that was simultaneously child-like and carnal, like an episode of “Sesame Street” directed by Paul Verhoeven.
Now, take a deep breath.
It’ll come in handy.
Ms. Cyrus tried so hard to shock and awe with her 10-minute, three-song performance during the second night of the iHeartRadio Music Festival Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden that she must have left the venue with sprained fingers from trying to push so many buttons at once.
She succeeded in conjuring a mushroom cloud of condemnation from many of the female audience members — at the least the ones seated around this reporter — and putting Twitter in a headlock for a day.
Even so, Cyrus was one-upped a mere two hours later by another blonde would-be provocateur.
Wearing a high-cut one-piece bodysuit, legs spread so wide that her feet looked to be planted in different counties, Ke$ha delighted in a kind of hip-pop-meets-hair-metal hedonism.
She chugged beer, spat whip cream on the crowd and herself and then invited a dude in the audience lick it off her face, traded verses with Joan Jett on Jett’s “Bad Reputation” and rap-sang about brushing her teeth with whiskey.
Her dumb, deliriously fun set ended in absolute chaos, a grand, purposeful train wreck with dancers dressed as tigers and chickens dry humping legs as Ke$ha headbanged and flung herself about the stage before eventually swaggering off, microphone tossed aside like one of the boy toys who populate her tunes.
The crowd loved it, the difference being self-awareness (Ke$ha doesn’t seem to be trying as hard as Cyrus to provoke — or trying all that hard at anything, for that matter) and context (Ke$ha came to fame as a debauched twenty-something; Cyrus broke out as a squeaky clean pre-teen Disney Channel star).
The evening’s headliner, Justin Timberlake, knows something about transitioning from child star to teen heartthrob to successful adult, respected for his craft.
As such, he seemed to be in Cyrus’ corner, chanting “Miley! Miley!” briefly during a set opening “SexyBack.”
Timberlake turned in a command performance, leading an 11-piece band and a quartet of backup singers as they teased the longing out of falsetto soul come-on “My Love,” turned “Cry Me a River” into a curled-lip snarl with a fiery guitar solo, debuted new song “TKO” with some James Brown-style exhortations from Timberlake and stoked “Mirrors” into an exultant, gospel-like sing-along.
Through it all, Timberlake remained a disarming presence, a guy who seems permanently at ease with himself.
The male ego, in its various incarnations, dominated much of the evening.
There was the confident, yet charming poise of pheromonal R&B Casanovas Bruno Mars and Miguel.
There was the cocksure, chip-on-the-shoulder strut of self-professed country bad boy Tim McGraw and defensive rapper Drake, whose too short, potent set was driven by the tension inherent in a supremely talented artist trying to direct those talents at something other than his own base impulses, which still tend to dictate much of Drake’s lyrical content.
And then, straining credulity, there was 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto, whose band slowed time with a haughty, supremely pretentious, U2-aping performance.
“You guys don’t mind if a rock band plays you a song do you?” Leto asked with unintentionally comedic indignation toward the end of the band’s set.
A far better rock band, the dance floor-minded Phoenix, would perform later to a far less impassioned response from the crowd, though the group pressed forward admirably with buoyant, baroque pop built of understated guitar lines, soft-scrubbed synth and candy-coated melodies.
Finally, there was the man who began the show where others might end, Paul McCartney, who can sell-out stadiums, but became an opening act on this night.
He focused mainly on his forthcoming album, “New,” due in October, performing four songs off the record, in between Beatles’ standards “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Lady Madonna” and Wings’ “Let Me Roll With It,” which ended with the band jamming on Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady.”
The “New” tunes ranged from the sprightly piano pop of the album’s title track to acoustic plea for togetherness “Everybody Out There,” though when the crowd began to grow restless over the lack of old favorites, McCartney powered into a grandiose, growling “Live and Let Die,” which ended in a massive pyrotechnics display.
The air became thick with the scent of sulfur afterwards, the pungent aroma of spent fireworks.
It smelled like victory.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.