Historically, the VMAs—MTV’s annual ceremony honoring the best in music videos—has been a staging ground for the best of music. This doesn’t (of course) mean that the acts featured have been the most talented, but they’ve always been the most interesting. One hopes, for the industry’s sake, this wasn’t the case this year.
The biggest event might have been Kanye West’s receipt of a lifetime achievement award, but presenter Taylor Swift went beyond referencing old business (his interrupting her acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs) and collapsed into sheer narcissism. (Did you know Kanye’s album was the first one she bought on iTunes?) West himself delivered a stemwinder of a speech that it’s not entirely uncharitable to suggest might have been somewhat lost on his audience; it ended with his joking declaration of a presidential run in 2020 but included references to a detailed level of thought about what celebrity means and what it can do, thoughts that were absent entirely from a squeaky-clean-broadcast.
Indeed, the show’s would-be “provocative” moments felt stagey, beginning with Nicki Minaj’s welcoming Taylor Swift to the stage during the show’s opening number. Minaj and Swift had exchanged words, online, after the nominations for this ceremony came out, and their long-expected-to-the-point-of-obligatory joint performance had the voltage of an AA battery left out in the rain. Minaj’s attempt, in accepting an award, to criticize ceremony host Miley Cyrus (who’d recently said the rapper was “not very polite” in the New York Times) fell flat, mainly because Cyrus herself seemed uncharacteristically unprepared for scandal. The host wore scanty outfits, of course, but seemed afraid to respond to potentially newsmaking events around her, ignoring Minaj and talking over Justin Bieber’s teary post-performance breakdown.
This was something more than professionalism. Had Cyrus been doing what VMA hosts have historically done, she might have given Bieber the space to create a moment approaching authenticity. One might also have anticipated that an artist as well-versed in controversy as is Cyrus might have had a better response to Minaj’s criticisms than trailing off and then resuming her next canned speech. But she was on an endurance march through a ceremony that included performances by artists both little-known (Tori Kelly, Twenty One Pilots) and not particularly au courant (Pharrell Williams, Macklemore); Cyrus’s own performance, closing the show, was more of a screaming of her political philosophies more than it was a “song.” Other attempts at political statements, including actress Rebel Wilson addressing Americans’ concern with policing practices by wearing a parody cop uniform, largely felt like relics. No wonder Cyrus was surprised by a blast of something new, and why West’s speech felt like it deserved a different venue.
More than anything, the Video Music Awards revealed just how tired things are at the very top of the music industry. But for West, the biggest stars either didn’t show up (as Jay Z, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga didn’t) or indulged in weirdly self-referential divadom of interest (Cyrus’s own restating her philosophies, Swift’s squad) to very few. “I still don’t understand awards shows!” said West. Given that the final award of the night presented the latest of an infinite number of stages for Taylor Swift to show off the squad she’s built and showcased endlessly on social media, no one could blame him. (Who needs three hours of an awards show when it takes two seconds to like an Instagram post?) At their best, awards shows show us something new about celebrities; those who showed up to the VMAs continued old narratives to the point of exhaustion.