It’s easy to blame last night’s banal VMAs on MTV and their production crew. I mean, no offensive twerking? Surely the network has lost its touch.
But that would be too easy, and misses the entire point of the VMAs.
What makes the MTV Video Music Awards important is not its celebration of music videos (and MTV only airs videos at 6am anyway). It’s that they reflect, better than any other night on television, what is happening in popular music at the time. Despite the channel’s terrible lack of focus, MTV is still the centerpiece of pop culture, and the VMAs is its end-of-year presentation (yeah, it’s on August, but whatever).
So, if the VMAs is just showing the world what is going on in pop music, doesn’t that say more about pop music than the VMAs itself?
Beyonce obviously notwithstanding, there were no real standout performances last night, and that wasn’t a surprise if you looked at the setlist beforehand. Prior to the finale, the most exciting display was put on by the combined forces of Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj, performing their latest singles “Bang Bang”, “Break Free” and “Anaconda”. The closest thing to a “wow” moment was Nicki’s unzipped dress (and Rita Ora’s shocked face as Nicki twerked through “Anaconda”). After that, it was a collective display of milquetoast pop. Taylor Swift proved just how inconsequential her new pop sound is, Sam Smith provided an Adele moment, Iggy Azalea made us wonder why she chose “Black Widow” as a “Fancy” followup, and MTV didn’t convince us why 5 Seconds of Summer wasn’t relegated to the pre-show in lieu of Charli XCX. The worst performance of the night easily belonged to Usher, who reminded everyone just how far he has fallen as a performer, especially since he belongs to the same guard as Beyonce and Justin Timberlake (there’s also that bizarre head-smashing into Nicki Minaj’s butt). Besides the performances, nothing really interesting happened until Miley passed her awards speech Brando-style to a homeless youth.
It’s also worth nothing who wasn’t at this year’s show. There was Gaga (she’s on tour in Australia), Britney (in Vegas), JT (avoiding being a pop star), Rihanna (somewhere not caring), even Bieber (somewhere terrorizing an unsuspecting neighborhood), all VMA stalwarts in their own rights, nowhere to be found, leaving a hilariously shady Gwen Stefani, Jennifer Lopez, and a Britney-channeling Katy Perry to bring the star power.
Doesn’t that say a lot?
It should surprise no one that the crowd went bananas went Beyonce came onstage and performed her entire album in 16 minutes. That was the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from the VMAs: explosive, or at the very least memorable. And plus, after 2 hours of blah, we deserved to scream for someone with her mega-wattage.
The VMAs is the ultimate showcase of the best of the pop world. And the pop world, once upon a time, used to deliver, whether it was Britney stripping naked, Gaga bleeding onstage, or Madonna rolling around in a wedding dress. This year, we had three relative pop newbies dance around on a branded coaster of a stage. It’s not MTV’s fault that the industry couldn’t deliver. People love to complain about people complaining about how far pop music has fallen since the 90s and early 00s, but when the VMAs is deemed boring, that’s when you really know there is a problem.
And no, not Ariana Grande’s kind.