Here it was, finally, three hours into the show, almost too late but just in time: The Moment. The GIF. The Meme. “We love the woman, who hasn't changed since day one,” Drake said, prompting an appreciative dab from Rihanna, who stood onstage next to him. He upped the ante: “She's someone I've been in love with since I was 22 years old.” Rihanna eyeroll. “She's one of my best friends in the world.” Drake leaned in to present her with her Video Vanguard Award and appeared to go for a kiss. Rihanna ducked out of it.
Bam! Curve of the century! Drake's big moment, his chance to propose, his one opportunity ever to share his undying love for Rihanna, met with rejection. Take Care 2, the people mused, was already on the way. “Drake professes love for Rihanna at VMAs, everyone loses collective minds,” one headline blared. “Drake Opens Up About Relationship with Rihanna” said another. Was this real? Was Drake about to go home and cry into a pillow? Or was it simply a clever bit of stagecraft that continued the mutually beneficial branding of having Drake's Thing be an endless thirst for Rihanna? Could there be a more irrelevant question? It's the VMAs!
This kind of insta-gossip celebrity interaction is the spectacle that makes MTV's award show what it is, i.e. the fun version of the Grammys. Nobody could reliably list you past winners of the show's marquee awards—most people would probably be hard-pressed to even name what those awards are—but any casual student of pop culture knows about many of the big moments: Madonna kissing Britney, Kanye interrupting Taylor, Miley twerking. The VMAs are the single best chance an artist has to make an impression on TV, a yearly tally of the pop power rankings and barometer for the overall music celebrity climate. Superstars like Beyoncé shore up their icon status. Emergent players like Chance the Rapper (most endearing red carpet appearance) and Desiigner (most literally incomprehensible red carpet interview; best reaction shot) enter the popular consciousness. Kanye does a thing.
Last year, under the auspices of previous conversation-starter Miley Cyrus, the VMAs worked overtime to try to create the talking points. They did OK—we got “Miley, what's good” and Kanye's 2020 election bid—but the whole thing felt forced and frenetic, which is probably why this year the hosting took a weird tack toward reaction-dampening meta-commentary. Key and Peele did a recurring bit as overzealous Twitter commentators, which had a few laugh lines but mostly took the air out of the show by making fun of the very types of instant reactions—corny punchlines and all—that the VMAs need people to have in order to make those big moments happen. Backstage host Nicole Byers's breathless enthusiasm schtick had a similar effect. The less that's said about Jay Pharaoh the better.
The performance that was billed as the night's big conversation piece was the return of Britney Spears, who hadn't been part of the show in nearly a decade but who had been, for much of the 2000s, the main event. What she delivered might have flown in simpler times, but her bare-bones stage setup and slow, simplistic dance moves felt undercooked. Worst of all, as soon as she was joined by G-Eazy, the featured artist on her song “Make Me...,” she felt like a prop in his performance, even going so far as to have awkward crotch grab and an even more awkward, middle school jazz choir-style slide between his legs as he performed his hit, “Me, Myself, and I.” It was all just... fine. The highlight may have been G-Eazy's enthused smile and clever wink as he held Britney at the end: What guy his age hadn't fantasized about holding Britney Spears, he seemed to hint, a canny moment of breaking a fourth wall that during Britney's heyday tended to remain fully intact.
Not anymore. Whether it's the age of social media creating more transparency or an increased desire for artists to stand in for some larger ideology for their audiences or just fatigue from the baroque Gaga-driven days of the early 2010s, the appeal of contrived spectacle in pop music is, for the moment at least, fading. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj's performance of “Side to Side,” the most elaborately staged and whimsically choreographed of the night, fell flat. On the other end of the spectrum, Kanye West's much-ballyhooed four minutes of freedom took on a minimalist tone, as he appeared in a plain white “Famous” T-shirt and spoke quietly on an empty stage. “Tonight, we're here to have fun,” he explained, running through his various sources of drama (Taylor, Amber Rose, Ray J) in a friendly tone, without saying anything that might create a new piece of gossip. He kept the focus on the music, premiering the video to “Fade” in the environment he prefers, one where everyone is paying attention to the same artistic spectacle.
But was there any artistic moment that felt more that way than Beyoncé's performance, an arresting live medley from Lemonade that, if anything, might have been even more technically impressive than its source material? Clearly not. We didn't even know it was possible to be so arresting and forceful on live television. The Olympics may have just ended, but we'd never seen an athletic display quite like Beyoncé throwing herself at the stage. And those outfits! That choreography! The fact that there was literal fire! The growl of “Don't Hurt Yourself.” The sheer power of opening a performance with the arresting, chilling “Pray You Catch Me.” This, I suppose, was the vision of Music Television all along, finally realized in the year of our lord Beysus 2016. This was Beyoncé quite literally showing us how it was done.
One thing clear at this year's VMAs was that artists, with their devotion to aesthetic and with the vast multimedia resources directly at their disposal in today's industry, don't necessarily need TV producers or the creative vision of their labels to make a spectacle of their own. Who knows if it was a producer's idea or Rihanna's to spread her performances into four themed segments, but it certainly undercut the energy that a Vanguard performer should have had. On the other hand, those segments, particularly the one pointing to Rihanna's Bajan heritage and themed basically as West Indian Block Party but Onstage, each felt like a fully realized understanding of who she is an artist and a showcase for the breadth that makes her so much more substantial than the industry-orchestrated starlets of years past. Commercial music now hinges more than ever on who someone authentically is (draw your own conclusions as to what that might have to do with this year's show being packed full of excellent black artists). As Drake said of Rih pre-declaration of love, “what's most impressive is the person.” What's a better spectacle than that?
Kyle Kramer is a big fan of memes. Follow him on Twitter.