For over 30 years MTV’s Video Music Award show has collected the biggest acts in pop, rock, and hip-hop into the same room to celebrate their accomplishments and rib their differences, but it’s more than just your average award show. It’s about flash and spectacle, and ever since Madonna rolled across that stage in a wedding dress in 1984’s inaugural show, the VMA ceremony has been engaged in a constant struggle to top itself. Will anyone beat Kurt Cobain baiting Guns N Roses’ Axl Rose on stage after a snub behind-the-scenes in 1992? Courtney Love throwing her compact at Madonna during a pre-show interview in 1995? Diddy bringing out Sting to help eulogize Biggie in 1997? Diana Ross jiggling Lil Kim’s boob in 1999? Madonna kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in 2003? Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift in 2009?
In recent years the show’s controversies, Mr. West’s Hennessy-fueled gaffe notwithstanding, have felt jerry rigged by a guiding hand, brimming with overarching intent where the quiet magnetism of celebrity ought to have sufficed. That’s how we arrive at spectacles like the 2013 show’s tandem Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus performance of “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines,” roundly and in retrospect, somewhat unfairly reviled for (scare quotes) hypersexuality and promoting promiscuity. The Miley/Robin debacle was the VMAs’ dogged quest for headlines caving in on itself, but the alternative, the following year’s comparatively scaled back festivities, didn’t fare much better. Viewership dipped by a fifth from the 2013 to the 2014 ceremony; the latter is remembered for a nearly 20-minute Beyonce Video Vanguard praise service, a Nicki Minaj wardrobe malfunction, and precious little else.Continued below.It was a very VMA thing to do to call Miley back to host this year. She perfectly embodies the show’s axis of intrigue, the blend of unassailable talent and questionable taste that keeps the lot of us from switching the thing off for good. She’s outspoken, free-spirited, and just a few degrees removed from the Disney circuit, and all of this makes her a natural lightning rod for controversy. (See: earlier in the week when she came after Nicki Minaj for maybe suggesting she doesn’t deserve her moonmen and complained that Kendrick Lamar enjoys a sexist double standard when he raps about LSD… when he doesn’t have any songs about the stuff.) When she’s switched on, Miley gives herself completely to the creation of memorable moments. When she’s not going over as swimmingly as she wants, she’s exasperating.
Last night Miley bombed. Her skits never landed, her monologues were clunky, and her outfits poorly mimicked vaporwave collage art. In her stream of melting rainbow get-ups and cartoon hyperreality, we got try hard Miley. Every joke was beat to death; every skit was stretched past the edges of its usefulness. A marginally funny one began as a charming riff with Snoop Dogg about laced brownies and ended with a rapping pig and a grandmother baking with heat vision. The most affecting moment came at the end of the show, when members of Miley’s Happy Hippie Foundation for homeless LGBTQ youth got up to speak, introing an unexpected performance of a new song alongside a bevy of popular drag artists (and the Flaming Lips.) It was a poignant reminder that Cyrus is still working through the baggage of being a former child star and more recently, sorting thru the kinks of being a queer artist in the public eye. It’s too bad so little of the show reflected her in her most flattering light.Elsewhere the VMAs were a stressful balancing act between cultural exchange and appropriation: Near the end of the pre-show Taylor Swift premiered the video for “Wildest Dreams,” a tale of old Hollywood on African safari that starred only white people and zoo animals but made damn sure to tell you it would generate money for the local community in a disclaimer at the end. Right afterward Nicki Minaj took the stage to perform “Trini Dem Girls” in Caribbean carnival gear, only to be joined by Taylor (after their chilly tete-a-tete over the VMA nominations a few weeks back) for an awkward, too-obvious bit of “Bad Blood.” This was followed immediately—dizzyingly—by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis showcasing their not-bad-but-soon-to-be-infernal comeback single “Downtown.” A$AP Rocky did a five-song medley with Twenty One Pilots so ill-advised, inscrutable, and riddled with mixing flubs it should never be mentioned again. Iggy Azalea made an inauspicious return rapping a verse no one could understand during a flatline dead performance of an unmemorable Demi Lovato hit. It seems her brief break from music was misspent. Macklemore, to his credit, is a better, stronger mackler than he was just a year ago: the elaborately staged “Downtown” routine gave facetime to rap legends Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel & Grandmaster Caz where before they might’ve remained tucked away in the album credits. Proofing himself against criticism by trotting out the architects was an S-class mackle.
— MTV (@MTV) August 31, 2015
“Downtown” ended up one of the most eye-catching displays of the night thanks to the sensory overload of its winding, West Side Story-influenced dance lines. (See also: the intricately choreographed jaunt thru Pharrell’s single-that-can’t-be-the-single “Freedom.”) Other performances fared better on the ears, like the Weeknd’s umpteenth televised run through “I Can’t Feel My Face” and Justin Bieber’s one-two punch of “Where Are Ü Now” and “What Do You Mean?”, but failed to make near as exciting use of the room. Bieber deserves a spirit award for pouring himself into reconnecting with fans, though. You can tell he’s really searching for redemption in a way that last year’s apology tour didn’t give off. I joked last night during the medley that it was his “Chris Brown crying singing Michael Jackson” moment, in reference to the emotional 2010 BET Awards appearance where Brown pulled off the impossible trick of winning people over after his highly publicized domestic abuse case with a spirited song and dance routine. Then Justin maybe really did cry? Thankfully, Bieb’s only coming back from some partying and localized assholery. He’ll be fine.Does he have your vote America? @kanyewest accepts the Video Vanguard award http://t.co/pyg3SBh8gq— MTV (@MTV)August 31, 2015Speaking of assholery, redemption, and the VMAs pushing narrative where chill would suffice, Taylor Swift presented Kanye West with a Video Vanguard award. After a beautiful montage of classic Kanye music video moments, Taylor recounted buying The College Dropout on iTunes as a tween (You ain’t gotta lie to kick it. You know you copped Here for the Party instead.), meeting Kanye for the first time during the 2009 VMAs incident we, for whatever reason, seem to have to talk about forever, and later becoming friends. When Taylor finished making everything about herself, we were treated to Kanye West in rare form: possibly drunk, admittedly high, and reflecting on a decade of warring with award shows. You should get comfortable somewhere and watch the whole thing in one sitting if you can; hearing Kanye speak is inspirational and watching him collect top honors from an institution whose aloofness has often annoyed him very publicly was the night’s redemptive moment of pure joy. Elect him president.
(The ceremony’s other high was Nicki Minaj dragging Miley’s entire life after last week’s slanderous New York Times interview. It’s possible that all the summer’s squabbles between Nicki, Taylor, and Miley were protracted, WWE-style promo for the main event, but Lord knows Nicki’s acceptance speech dig felt good and necessary.)Finally i got an hd version pic.twitter.com/HMq2OhXveF— MILEY WHAT'S GOOD (@kiwibtch)August 31, 2015The night’s lows frustratingly offset its fleeting, transcendent peaks, though. In a turn that mirrored the 2009 show very closely, Taylor won every award she was up for against Beyoncé, though Bey would take home some moonmen that didn’t make it on the air. How do you squeeze the incomparable Beyoncé out of the show? Same for Kendrick Lamar, who won three awards off camera but admittedly didn’t show when “Bad Blood” took the Video of the Year award. Giving “Bad Blood” the win felt right just in terms of the sheer bombast of the production, and it allowed MTV to praise Taylor without exactly snubbing Kendrick, but “Alright” would’ve been the heavier, more sentimental gesture. “Alright” did win for Best Direction (off camera, as did Flying Lotus’ Kendrick-featured “Never Catch Me” for Best Cinematography. How do you not put Flying Lotus on TV?) but lost Best Hip-Hop Video to Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” somehow and didn’t even get nominated for Best Video with a Social Message. The wins were janky in spots, as was MTV’s narrow focus on rock, rap, and pop. If there’s room in the proper show for whatever Tori Kelly does, there’s room for a Miranda Lambert or a Sam Hunt. Closing country out of MTV’s circle of cool seems imprudent in a summer where Luke Bryan can outsell the brand new Dr. Dre album. EDM barely got attention last night. The music world of the VMAs proved as frustratingly contrived as most of the show’s biggest moments.So MTV’s 2015 VMAs got back to the old tricks again, fishing for controversy where none was needed, perhaps because that is how a show like this endures in times radically changed by advances in tech. We’re in the twilight of the shared music experience, in a time where we have complete control over the music we hear at home, in the street, at work, and in cabs. Shared television experiences seem next as Netflix, DVR, and Hulu allow us to watch TV on our own time at our own pace. The 2015 ceremony represented MTV lurching toward the center of a dialogue it’s less and less a part of. The prestige it keeps, it snatches. Is there a way to keep it going without resorting to the low brow, quite frankly corny antics that beset last night’s show? Or is this thing heading the way of record stores, boomboxes, and iPods? The 90s teen in me wants to see it prosper another ten years, but the tech-spoiled brat he’s becoming doesn’t see how that’s possible.Craig Jenkins is a contributing editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.