Presenting the tribute to Aretha Franklin last night, at the MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna, wrapped in the heritage of the Moroccan Amazigh people, eulogized herself. Over the course of five long minutes, the singer flitted between the pillars of her own musical journey, beginning with her origins—living on the third floor of a walk-up crack house in Detroit, where she was frequently mistaken for a prostitute—to the byzantine career she weaved from nothing. And briefly, as though she had just remembered there was an enormous portrait of the Queen of Soul scintillating behind her, Madonna launched into an anecdote about how her musical journey began: auditioning, for two French record producers, with Aretha Franklin’s 1967 soul anthem, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
At first, she said, the producers didn’t take her seriously. “And why would they? Some skinny ass white girl is going to come up here and belt out a song by one of the greatest soul singers that ever lived, a cappella?” she said, pausing just long enough to give the audience time to clap. The applause was for Aretha, but the presenter, alternatively invigorated, appropriated the love for herself. “I said, ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna,’” she added, for good measure, in case we hadn’t realized this moment was about her. Indeed, she had successfully gentrified the tribute.
And so in this moment, Madonna became the expression of an increasingly masturbatory Hollywood, performing a brand of solipsism that has come to define the genetic makeup of the award show economy at large—a jingoist, self-congratulatory party, which is slowly falling out of vogue.
The award show season has long been caught in this odd cultural situation. People like Madonna—or Kevin Hart, or Tiffany Haddish—are often employed to orchestrate some online buzz, which likely couldn’t be achieved without them. Over the last few years, amid an aggressively declining viewership, award shows have struggled, and ultimately failed, to arrive at a fraction of the cultural importance they once had. (There was a time when just having a nomination was enough generate more revenue.) These efforts, admittedly, have been valiant: in late June, the Recording Academy opened its “General Field” category—which includes the Record, Song, and Album of the Year awards—from five to eight nominees; last month, Sandra Oh became the first Asian woman to be nominated for an Emmy as lead actress in a drama series; and recently, the Oscars announced it would introduce some 900 new members into the Academy to diversify its voting body.
But these measures have also, on the other hand, served to affirm the presence of a widening gap between art and commerce. The two leading films at the Oscars this year, The Shape of Water (which won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, and Best Production Design) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor) were certainly not the best films in the race. The former is, at its core, a conventional romance flick—one that can just barely pass, if you squint your eyes enough, as an allegory for something else. Its situation in the 1960s (and its use of a black woman custodian as a foil character) is all that gives it any political weight. And then there is Billboards, which is—to be polite—altogether an incredibly racist film.
Yet Get Out, which was up for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay, only won the latter, predictably, in spite of its incisive and urgent cultural commentary and its general impact on the ecosystem of filmmaking. The relationship between the art itself—of film, of music, and of television—and the murky business of determining its value, has become increasingly fractured.
“Marginalized communities deserve recognition on what is considered to be the highest stage,” April Reign, the creator of the viral #OscarsSoWhite hashtag told me over the phone. “Regardless of what industry you’re in, you want to be recognized by your peers. And for better or worse, [award shows] are still seen as the pinnacle of achievement.”
More and more, people are migrating away from these legacy award shows and galvanizing around niche mediums that reflect their identities more. As ratings for live broadcasts—the Oscars, the Grammys, the Billboards—slumped dramatically this year, some reaching their worst viewerships ever, the BET awards (which exclusively celebrate black music, acting, sports, and other fields of entertainment) experienced a heady ascent in video streaming, becoming one of the top-rated and most-talked-about cable award shows of the year.
“Consumers are not going to pay attention to shows that have never represented them,” Reign said.
For the most part, award shows, as Carrie Battan wrote last year, seem to exist for the sole purpose of reinforcing antiquated ideas of what art—in an era of ultimate sociopolitical turmoil and pandemonium—is supposed to be: polite, conventional, and, most importantly, white.
What was once a lurid debutante ball is no longer the cornucopia of ambition and optimism it once was. The simulation, as they say in millennial speak, is broken. The celebrities arrive on the red carpet, swathed in black, perhaps protesting systems of exclusion or infrastructures that enable sexual assault (which is to say, they are just protesting Hollywood), and the emerging paparazzi photos could have been stolen from the archives of some funeral home, or a Black Panther Party rally. Somewhere in the mix bobs a cashmere sweater, anchored by a $380 price tag, embroidered with the phrase “Poverty Is Sexist.” It is not the program we are used to.
And of course, there are people—very important people—who are nowhere to be found. There is Spike Lee, who is, under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, boycotting the glaring whiteness of the ceremony nominees; there is Drake, or Justin Bieber, who finds the whole thing a bad metric of what’s popping, musically; there is the former US president, who is busy meditating over the meaning of equal opportunity in entertainment (there is none); and there is Frank Ocean, who understands the industry’s “nostalgic importance” but finds it misaligned with what he holds down.
And there is us, the once obsessive audience, no longer caring for Hollywood’s vanity project. We are all the R&B singer CeeLo Green, a man dipped in gold lamé, leaving the Grammys early in a drop-top convertible, with our middle fingers flapping in the wind, as if to say, “Fuck this, I’m going home!”
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