I Still Don't Really Get What Happened at the VMAs
MTV’s 2017 show featured Miley Cyrus singing to children, a moving statement against racism from a descendent of Robert E. Lee, and Katy Perry telling jokes about Twitter. What.
Ilustración de Lia Kantrowitz/Foto de Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Since its late aughts reinvention as a hashtag-generating content machine, few television events have been as stressful to watch as the VMAs. It's not that there's ever anything particularly contentious happening—save for a handful of moments over the last half decade created at the whims of Kanye West (Marathon speeches! A Taylor Swift feud! A more-real-by-the-day bid for presidency!). The end-user experience of the whole thing has mostly just gotten exhausting. It's a blitz of performances from whatever major label A-listers have something new to sell, meta-jokes about Twitter, high-flying acrobats, and LOL-so-random-gotta-tweet-about-this cameos from Rod Stewart and some lesser Baldwins.
The long-running award show's 2017 installment was, by and large, one of the more extreme versions of this. The show was nominally hosted by Katy Perry, but it was so packed with performances and the passing of astronaut statues that it was easy to occasionally forget she was there—at least until she'd excitedly tell a bum joke about Fyre Festival during a break. At some point, Kendrick Lamar apparently took home Video of the Year and Ed Sheeran won Artist of the Year, but everything was happening so fast I honestly do not remember this. Within the first 15 minutes alone, Kendrick danced with a man on fire, Perry descended from the rafters in a glittering space suit to make jokes about fidget spinners, Ed Sheeran did an acoustic cover of "XO Tour Llif3" (with Lil Uzi Vert onstage, natch). And again, that was all during the first 15 minutes.
If this sounds like your idea of a good time, you were probably already watching, but if it doesn't, I'd probably have an easier time laying the plot events of Twin Peaks' breakneck surreality than I would listing all of what went down last night. So much happened so fast that there was barely any time to react. By the time you could get a tweet off about not knowing who Shawn Mendes is, he'd already been shuffled off the stage, presumably back to whatever Silicon Valley anti-aging lab he's kept in between gigs. I get that live television is a tough racket, and especially so for MTV, whose flagship property has been hemorrhaging viewers over the last few years. But cramming so much activity and self-consciously meme-able moments becomes anxiety-inducing at a certain point. Several times last night I had to actively remind myself to unclench my jaw. I buried my face in a pillow during one Katy Perry monologue to regulate my breathing. I stress ate four slices of pizza.
This pacing presented an especially difficult tone problem last night. Making anything celebratory, or even anything funny, in the Trump era is a tricky prospect for most people with even the slightest bit of self-awareness. How do you put on a goofy award show in the weeks following a terrorist attack motivated by white supremacy? In the days following the implementation of a military policy discriminating on the basis of gender? The day after an unprecedented natural disaster, to which the President responded "good luck"? To MTV's credit, the answer was largely to confront it head on.
Throughout the night, presenters offered messages for unifying the country, denouncing racism and bigotry. Trans people currently serving in the armed forces were given a platform to speak on the red carpet. Perry offered a call-to-action to help the people suffering in Hurricane Harvey. Logic, Khalid, and Alessia Cara gave a moving rendition of "1-800-273-8255" accompanied by an orchestra and a group of survivors of suicide attempts wearing shirts that said "You Are Not Alone." In an especially moving moment, Rev. Robert Lee IV, a descendent of the confederate general whose statue was at the heart of the violence in Charlottesville, gave a moving speech about the evils of white supremacy. He then brought on Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in Charlottesville, to announce the creation of a foundation that will provide scholarships to people passionate about social change.
Smaller moments like these punctuated the night too, Pink used her Video Vanguard award acceptance speech to relate a story of talking about gender presentation with her six-year-old daughter. Cardi B called attention to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protests ("As long as you kneel with us, we gonna be standing for you, baby.") Courtesy of Kendrick's performance, the show opened with the words "police brutality."
Along with Jared Leto's moving tribute to his late friend Chester Bennington, these bits were affecting because the show was able to slow down for a second and address the world outside the walls of venue. But unfortunately, MTV seems to be of the mind that deliberate meditation doesn't make for good television so even these segments weren't given any room to breathe. That led to a disjointedness that undercut the seriousness of some of this stuff. Heyer's mother was brought on to announce a new award regrettably called "Best Fight Against the System—and then as soon as she was offstage the show cut to Rod Stewart and a Jonas Brother singing "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" in Las Vegas (One Noisey staffer said the JoBro looked like a porn star version of Nick Cave, which feels significant somehow). Cardi B's statement launched straight into a Demi Lovato performance. Tirades against nazis were followed by "And now for Best Pop Video!"
Even Perry's hosting duties were marked by this weird thematic disjunct. She offered withering jokes about how the world's burning (true!) and also did some sort of strange pantomime around the phrase "wig snatched," as if she hadn't spent a good chunk of the press cycle around Witness literally apologizing for cultural appropriation. There's tones of insidiousness to all of this. The way it tries to slam both sides of the show together under one banner has the—likely unintended—function of turning even activism into #content. There's at least something strange about going to MTV's website and having a speech against racism being touted as a "highlight." It feels cynical, but it's also sorta sweet to see on national television, which if nothing else is a solid illustration of the weird paradoxes of attempting progress under capitalism.
What I'm still trying to figure out the morning after is what the VMAs actually are and who they are for. I can see the function of having Miley Cyrus sing to small children on tiny motorcycles and of Katy Perry dancing on top of a giant basketball. Of Travis Scott and 30 Seconds to Mars performing in front of thermal imaging cameras. Of Kendrick bringing a wall of fire. These are the sorts of moments that end up in Tumblr gifsets and make people push out auto-playing MTV embeds year after year. I also understand the importance of a cable network using their most important event of the year as a platform to discuss actual social issues. It's easy enough to see how someone who might tune in to catch the premiere of a Taylor Swift video might catch a different political viewpoint than they're used to. That's a valuable thing! But for those of us predisposed to agreeing with what political action MTV had on offer, all there is to do is cringe when they inevitably cut back from something like that to, like, Katy Perry dunking.
But though they're clearly not for me, I'm not really sure who the awards actually do serve. In the past you could take MTV to task for pandering to its audience, but in the absence of a coherent message, who exactly is being pandered to? Everyone? No one? It sorta highlights a wider confusion at MTV these days. At every commercial break, they were running ads for their deliberately nostalgic programming. A promo for their TRL reboot was soundtracked by "Hit Me Baby One More Time." A trailer for their beachside reality show Siesta Key drew connections to The Hills. If, as the network says, they're targeting a younger audience, how do reboots and formula tweaks of shows that came out in that audience's infancy serve that goal? If their answer to that problem is stuffing the VMAs with a torrent of jokes about the internet, they're vastly underestimating the intelligence of teens, and overestimating the attention span of anyone temporarily postponing their other Sunday night television obligations.
Maybe it was all the moonpeople, but as the show drew to a close I found myself thinking about part of Special Relativity that deals with time dilation. I'll spare you the details—mostly because I do not understand them—but the general gist is that the faster something moves, the slower time moves. Theoretically, then, if the VMAs move at a fast enough clip, time could virtually stand still for the rest of us—which could explain why I now feel 100 years old.