Appropriately, after spending two-and-a-half hours watching America’s Most Valuable Theater Kids give disinterested reaction shots, the main thought running through my head as I tried to get to sleep after the 2018 VMAs was a quote from Les Miserables. “Something more terrible than a hell where one suffers may be imagined,” Victor Hugo writes, as a means of introducing one of the depressingly symmetrical boulevards that the novel calls home. “And that is a hell where one is bored.” This, it seems, was the bargain that MTV made with this year’s show. They traded the frenetic incomprehensibility of recent installments of the show—the bedazzled vomitus of the stage design, the dumbass jokes about hashtags, the Katy Perry-ness of it all—for something worse: a tight, clean, and spotless production.
The best way to watch the VMAs is not at all. The second best way is like you might watch a NASCAR race, or professional wrestling, which is to say, through your fingers, half-hoping for the catastrophes and car wrecks those sports hints at, like a Kanye bid for presidency, or someone yelling at Miley Cyrus. Those are the small wins you get at award shows these days. The best you can hope for are brief deviations from the teleprompter—or in the case of Perry’s absurd attempt at hosting last year, just having the writing be some mystifying anti-humor performance to begin with. Unfortunately, no such luck this year, though the table was more or less set for shenanigans, thanks to the twists and turns of Nicki Minaj’s album rollout. Allow me to get in the weeds here for a second.
Over the weekend, Minaj saw the projections that Queen would debut at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, with Travis Scott’s Astroworld taking a second week atop the charts. At some point thereafter, she fired off a few tweets complaining that Scott had unfairly leveraged clothing sales and his access to the Jenner media empire to sell tickets to his shows—and therefore copies of his record. (It should be noted however, that Minaj engaged in some of the same chart chicanery, packaging her album with t-shirts and adding “FEFE” her noxious and massively popular teamup with 6ix9ine to the record on streaming services in the middle of the week.)
Putting aside the strangeness of the world’s biggest stars arguing about...internet marketing I guess?...the climatic conclusion was set to take place at the VMAs. TMZ reported that Scott and Kylie Jenner were set to sit directly behind Minaj for the show, but given that this is run by a company with a long history of kowtowing to the wills of the remaining A-Listers who have any affection for their flagship enterprise, that of course did not come to pass. A potentially moment was foiled, the long story of which I relate, not because it’s particularly interesting, but because the show itself wasn’t. It could have used any moments of conflict, daring, or just any sign that MTV was willing to take some risks to make anything happen.
Instead, there was nothing. Following on Perry’s hosting, it was perhaps smart to try something different, but the VMAs offered more anecdotal evidence toward my pet theory that a bad host is still better than no hosts. The show opened—as advertised—with Cardi B, but in a bit of a bait-and-switch, she wasn’t performing, just holding a moonperson wrapped in a baby blanket. Cute, I guess? I’m not sure what that emotion that reveal was supposed to provoke, save for the dawning disappointment that, no, she would not be bringing out Bad Bunny and starting the show with a jolt or whatever. This was more or less the mode the show adopted for the night, talented and funny people coming on stage to...sorta mumble some shit about the VMAs and then wander back offstage.
You could call it anti-climactic, but for that to be true, there’d have to be a sense that there was any sort of dramatic moment being built to to begin with. Instead, stuff just sort of happened. If you sat through the preshow and the main event, you caught two whole performances from Bazzi, a sentient New Music Friday playlist with a disappointing mustache. The closing performance was a collaboration between Post Malone, 21 Savage, and Aerosmith, a triumph for dirtbags everywhere, but still what the hell?
All of this is talking around the central problem the VMAs are facing, an existential threat to all music award shows in recent years: it’s hard to make memorable moments if no one shows up. It’s hard to have a compelling celebration of popular music if it’s missing all of it’s main movers and shakers. Neither Jay or former Video Vanguard winner Beyoncé showed (despite the fact that they were nominated for multiple awards), nor Drake (who also had a handful of noms) nor did Childish Gambino (who nevertheless took home a trophy for Best Video With a Social Message), nor Frank (of course), nor Rihanna (also a Vanguard winner, off living her best life, as ever), nor basically anyone without something to promote at this exact moment. Travis Scott, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj all performed, but they all released albums in the last three weeks. It’s hard to imagine that any of them would have been there otherwise.
There was a small handful of Real Moments, so let’s run through those real quick, I promise it won’t take long. Camila Cabello, architect of the year’s best pop record, garnered both the awards for Video of the Year and Artist of the Year, which felt surprising. Grande did her broken-glowsticks ballad “God Is a woman” on a set meant to recall both the Last Supper and the Greek Pantheon, which was kinda sick. Maluma looked very happy and pretty as he sang “Felices Los 4,” not my favorite of his many hits, but still a ray of sunshine amid the beige proceedings. J-Lo offered a largely competent medley of her best known and collected the Video Vanguard award. Nicki performed in the Oculus, which you have to imagine was annoying for commuters. In the midst of some lovely iTunes Visualizer-grade video accompaniment, Travis Scott brought out James Blake, who is somehow always able to maintain proximity to very famous people. He must be really talented or something. Also Cardi B called someone a bitch in an acceptance speech.
We definitely could have used more of that, and less of stuff like G-Eazy bringing up the time he tried to forcibly kiss Britney Spears and Nicki inventing something called the “Cocksucker of the Year Award.” Madonna showed up in that ill-advised berber getup she’s been doing lately to pay tribute to Aretha Franklin with a speech that was actually kinda just a Madonna origin story, which is on brand even if it still was really painful to watch. Those moments were were bad. And yet, all that above stuff was spaced out across the broadcast, which ran for north of 150 minutes, meaning that there was a lot of time to meander between all that stuff with lots of talking from, like, Rita Ora and Bebe Rexha, and a Panic! At the Disco performance for some reason? And I must note again, MTV somehow decided to use a set from Post Malone and Aerosmith as a digestif, which is kinda like closing a greasy, unfulfilling meal with a shot of vape juice.
And yet, despite this paucity of like, actual entertainment, this VMAs experience was the most navelgazey of any I can remember in recent memory. Last year’s attempts at engaging with the confusing state of the world were ill-executed to say the least—they probably needn’t have enlisted a distant relative of Robert E. Lee to apologize for white supremacy, for example—it was still interesting to see a pop awards show acknowledge the context in which the records and videos it was celebrating were made.
Monday night offered little of the sort, centering all the drama inside the Radio City Music Hall. Even the jokes told by the comedians MTV could corral—Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Ken Jeong, and Anna Kendrick—were almost entirely at the expense of attendees. There was a bit about the Rockettes, who if I understand correctly, are stored somewhere on the Radio City premises until they’re dusted off each year for their Christmas expo. That cloistered focus could have worked if the VMAs could still offer effective escapism. We’re all looking for something to turn our brains off with, a desire that MTV’s garish monomaniacal focus on celebrity culture could easily sate—if they still had access to celebrity talent. Instead, they only had empty gestures, the performance of an award show without any of the action. And so in boredom, I found myself drifting away from the broadcast, back to the world outside, where everything is worse, but at least it’s worth thinking about.
Colin Joyce is mad on Twitter.