Stepping Back from the VMAs, Maybe Forever


I’ve spent all week trying to avoid finding something nice to say about this year’s VMAs.

I watched this year’s show live through the MTV app on my iPhone. By the end, I had a headache, but I couldn’t tell if it came from the small screen or the sugar high. The show was an overcaffeinated mess, drunk on its own excess and obsessed with its own artifice. There were missed cues, bum notes, off-color asides and racist undertones. What appeared spontaneous also felt calculated. What appeared calculated also felt cliched.

My first response to this cacophonous spectacle was to roll my eyes in disgust, disapproval and disappointment. Several of the artists caught in this web of public relations deception and misdirection – Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj – are among today’s most interesting and complex pop stars making hits and starting conversations. (There’s also Miley Cyrus, who is rapidly squandering my fondness for much of her last album Bangerz with her insensitivity about matters of race and her unwillingness to move past stale jokes about smoking weed and hanging out with rappers.) If they’re not immune to playing the silly games of a network desperate for ratings and eager to capitalize on legitimate industry conflicts, who is?

Likely, no one. This show is destined to remain a sleazy spectacle, more interested in dressing up ratings-grabbing stunts as spontaneous deviations from the script. Perhaps, then, it’s on me to either find a way to justify watching the VMAs as a study in the industry machinations of pop proudly on display, or stop watching them altogether.

As many observers have noted in recent weeks, spurred by comments from FX president John Landgraf at the Television Critics Association Press Tour last month, we’re in an era of Peak TV. There’s literally never a time when hundreds of brilliant shows and movies are available at my fingertips. That also means there’s literally never a time when I have an excuse to complain that there’s nothing worth watching on television, or that what’s on my television isn’t good enough. In the time I spent watching the VMAs, I could have watched three episodes of <Insert Title of Great Show Here>.

Next time, I think I will. I’ve seen enough awards shows at this point to recognize that I gain nothing from my naive expectation that the next will be more satisfying and less uncomfortable than the last. Instead of complaining that awards show suck, as I’ve been trying to do all week, I should take the next step and acknowledge that no one’s forcing me to watch them or have a take on them.

And more broadly, my decision not to watch an awards show is a drop in the bucket next to the hundreds of thinkpieces that emerged from this year’s VMAs, and will undoubtedly emerge from every subsequent awards show telecast. Hot-take culture is overbearing, and there’s something depressing about the way that awards show feed the churning cycle of Internet news. But I’m pleased that we live in an era when the thorny topics of race, class, gender and sexuality don’t go undiscussed when they’re on display in a popular setting like the VMAs. Twenty years ago, people who thought Taylor Swift needs to check her privilege, Miley Cyrus needs to watch her words, Kanye West needs to organize his and Rebel Wilson ought not to have spoken at all would have had nowhere to turn. Now they can voice their opinions into the howling void of the Internet, which might not take kindly to their criticisms but will at least let them exist.

Awards shows like the VMAs offer opportunities to reflect on the absurdities of our corporate-driven capitalistic society and the failures of the pop stars we want so badly to like, admire and respect. But they’re also driving conversations about topics of social justice and cultural authenticity. You take the good with the bad. And if I choose not to dive into that pool next year, I’ll do so with the understanding that the cycle of culture criticism whirls on.

Check back soon for my list of awards show tics of which I’ve grown weary. In the meantime, I urge you to watch Tori Kelly’s VMA performance of her song “Should’ve Been Us.” Who’s Tori Kelly, you say? She’s an artist who performed competently on the VMAs, but the buzz around Miley/Nicki, Nicki/Taylor and Taylor/Kanye utterly drowned her out.

And, for a flashback to a more innocent time, my thoughts on last year’s VMAs for The Eagle and this blog.

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