When it comes to reflecting what’s relevant in music, MTV’s Video Music Awards have always been hit or miss. This year’s lineup of nominees appears particularly confusing. This might be because I, dear reader, am not in touch with the most mainstream lamination of popular music–Charlie Puth, Shawn Mendes, Kygo and Taboo (ft. Shailene Woodley) are not among the artists at the forefront of my radar. The Best Rock Video category is its own problem: it abandoned vitality some decades ago, and has seemingly been trapped in some sort of late-‘90s modern rock stasis ever since (this year’s nominees still include The Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Green Day and Fall Out Boy).
When I think of artists who made impressive and popular videos in the past year, the list is long: Lana Del Rey, Frank Ocean, Future, Young Thug, Haim, Solange, Tyler the Creator, Britney Spears and Tinashe, Selena Gomez, Sampha, Rae Sremmurd–even Fergie, whose “M.I.L.F. Money” video was a stunningly stupid breath of fresh air. The Weeknd, whose sleek and paradigmatic “Starboy” video surpassed 1 billion views, is nominated instead for the comparatively lackluster video for “Reminder,” as if to hammer home the obvious fact that something’s not quite right in MTV-land. With virtually no competition, Kendrick Lamar is poised to take Video of the Year for the deserving “Humble.” Go home, everybody. Show’s over.
The network has long stonewalled the press when it comes to questions of how its nominees are selected, leaving the impression that it must be a combination of corporate label interest and backroom promotional deals. “Unless they are promoting a new project, the artists will only show up if they are promised a Moon Man,” my friend, a celebrity booker, told me last week. “These things are pre-arranged ahead of time, which is why you only see one or two big stars in each category. The nominees are charted out to guarantee trophies for certain artists.”
None of this comes as a surprise. Pop music is fundamentally commercial, and major labels often barter big celebrity appearances in exchange for networks giving exposure to their less famous acts. Meanwhile, established stars like Ocean–who famously held back his acclaimed album Blond from Grammy consideration–are happy to do their own thing outside the corporate circus tent.
So why should anybody care? If we all know what time it is with MTV, what’s the problem? The issue is that these corporate relationships and behind the scenes machinations are beginning to interfere with what the VMAs are all about: celebrity drama.
More than the awards themselves, the VMA telecast represents a hallowed theater for pop star melodrama. Who can forget Madonna roiling the censors, rolling around and flashing her undergarments in a wedding dress during “Like A Virgin” in 1984? There was the time Diana Ross fondled Lil Kim’s exposed breast in 1999. In 1992, Nirvana pissed off the network by forgoing their agreed-upon “Smells Like Teen Spirit” performance, launching into “Rape Me” instead. In 2000, when Limp Bizkit beat out Rage Against The Machine for Best Rock Video, Rage’s Tim Commerford rushed the stage and climbed a piece of the set–and got arrested! There was the Britney-Madonna kiss, Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley’s kiss, and Beyoncé’s reveal—live on stage!—of her pregnancy. Lady Gaga’s meat dress, Rose McGowan’s naked dress, and Gwen Stefani’s fur bikini caused fashion mayhem. Miley’s twerk heard round the world was only a prelude to her Nicki Minaj encounter two years later–“Miley, what’s good?” became a ubiquitous pop milestone all by itself. And then, of course, there’s the ongoing saga between Taylor Swift and Kanye West, which could be the subject of its own story—and is. Thousands of them.
This year’s VMAs are poised to be the least anarchic and most boring ever.
My personal favorite VMA moment is still from 1995’s post-award show special, when Courtney Love crashed Madonna’s interview with Kurt Loder by throwing makeup at her. She then confronted Tabitha Soren about their ongoing feud, and admitted she slept with Ted Nugent before taking a pratfall. A star was born.
Alas, this year’s VMAs are poised to be the least anarchic and most boring ever. To scan the performers and nominees, it’s hard to imagine, say, Alessia Cara pulling a Fiona Apple and giving an anti-capitalist acceptance speech. Miley Cyrus is always entertaining, but her scandal-baiting days are emphatically behind her. Will Ed Sheeran storm the stage and start cursing if Lorde takes Artist of the Year? Even the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award seems to be a throwaway. Last year, we were treated to Drake confessing his love to Rihanna. The year before, Kanye West announced his candidacy for President in 2020. This year, we’ll have some sort of acrobatic performance from P!nk, of all people.
When considering some of the other options–Beyoncé giving the award to Jay-Z, Björk showing up inside of a venus fly-trap–that choice feels especially unspecial. Parsing all of the performers and nominees, a stark and unambiguous reality sinks in: if anything is going to go down at this year’s VMAs, it’s up to Katy Perry and Taylor Swift to make it happen.
Building on her Lucille Ball-inspired, screwball persona, Perry is hosting the awards this year. That should give her ample opportunity to put her foot in her mouth and cause a Twitterstorm of woke conniption hysteria. Swift, who is not confirmed to attend, is nominated for Best Collaboration Video with Zayn. Swift and Perry have been engaged in a very public on-and-off, at times one-sided feud for the past three years, since Swift reportedly wrote “Bad Blood” in response to Perry’s attempts at sabotaging her tour. Not only that, but this week, Swift announced her next LP, Reputation, with a series of computer-generated snake videos, reclaiming the emoji that millions of commenters bestowed upon her in the wake of her feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. It’s clearly (perhaps cloyingly) the latest twist in a soap opera that started on stage at the 2009 VMAs–a narrative Swift has publicly asked to “exclude” herself from.
But one thing we should know about Swift by now is that nothing she spins into the world is coincidental: she is the master of contrivance. If she decides to grace the VMA stage with some pre-rehearsed dramatic stunt, here’s hoping it yields a legitimate controversy worth tuning in for.