Kendrick Lamar running around a fiery stage. Lorde, flailing around for some reason. A cameo by Kevin Bacon. These were just a few of the moments that made up Sunday’s downright bizarre but culturally vibrant Video Music Awards. Most notably (yes, even more notable than Bacon), is that it was a ceremony that saw Kendrick Lamar win a total of six Moonpeople, including for Video of the Year, after the Grammys failed to deliver him its biggest honor, Album of the Year, in 2016 and 2014. That keen but rightful decision on behalf of MTV, along with a myriad others, could serve as proof that the VMAs actually value its reputation as an award show with a finger on the modern cultural zeitgeist—for better or for worse. The only problem could be the zeitgeist itself.
It seems making fun of the actual show has become an annual bloodsport—from how it rarely lives up to its own hype (couldn’t we get one artist to lose their mind on stage a la Kanye?) to the performances that fall flat (Ed Sheeran, my man, we’ve heard “Shape of You” approximately 10 million times) to its curious choice of hosts (it’s hard enough for an actual comedian to be funny hosting, never mind a pop star)—the Video Music Awards have successfully remained a part of the American conversation every year since its inaugural broadcast in September 1984.
Back then, MTV booked the then-red-hot power duo of Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler as MCs and Madonna opened the show with “Like a Virgin,” a now iconic performance. Herbie Hancock, fresh off the success of his quirky instrumental “Rockit,” and Michael Jackson took home the night’s biggest awards. Despite airing on a network that was merely three-years-old, MTV somehow managed to wrangle some of the biggest stars of the day. Today, the network continues that draw, although it has moved on to investing in star power based on streaming, YouTube views and Twitter followers versus actual album sales. To criticize the show for spotlighting younger unknowns, however, is to criticize Snapchat only because you don’t understand how it works. This is the future, and MTV is here to show you.
To succeed in that, the show has constantly attempted to reinvent itself, from how it unfurls to the artists it nominates to where it doles out the awards (the show relocated to Miami for two years, mind you). This year, Pink and Logic delivered the two best acceptance speeches of the night, yet few would have predicted that and even fewer were thrilled with Pink receiving the Video Vanguard award. Today, a google search for “Pink’s VMA speech” produces 700,000 search results and has every outlet heralding it as the night’s best moment. The Video Music Awards’ penchant for the unexpected is why the show manages to remain on the cutting edge of conversation, even if it loses balance while doing so. For every Pink speech, there’s an ill-fated skit centered on dressing up an artist as an astronaut—but can you even name a notable speech from the Billboard or American Music Awards?
Beyoncé lost Album of the Year three times—and once to Beck. Imagine that happening at the Video Music Awards.
That revitalization is also apparent in MTV capitalizing on the civil rights issues sweeping the nation and renaming the Moonman as Moonperson. In addition, the network gathered transgender members of the military this year in response to President Donald Trump’s Twitter-induced ban. In a time when every award show feels political, these are not necessarily revolutionary moments, but rather proof that the show exists in tandem with the outside world, as opposed to the Grammys, which resorts to favoring industry veterans and milquetoast acts over emerging, controversial artists. For example, in the Grammys’s Album of the Year category, U2 has beat Kanye West, Dixie Chicks has edged out Gnarls Barkley and Mumford & Sons has bested Frank Ocean. Beyoncé has lost album of the year three times—once to Beck! Imagine any of that happening at the Video Music Awards.
Of course, because of how the MTV plans its program around the buy-ins of record labels, the nominees themselves are always a who’s who of acts defining this year’s sonic culture—not last year’s. Because of the Recording Academy’s odd window for eligability, music created in 2017 may not be rewarded until 2019. While that doesn’t make the nominess less worthy, it does prevent the Grammys from feeling aggressive, fresh and young. While this year’s Grammys nominated Sturgill Simpson, a talented artist but not technically one who’s defining the landscape, for Album of the Year, it passed over Rihanna’s ANTI, whose “Work” was the anthem of 2016.
This year’s Video of the Year winner and the best rapper in the genre, Lamar famously lost the Grammy for Best New Artist to Macklemore, an egregious mistake that even the “Thrift Shop” rapper found outrageous. In comparison, this year’s Best New Artist nominees ranged from Julia Michaels, the acclaimed singer-songwriter who’s just getting traction on the radio, to eventual winner Khalid, a breakout star thanks to his sultry smash “Location.” By comparison, in December, the Grammys repeated their Macklemore-themed error by deeming the Chainsmokers worthy of a nomination for Best New Artist over Troye Sivan and Desiigner. That’s right: the Chainsmokers qualified as a new artist—and one of the year’s best—two years after releasing their viral “#Selfie.”
Another tool in the VMA’s chest of relevancy is its aura of hype. The show has been known to be pulled together at the last minute to stay on top of what’s hot right now. This year, excitement around the debut of Taylor Swift’s latest music video for her just-dropped single increased pre-show chatter; the video went on to break a streaming record. There’s also the show’s keen eye for creating show-stopping moments, from Beyoncé’s string of tour de force performances, including her 15-minute set at the 2014 show, or the then-unfamiliar Lady Gaga’s grand debut in 2009, when she theatrically performed “Paparazzi.” That leads to perhaps the most important facet of all: the shock factor of its performances, an aspect many awards show try to replicate and subsequently fall flat. Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor’s awkward kiss at the American Music Awards was an obvious nod, and pale comparison, to Madonna and Britney Spears’ memorable VMA smooch 14 long years ago. People talked about Miley Cyrus’s performance with Robin Thicke for months after.
Leading into the latter half 2017, many of the nominess, like Julia Michaels and Khalid, are already becoming more famous one day after their VMA debuts. In Michaels’s case, it’s because MTV cut off her performance and enraged viewers doing so, but again, for better or for worse. The irony of the VMAs is that at its best, it’s a thrilling event and at it’s worst, a disaster. But that’s better than being boring or out of touch. With Lamar’s huge night, the VMAs validated its relevancy. The only thing to do now is wait and see if the Grammys finally wise up and reward Lamar’s DAMN. Album of the Year—but we’ll be waiting another six months, at which point the music landscape will sound completely different once again.