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Opinion

It's Bigger Than Madonna

Be mad at Madonna all you want, but honestly, there was no realistic situation that could have resulted in MTV properly honoring the late Aretha Franklin at the 2018 Video Music Awards, no matter who they set up to do the job. And to be precise, Madonna certainly failed, forgetting whose moment it was in one of her most tone-deaf performances in years. But in order to seriously have faith that the Queen of Soul would be honored by the Queen of Pop, at a show of which the most famous moments in recent history include Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke, and Kanye West letting Taylor Swift finish, you’d probably have to literally be a Moon Person.

It could have been something to remember, Madonna’s spoken tribute to the late Aretha Franklin. If there was a proper representative of the MTV Generation to pay respect to Aretha, it was Madge. After all, she's had at least two memorable VMAs moments, such as her legendary performance of “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural Video Music Awards of 1984, and kissing Britney Spears in front of the world just 19 years later. 

But therein lies the fallacy. There is, as we know, very little reality in today’s musical award shows. That goes from the Grammys being predictably/tragically late (shout-out to Pulitzer for doing what the Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences wouldn’t in the case of Kendrick), to Viacom’s investment in its triple threat of cultural hype machines: VH1, MTV and even BET. True creativity in music takes a very long time to be respected and rewarded when the real credit is due. And since it’s not at all like most of these artists can earn a living from their recording royalties or songwriting credits—thanks to the way record deals have been restructured after the rise of digital media, file-sharing and streaming, versus physical copies of recorded songs or albums—the new game is publicity. And nothing gets publicity like awards—except maybe jail. And hey, recording artists, avoid jail if you can.

When it comes to the VMAs, MTV seems to be only good at making itself seem both old and crusty, while simultaneously young and stupid. The industry is sleeping at the mixing console—woke on Ambien. Geeked on peer pressure, and so afraid to challenge the status quo that it can’t do the dirty work of deciding who really deserves to be recognized. Take, for example, Chloe x Halle, a duo of African-American sisters from Atlanta, whose nomination felt like nothing more than token appreciation for qualifying. Never mind they’re backed by Beyoncé, who walked away with several awards as part of the Carters. The point is that Chloe x Halle haven’t fully given themselves to the machine, and are holding onto the same sense of self that keeps artists like H.E.R., SZA and KING from being recognized in front of the wide American pop audience. Maybe that’s got something to do with why these highly talented, young, black and gifted female recording acts employ all-caps styling in their names. R.E.S.P.E.C.T., maybe, by any means necessary.

Most award shows are only diverse enough to know who the cool black artists are, but never quite enough to acknowledge the true artistry that comes from the struggle that steam-powers the sound they create. And maybe everyone should stop waiting around for it to happen in a medium that seems to outright reject the opportunity, whether with rewards or through tributes for those who aren't even alive to perform and push the bullshit off the stage.

What was new was the chance for Madonna—and MTV—to make the VMAs feel like an awards show that actually gave a shit.

It’s nothing new. But what was new was the chance for Madonna—and MTV, plus Viacom at large—to make the VMAs feel like an awards show that actually gave a shit. They had enough time to do something classy, but instead they threw up a predictably placating appearance and false-appreciation speech from Madonna, who—it seems from what we all saw—feels threatened by the fact that she is not, in fact, immortal. And MTV may not know what to do with itself without Madonna around, which is perhaps why she was their go-to female legend for the occasion of an Aretha Franklin “tribute.” And it’s not like these kids really even know why they should care about Madonna.

Ultimately, the 2018 VMAs showed that they, like all other pompous, circumstantially relevant award-giving associations, receive limited (if any) input from the true musical creative class. And through their failure, and Madonna’s, they teach youth culture how to be all about the look, and less about the actual art, which is kind of what most music videos do anyway.

And really, this isn’t about knocking Madonna as much as it is about hoping we all eventually turn our Miles Davis backs on the entire spectacle of what the VMAs is. The whole thing is selfie-culture and popularity worship, which has been given premium placement above cultural relevance and the actual meaning of the art behind the entertainment. Oh, not to mention the actual entertainer we've come to celebrate.

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