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In 2008 I was assigned by a prominent music magazine to cover the MTV Video Music Awards for its blog. That might sound like torture to some people, but I eagerly accepted. I needed the money (probably the biggest reason), but I was also curious to witness the state of the delightfully obnoxious awards show. At one point in time, I'd seen the VMAs as an edgier, irreverent alternative to the likes of the Oscars and the Grammys, dragged-out black-tie affairs with schmaltzy, dull interludes and monologues stringing together presentations of prizes to predictable winners. The VMAs didn't quite buck the format of conventional awards shows—there were still musical interludes and monologues and a red carpet—but they were hardly dull or predictable. And by loading up on performances, ignoring any sense of a dress code, and avoiding all sense of propriety, the VMAs often felt more like a music festival than an awards show. So I looked forward to catching up with the VMAs after missing them for a few years.
Though I was only in my mid-20s, I expected to be a little out of touch with what teenagers were into circa 2008, but I was nevertheless hugely disappointed by what I saw. Russell Brand hosted and performed an opening monologue that was remarkable for how unfunny it was. The musical performances, except for a not-bad premiere of "Love Lockdown" by Kanye West, weren't just boring but awful. Like "none of these people can actually sing" awful (e.g., Rihanna). Sure enough, most recaps of the VMAs viciously criticized it as a lame, stale edition of the onetime kind-of-cool spectacle. My favorite review was by current Gawker writer Rich Juzwiak, who wrote, "Worst VMAs ever! Every year I say it because every year it's true. But this year it was especially true . . . The effort to streamline and present something dynamic was evident throughout, especially in many of the performances, whose film-set-integrating set-ups were inevitably more complex than the actual songs being performed." The post was headlined "Clearly, we've learned nothing."
Well, it's 2014, and clearly we've learned nothing. Rewatching performances from Sunday night, the VMAs feel more like a staged, dressed-up awards show than ever before. At one point in time people wore clothes out of dollar bins and over-the-top costumes, but more and more of the show's stars wear formalwear and designer gowns. Granted, Beyonce had an earth-shattering performance last night—and she deserved to be so prominently featured, since the abundance of adventurous music videos she produced in conjunction with her recent self-titled album make her the most important music-video advocate today—but the performances leading up to it were a slog. There was a numbingly unsexy medley by Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Jessie J before Grammy-formula appearances by Usher and Taylor Swift (Swift's video is naturally sponsored by her line of fragrances).
Why do the VMAs persevere, and why doesn't MTV just let them die already?
Part of the reason might be that the VMAs can still be good for the occasional provocative moment. Since 2008, two events from the VMAs have become cultural flash points. In 2009, Kanye West rushed the stage when Taylor Swift was accepting an award, insisting that Beyonce should have won instead; last year, Miley Cyrus "twerked" on Robin Thicke, igniting a debate on race and sex that spread like wildfire online.
Whatever these spectacles may have done for MTV's ad rates, they were at least as important as last-gasp efforts by the network to defend its cultural relevance. Because the real issue isn't that the VMAs have become lame, it's that the VMAs (and by extension MTV) no longer have a reason to exist. Remember, MTV ceased to have any relationship to music or music videos more than four years ago. Of course this separation had begun long before, but it became official in February 2010, when MTV dropped "Music Television" from its logo and with it the pretense of being a channel that actually plays music videos. Since then, "MTV" has played mostly marathons of lowbrow reality television.
Because of this shift, there's no need to explain why it's ludicrous for MTV to bother hosting a ceremony that gives awards for music videos. It's like asking TLC to give out awards for best education programming. How can the network be trusted as a judge of quality within an artistic medium it's so openly dismissed?
An argument could be made that providing a barometer for the quality of music videos was never the intention of the VMAs. It's perfectly reasonable to claim that the VMAs were always more about celebrity, image, and provoking audiences with "shocking" behavior than about rewarding the efforts of music-video directors. Do we associate Nirvana and the VMAs with the awards Nirvana won, or with the image of Krist Novoselic throwing his bass guitar in the air and it landing on his face? Do we remember which videos Madonna won awards for or her performance of "Like a Virgin"?
But if MTV is just more up front about the role of the VMAs, then why still hand out awards for videos? Why not hold a ceremony celebrating pop culture, rather than insult videos as an art form by pretending to take an interest in them?
In the 90s, many music videos on MTV were only promotional on the surface. The genre was important in other ways: as an outlet for experimental short films by bold new directors (many of whom are spotlighted in the excellent Directors Label series) and as a means for listeners to discover new music (via more offbeat shows such as 120 Minutes, Yo! MTV Raps, and Amp). Many times, the VMAs could be a gateway to some of MTV's more adventurous fare. I wonder if teenagers today even realize that music videos can be more than a promotional tool. If they had to judge based on the VMAs, I doubt they'd decide that videos have any artistic value at all.