Last night while MTV‘s Video Music Awards aired on a 3-hour delay for the West Coast, a few girlfriends and I got together to watch the live feed broadcast the only way we could: huddled around an iPhone logged into one of our dad’s DirectTV apps who lives in the Eastern time zone because we don’t have cable. When asked what three seemingly reasonable adult women were doing huddled around a phone for hours, watching the VMAs seemed like a rather juvenile response. We were further pressed to know who even cares about an MTV awards show when their content has so little to do with music for the most part and I heard myself immediately get defensive: “It’s not about the music videos or what MTV is doing, it’s a cultural moment!”
And it’s true: the VMAs started before most of us were born, three years after MTV launched in 1981, originally conceived as an alternative to the Grammys video category. Since then, it’s been the setting for countless unforgettable cultural moments in music that I don’t believe could have happened at a show as stuffy and serious-minded as the Grammy Awards. From Kanye and Taylor’s infamous “I’ma let you finish” moment, to Miley Cyrus launching a multi-million dollar fundraiser for Los Angeles’ homeless youth the year after shocking the world with so-called “ratchet Miley’s” twerk-heavy VMA performance with Robin Thicke, to last night when Madonna spent her entire Aretha Franklin tribute speech yammering about herself — I don’t believe these moments could have happened in a more controlled situation. Those unpredictable moments have become the reason we’re simultaneously glued to the live feed and Twitter during the live broadcast; anything could happen at this event.
In 2007 through a series of fortuitous connections, I got to attend the VMAs and was shocked to experience the vibe firsthand. Everyone was rowdy, acting like a bunch of kids on a field trip about to let loose, so much so that the show’s producers had to actively shush people between takes. No one stayed in their seats or paid attention except during performances and big moments of the show, it was kind of a circus. But the experience revealed what may perhaps be the secret sauce in setting the stage for these insane cultural moments; the sort of unchecked excitement that breeds rowdiness, the kind that washes over us when we first set foot into a festival or arrive at a dope party with all our friends. After stepping off the red carpet and into the theater with guards down and excitement way up, some shenanigans are bound to take place. Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart’s opening roast of the audience really set the “anything can happen” mood.
And sure enough, Nicki Minaj clapped back at Tiffany Haddish as soon as she won for Best Hip-Hop Artist and announced a new award for “C*cksucker of the Day.” This was actually a pretty tame year for the VMAs looking back at the show’s 25-year history — there was no Lady Gaga 2010 meat-dress equivalent, and no one crashed a performance or beefed with Eminem. His 2002 beef with Moby and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog was truly one of the shinings in the show’s history, ending with Triumph in a tiny neck-brace hosting a press conference where he defended the Real Slim Shady by saying, “Everyone, please. Let’s all try to be easy on Eminem. At the end of the day, he’s just another white guy trying to make an honest living… stealing black people’s music.” The biggest shock for me was seeing Ja Rule join J.Lo onstage for “I’m Real,” his biggest appearance to date since his Fyre Festival went south last year and he successfully managed to avoid criminal charges. J. Lo received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award and crushed her performance of a career-spanning medley.
Another facet of feeling like anything could happen during this show is the genuine unpredictability of the winners. When Camila Cabello won Artist of the Year over Cardi B, Post Malone, Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars, and Drake, I was literally screaming in disbelief and I don’t even actually care. But there’s no cultural moment without fans like myself to bear witness to such a thing, so I remained all in with my face inches from an iPhone for nearly three hours. There was a terribly somber moment when Avicii won posthumously in the Best Dance Video category for his song “Lonely Together” with Rita Ora; it wasn’t a shocking win, but it did serve as a reminder of how precious and fleeting life is. As Camila Cabello acknowledged during her speech after winning Artist of the Year, “You never know when you’re going to get a moment like this again, you never know when it’s going to be the last time you’re up on this stage.” There’s something inherently healing about honoring a moment while you’re in it, and Camila really made me feel that gratitude amidst the heaviness of remembering Tim (Avicii).
I don’t remember what year the VMAs started having corporate sponsors for their award categories, but it seems like Taco Bell shelled out a several million dollars between their category sponsorship and animated commercial congratulating Cardi B on her Best New Artist win, inviting speculation that Cardi must be rocking a Taco Bell black card by now. The show itself is essentially just a giant commercial for whatever its respective attendees are there to promote, so there’s zero shame involved when it comes to ads, but trying to imagine a Grammy category sponsored by McDonald’s is instantly laughable. There presents the paradox of the VMAs: it’s impossible to take it seriously and yet North American pop music culture has no other platform or container to experience itself in with the freedom and excitement that sets the stage for these insane cultural moments. I highly doubt Madonna would have made such a shameless and disrespectful faux-pas as she did last night during her “Aretha tribute speech” at the Grammy Awards, but she’s been running game on the VMAs since their first broadcast in 1984 when she gave what was then a shocking performance of “Like A Virgin.” She had everyone talking about her again in 2003 when she kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during their performance, and 15 years later she’s done it again, just in a much cringier way.
So as the VMAs clock in its 25th year, it feels like the show is more of a pinnacle cultural happening than ever before if only because there’s nothing else to fill its shoes. The Music Television Network survived the collapse of the record industry by pivoting to low-brow reality series that had nothing to do with music, and today, probably by virtue of that aforementioned reality TV move, they’re still on top! The fact that the VMAs still exist and are such a unifying cultural moment in North American music is actually kind of a miracle not to be taken for granted. Here’s hoping that everyone takes this relatively tame year as a reason to step up the unexpected moment-factor next year, and I leave you with my favorite performance of the show by Travis Scott and James Blake. It thankfully also includes a tasteful Aretha shoutout to cleanse your palate from Madonna, so you’re welcome.