One strange moment in a dumpster fire of strange moments during last night’s VMAs continued to nag at me this morning, like the chorus of a particularly offensive Katy Perry track. Robert Lee, a direct descendant of the Robert E. Lee, clad in appropriately hipster pastor garb, addressed the audience to denounce the racism he’d witnessed at Charlottesville, instigated, in part, by his ancestor’s statue. Afterwards, the mother of Heather Hyer, who was tragically slain during the protest, was invited on stage to speak about her daughter, and announce a foundation in her name. In an overtly symbolic scene, the two exited the stage together. Then Hailey Baldwin appeared on screen dressed in a black lace jumpsuit and presented DNCE and Rod Stewart performing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.”
This was just one of several jarring juxtapositions of seriousness and frivolity—transitions from sobriety to levity, Chris Richards wrote for The Washington Post, made to feel “as graceless as possible”—that littered an awards show that only ever seems to reward bigness, whether it be political, musical or interpersonal. Earlier in the program, Paris Jackson launched a tirade on intolerance before blithely announcing the nominees for Best Pop Video. At one point, Demi Lovato performed at a giant pool party; at another, Kesha delivered a Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul-like speech on suicide prevention. Katy Perry, the master of ceremonies, made several outdated political jokes, including a bland barb about the election for “best new artist” being one “where the popular vote actually counts.” Later in the telecast, she flew through the air with a basketball and danced on top of an oversized rim during a performance of her new single, “Swish-Swish,” which is so laughably bad that I wanted to believe it was just a long, self-aware ruse about the inanity of pop music (it isn’t). (Perry playing the ditzy host, the naive blonde bimbo from outer space who acts surprised at the sorry state of the world, was plainly unfunny, not to mention wildly inconsistent with the network’s messages re: female empowerment.)
How, one wonders, can we take any of these issues seriously, when they’re so brashly sandwiched between performances and presenters that are, if sometimes entertaining, also downright silly? The result is a blatant cash-grab at genuine progressivism that comes off as calculated PR strategy; MTV, in an almost sycophantic effort to come across as “woke," ends up trading in a sort of pop-politik: a grand, generic, anodyne faux-authenticity designed to appeal to as many people as it can. Rife with sentimentalism and preachy pronouncements, the VMAs appear to take a Trump-like view of its audience’s intelligence; it takes the “everything is political” ethos of today’s art, types it out in all caps, adds exclamation points and drenches it in glitter. As a liberal who deigns to think for himself, I was sort of kind of offended (then I remembered: this is the VMAs).
There were some exceptions, of course. Pink, who received the Video Vanguard Award, gave a speech about being yourself in the face of what society expects from us. Contrary to much of the rest of the program, you could tell it came from the heart, in part because it was directed towards her daughter. And Kendrick Lamar, in a visceral opening performance that transcended the notion of a “televised live musical act,” was wise (or confident) enough to let his art speak for itself.
Which is really what lies at the crux of the problem with the VMAs: it’s a telecast that professes to be about art but is really about politics, and so ends up being about neither. At one point, fed up with what I was witnessing, I wrote down a facetiously apocryphal note: “This is the end of art.”
I hope I’m wrong.