Are the VMAs Irrelevant?

Earlier this month, the Academy Awards announced that in addition to its other film categories there would be a new award, for achievement in popular film.  In other words, they’ve realized that elitism isn’t always the best policy and seem top be trying out compromise — you catch more flies with honey, not indie films that are only shown in 50 theaters nationwide.

This is not the first recent instance of a longstanding institution seemingly caving to the tastes of the public in a way that seems less than genuine.  Stoked though I was about the awarding of Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer prize, many couldn’t help but point out that the committee seemed to simply be awarding the album because of its popularity.

The latest award show, MTV’s VMAs, made this desperation more transparent than ever.  What’s more, although MTV has existed for a long time as the ambassador for new music and concepts, the former industry titan seemed genuinely confused about current music culture.

A Jennifer Lopez song won best collaboration.  I’ll admit, I don’t listen to pop a lot, but I didn’t even know she still had a music career.  Camilla Cabello won Artist of the Year, and Imagine Dragons somehow won best rock.

Throughout the night, casual mentions to actual artistry — dangerous, meaningful music like “This Is America” and N.E.R.D.’s “Lemon” — were relegated to technical achievements like editing and cinematography.  Thankfully, “This Is America” won best video with a message, and the song’s choreographer accepted the award and gave a speech.  She was played off by Rita Ora’s “Girls”, a song that has fetishized female homosexuality in a way that is exactly the opposite of any progress “This Is America” has inspired.  These sorts of contradictions were everywhere last night.  There were lots of displays of feminism, but then an artist like Meloma would get up and sing a song while flanked by tons of women in scant dress; I guess Latin Pop gets an exemption from #MeToo.

There were plenty of inflated egos on display as well.  The most frustrating example of course was Madonna’s “tribute” to Aretha Franklin that turned into a rambling session about her own career.  Not to mention Travis Scott’s enormous set that literally centered around a giant statue of his head (though he did earn some of this egocentricity with a fantastically energetic performance) and was preluded by a segment in which DJ Khaled came out, spouted some catchphrases, and reminded us that Astroworld is #1 right now.

Yup, that’s a giant Travis Scott head

The real kicker though was the Taco Bell commercial that aired right after Cardi B won her “Moon Person.”  “Congratulations to Cardi B for your VMA,” a voice said as zany animations and cartoon renderings of the rapper flew around the screen.  “You were famous, but now you’re, ‘Best New Artist VMA winner famous’.  You’ve had your face on magazines, but now it’ll be on bigger magazines.  You’re about to blow up!”

I know it’s just a commercial, but there’s something telling about the fact that MTV seems to think of their awards as a boon to an artists career.  Fact is, Cardi B already has blown up; the self proclaimed “King of New York” has broken record after record with her latest release, and consistently been the best part of each song she’s featured on for the past year; she’s changed the definition of what it means to blow up.  She doesn’t need the VMAs, or Taco Bell’s congratulations.

MTV appears to exist in an alternate reality, in which music listeners are at their mercy, and they decide who may be worthy to make it in the music industry.  Where an album’s merit is decided by its position on the charts, and how long it stays there.  Where DJ Khaled actually does something.

In the midst of all this, Post Malone’s closing act was surprisingly impressive.  He first walked out of a back room somewhere, dressed in what looked like smiley face pajamas as his hit song “Rockstar” began playing.  The instrumental boasted a pretty glorious sounding guitar accompaniment, presumably played by a guy in a fur coat standing in the middle of the stage.  “Switch my whip, came back in black, singin’ rest in piece to Bon Scott” sang Malone.

As with pretty much every televised performance, I harbored some skepticism regarding the authenticity of the performance.  These days it seems that nobody is really above lip-syncing, and it’s not really looked down upon either.  But any doubts I had were stripped away when 21 Savage stepped out of the darkness and came in gloriously out of key.  The crowd lost its mind anyway; in an age when the industry has music down to a science, such a dash of authenticity is welcome, even if it is technically incorrect.  The two rappers circled each other trading bars, reveling in the song’s lotus-eating ignorance.

As the song came to an end, the smaller stage gave way to a bigger one.  Post picked up a diamond studded telecaster and yelled, “ladies and gentlemen, it’s Aerosmith.”

It was.  Though years of living the exact lifestyle described in the previous song have clearly taken their toll on the band, they still showed an energy that most musicians today aren’t really capable of.  As they closed out an abbreviated version of “Dream On” I felt kind of annoyed.  It seems this is what pop music always does — uses a watered down version of a legendary act, for all the wrong reasons.

Then Joey Kramer launched into another song, “Toys in the Attic”.  Not Aerosmith’s most obscure song, but still a deep cut by 2018 standards.  For rockers going on four decades they held their own.  Steven Tyler still managed to sound decent, Joe Perry destroyed an amp, and Post Malone barely did anything besides play along.  The song ended with Perry, Tyler, and Malone singing into the same microphone: “Toys, Toys, Toys, IN THE ATTIC!”  One of hip-hop’s biggest names and music’s most promising talents, Post Malone, it would seem, was just happy to be part of the band.



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