People love to hate the MTV Video Music Awards. It’s understandable, to a point: The telecast is too long, overstuffed with too many performances and the host (when there is one) is too often forced to peddle flimsy material they can’t sell.
But this year, the annual awards ceremony appeared to be an afterthought in the minds of pop’s heavyweights: Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Drake, Rihanna and Justin Bieber all skipped; Taylor Swift didn’t even bother to show up for her own video premiere; and the Weeknd, who was scheduled to perform, completely flaked. But can you really blame any of them for not wanting to be in the room to experience Ed Sheeran, artist of the year?
The stars we did get during Sunday night’s festivities — broadcast live from the Forum in Inglewood, California — were the truly attention-starved ones. To name two: Shawn “Who’s Shawn Mendes?” Mendes and Miley Cyrus, whose intro had the shady insistence that her song “Younger Now” is “self-written.” Rod Stewart was inexplicably in attendance to duet with DNCE on his signature song, 1978’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”
The thirstiest of these brought the biggest groans. There was Katy Perry, of course, the miscast host du jour, who created laugh-less dead spots with months-old Fyre Festival gags, a bizarre JonBenét Ramsey joke and a touch of self-deprecation about her poorly reviewed new album. Sheeran traded fours with Lil Uzi Vert to perform two of 2017’s most toxic male songs, with Sheeran singing “XO Tour Llif3” and Uzi helping out on “Shape of You.”
And even as a no-show, Swift was a total ham in her Thriller-plus-Lemonade-minus-POC video for her polarizing new single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Cyrus’ surprisingly buoyant “Younger Now” was still executed with the billion-colors vomit her crowded performances can’t seem to shake — it was as if someone had doggy-bagged the video and dumped it all back out onstage.
Despite some truly moving talk about resistance, solidarity and inclusivity (which we’ll get to momentarily), there was still an undercurrent of neglect throughout the night. A much-welcome Kesha, fresh off a No. 1 album, was relegated to presenter status for some reason. The late Chester Bennington got a brief tribute in the way of quick remarks from Jared Leto, who introduced a clip of Linkin Park performing at the VMAs years ago — a segment that was quickly cut off.
The abbreviated performances didn’t stop there: Julia Michaels and Kyle — a bright spot with more energy than many of his more rudimentary young rap peers — were both interrupted mid-song for commercials. Meanwhile, Lorde got to “perform” her Melodrama track “Homemade Dynamite” in its entirety by interpretatively dancing (and not very well) without singing a word.
The great exception to just about everything that makes these sorts of spectacles too rote remains Kendrick Lamar, who’s always on fire and extrapolated on that in his show-opening/show-stopping performance, which featured a man literally on fire and ninjas climbing a net that was set ablaze. Thankfully, his spirited fervor was shared mostly by second-stringers and lesser stars who stole the show just by just looking like they were legitimately enjoying themselves — in part because many of them are actually new enough at the celebrity thing to not roll their eyes at the VMAs.
Fifth Harmony seemed happy enough to be there that they might actually put rumors about their impending split to rest. Khalid was genuinely endearing when accepting his trophy for best new artist; it’s a shame he had to share his performance with two of the night’s most wooden honorees, Logic and Alessia Cara, no matter how well-intentioned their anti-suicide collaboration “1-800-273-8255” is.
Video Vanguard recipient Pink has almost never been the center of attention in pop, critically or commercially, despite a 17-year career with consistent hits. The evening’s dynamic — underrated talents vs. bigger, brassier stars who make fools of themselves — was in sharp focus when she commanded the stage. She opened with a medley of hits, and went on to dedicate the night’s most eloquent speech — about transcending gender roles and androgynous artists living their truth — to her daughter, Willow, who said she feels like the ugliest girl she knows because she looks “like a boy with long hair.”
It was one of the VMAs all-time great speeches (up there with Fiona Apple’s “This world is bullshit”) and seeing Willow and Pink’s husband, Carey Hart, watch her deliver it made for a true “bullshit”-free celebrity moment, the kind where you really remember why people look up to the rich and famous in the first place.
Except for Kendrick, the show was mostly made by the lesser, more modest stars, and Kung Fu Kenny has a modesty to him even when he’s bragging his ass off. (One could say he’s “Humble.”) Overall, though, we should really give this show to the kids who aren’t bored by it or trying too hard with it. At this point, someone like Kanye West attends this thing and struggles to do something wacky or meaningful. Katy Perry mugs for the camera, dresses up like Daenerys Targaryen and tries to sound enthusiastic about Bebe Rexha and the Chainsmokers.
The most eyebrow-raising moment of the evening turned out to be neither musical nor a stunt. The Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, a descendant of (that’s right) Confederate General Robert E. Lee, took the stage to preach against white supremacy and racism, directly addressing the misappropriation of American values to his distorted ancestry. Though it would’ve been nice if he addressed white people directly rather than everyone in the room, Lee’s appearance alone would’ve been impressive — and then he called Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, to the stage.
Bro, whose daughter was killed during the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month, proceeded to make me feel bad for laughing earlier at the category dubbed “best fight against the system.” She had incredible poise in front of a room of celebrities and a television audience of millions, a little more than two weeks after suffering an unspeakable tragedy. The award still felt dubious, but there’s no denying the power of giving her that platform.
But because it’s the VMAs, it wasn’t long before Perry was back in the spotlight, singing atop a giant basketball and dueting with Nicki Minaj, who was dressed as a cleavage-baring referee. It would be impossible to strip the VMAs of its indignity, no matter how much airtime it gives to fighting hate. The best performances signaled bigger things for up-and-comers on the MTV stage, and little else for the more established talent, who need not fake having a reason to attend. But as Kanye urged on the VMAs stage not so long ago, “Listen to the kids, bro.” That’s what guest-of-honor Pink did, and it made for a touching moment. The producers behind the VMAs should take notes.