The 2017 show was more defined by its absences than by the pop stars—Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Miley Cyrus, and the ghost of Taylor Swift—willing to participate. It was a long night.
The superstar A-list has finally, definitively abandoned the MTV Video Music Awards. Good for them. Bad for you. As you hopefully don’t recall, the VMAs stunk last year, but at least you got Beyoncé and Rihanna performing at great length, Kanye West pontificating at even greater length, Britney Spears adding to the most hallowed and harrowing tradition in pop music, and Drake humiliating himself for the grand finale. This year, all those people—most of them with little to promote, but none apt to shun a bright and steady spotlight—stayed far, far away. Here, for example, is how Frank Ocean spent his evening:
Tune in now for Frank Ocean's "blonded RADIO 007" https://t.co/VGkad3EVdh
— Pitchfork (@pitchfork) August 28, 2017
“Cringing at celebrities” has been the VMAs’ M.O. for decades, but the celebrities got wise. Look what you made them do.
The 2017 VMAs scrambled to fill that fearsome power vacuum, clinging to its few genuine A-listers for dear life. Kendrick Lamar opened the show with a pyromaniacal medley and closed it by taking home Video of the Year for “Humble.” Ed Sheeran, who all night looked as contemptuous and confounded as any rando taking potshots on Twitter, tossed out a listless “Shape of You,” brought out Lil Uzi Vert for an utterly baffling snippet of “XO TOUR Llif3,” and gave a hilariously way more listless acceptance speech for Artist of the Year. (“It’s not voted, is it?”) Miley Cyrus continued hawking her hard reboot, hellbent now on doing far more belting than twerking; Pink fired off her own medley and took home the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, a lifetime-achievement deal she sealed with one of the loveliest and least contrived speeches in VMA history.
And presiding over it all was poor, poor, poor Katy Perry, flexing those cringe-comedy muscles as she fired off wan gags about fidget spinners, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fyre Festival, Hillary Clinton, and the plain fact that half this show’s target audience was watching Game of Thrones instead. Perry’s album flopped, and she is in full-blown exit strategy mode; in her more uncomfortable moments tonight it felt as though she was trying to distill Lady Gaga’s bizarre, years-long post-Artpop career recalibration into two hours. Katy was so close to being huge enough that she could afford to ignore this show forevermore. But miscalibrate that leap and they make you host the goddamn thing instead.
Also, real quick, let’s get this out of the way.
Double yikes. The VMAs in the 21st century will be remembered primarily as the show that turned Taylor Swift into a hapless supervillain. The Katy-Taylor peace summit that seemed inevitable this year will apparently never come to pass, so the premiere of the full “Look What You Made Me Do” video was Swift’s sole contribution, gothic and ludicrous and tone deaf and off-brand in a remarkably on-brand sort of way. She’s in a tailspin. She’ll be hosting by 2019 if she’s not careful, and her attempts at comedy will be even worse. I would say “let us never speak of this again,” but speaking of this again is the way 90 percent of the internet pays its bills at this point. What a disastrous feud. She and Perry will both be releasing terrible songs about karma for the rest of their lives.
Add all that together and you’ve filled 45 minutes, maybe, with two hours and change left to go. Into the breach, then, charged a frantic and thirsty assortment of young stars, including Alessia Cara, Logic, Julia Michaels (cut off mid-chorus to hype the Taylor video), Shawn Mendes (who kicked ass), Khalid, the eternally way-too-happy-to-be-here Fifth Harmony, and Kyle (also cut off mid-chorus, possibly for wearing purple denim). Most folks in this tier dressed and acted like the bewildered, civilian plus-ones of actual stars—all of them wildly out of their depth, but a few charismatic enough to make their thirst seem briefly telegenic. (Kyle seemed very sweet, actually.)
Alessia Cara is a useful object lesson. Her breakout hit, 2015’s stormy art-pop bromide “Here,” is about her eye-rolling her way through a vapid, charmless party she wishes she hadn’t attended. The VMAs very much didn’t seem like her scene. But her position on this matter has evolved. “Coming up: Alessia Cara empowers us!” the announcer chirped at one point before a commercial break, and soon, there she stood, belting out her inspirational anthem “Scars to Your Beautiful” while wiping off her makeup, shaking out her hair, ripping off her earrings, sloughing off her fancy dress, and otherwise de-VMA’ing herself. She popped back onstage shortly thereafter to join budding nerd-rap legend Logic for his song a woozy suicide-prevention anthem 10 times more achingly sincere than this show can usually withstand.
Hard politics are also an awkward fit at the VMAs, but this year’s show took its best shot: a descendent of Robert E. Lee gave a brief speech decrying white supremacy, and Susan Bro, the mother of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer, announced a foundation in her daughter’s name. How do you follow something like that? I’ll tell you how: Rod Stewart and DNCE doing a remake of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Quadruple yikes. The only human who managed to reconcile loopy pop-star shenanigans for something with actual depth of feeling was Pink, whose medley at one point found her steering a riding lawn mower between two columns of nude women brandishing chainsaws. She then gave a legitimately stirring speech about the PowerPoint presentation she made for her 6-year-old daughter to convince her she was beautiful. You had to be there. You are forgiven—you were way better off, frankly—if by that point you weren’t there.
Do stars actually still care about this show? Will the A-listers eventually return, deeming it a necessary evil? Or will it continue its mutation into more of a farm-team situation, the NBA summer league for nascent pop stars, the artistry raw and inept but at least spirited, at least willing. Encapsulating all this chaos and confusion was Lorde, who had the flu and thus opted to dance erratically through her performance of “Homemade Dynamite” without even attempting to sing or lip-synch it. I can’t figure out if Lorde doing Napoleon Dynamite–worthy interpretive dance while wearing Literally Sweatpants shows great respect for the VMAs or total contempt. Was this show so important that she had to do something? Or is this show on the wane to the extent that a star of her caliber can now show up and do literally anything? The show needed her more than she needed it. And the supply of brand-name artists who need the VMAs at all is dwindling every day.