MTV turns 30 today. To celebrate, we’re running a bunch of pieces on the channel, its legacy, and its future.
Would you look at all that postmodernism?
For a multimillion-dollar event orchestrated with the dictatorial hand of all awards shows, there’s always been a certain thrilling seat-of-the-pants quality to the Video Music Awards at its best. Maybe it’s just the amount of big (and often liquored up) egos in one room, and the potential that one of them might do or say something dumb or funny or unexpected. But even with producers attempting to control every micro-second of the broadcast, viewers at least get the sense that anything might happen, even if 99 percent of the time nothing outlandish (or even very entertaining) usually takes place.
Most of the WTF watercooler moments from past VMAs seem plenty corny in retrospect. (Fiona Apple’s mildly profane acceptance speech in 1997, for instance.) Occasionally, though, things get away from the producers to such a degree that clips from the shows can produce a feeling of avert-your-eyes queasiness years later. (Pretty much the entirety of the apocalyptically awful 2007 installment.)
But there’s also another kind of awkwardness, the sort that comes with watching a show forced to reinvent itself from year to year; the whole thing can fall flat on its face for reasons that have nothing to do with drugged-out performers or presenters who go off-message. Like every company that attempts to stay on top of the fickle tastes of teenagers and act as both taste-maker and taste-agglomerator, MTV is in a constant race to keep up with the pubescent Joneses. And so, you rarely get more than two VMAs in a row that look or feel much alike.
Pop cultural fads are celebrated one year, only to disappear the next without a word. The whole visual look, from stage sets to the bumper animations announcing the nominees, reflect whatever subcultural style currently holds sway. Entire genres or generations can suddenly find themselves frozen out. (The amount of balding middle-aged men up for Moonmen in the mid-to-late ’80s seems especially insane now.)
This immediate reflection of an era’s style is what makes the VMAs fodder, of course, for picking apart by pop-musical sociologists and viewers alike. It’s also what sometimes makes the show look desperate and pandering and confused. And nowhere has this throw-a-bunch-of-shit-at-the-wall approach to the awards show manifested itself so obviously as in the ever-shifting categories themselves.
In the last few years, MTV has slimmed down the number of awards given out to such a degree that the only surprise is that they’re now so defiantly… normal. Between 1984 and 2007, it seemed like the producers had added a new category (or five) every year. These new categories were often among MTV’s most blatant attempts to keep the VMAs relevant, to figure out who its ever-changing audience was and what it wanted, to figure out what the hell MTV even was or should be. These categories are mostly gone for good reasons, but they’re snapshots of their time nonetheless.
These almost don’t quite count; both were included in the inaugural VMAs in 1984, when everything about the show was untested. But they do prove that even three years after the channel’s debut, there were already lines being drawn in terms of how and why artists used the medium. In the earliest days of MTV, almost all videos, due to either lack of budget or lack of inspiration, were “performance videos.” By 1984, money had come into the medium in a big way, and the performance video was just as often a statement, usually involving some idea of live-band rock n’ roll realness in opposition to Duran/Thriller visual flash.
As whoever wrote the Wikipedia article about Best Concept Video notes, “As the years went on, however, the majority of videos aired on MTV became concept videos, and so the need for this category diminished.” That’s not entirely true, of course. But the self-important idea of the music video as some kind of pop adjunct to video installations had taken root by the early ’90s. Even if bands wouldn’t or couldn’t make their own “November Rain”—or even a Spike Jonze-style piece of high-concept cultural kitsch—grunge-era clips of bands performing, intercut with vaguely arty gibberish like footage of old men clog dancing or little kids wearing fish heads, proliferated.
Best Post-Modern Video (Years Awarded: 1989-1990)
What? Even for a term that’s been abused as much as “post-modern,” this usage is inexplicably vague. Presumably MTV meant something closer to “self-consciously artsy videos” or “kinda out-there but ultimately accessible shit we can’t fit into any other category,” but neither of those are quite as snappy. Really, though, does anything reflect MTV’s incomprehension over what to do with the increased mainstream viability of “alternative” artists better? “Best Post-Modern Video” sounds exactly like the clunky phraseology a marketing department would come up with in response to the rise of “weird” music.
Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” won the award in its second year; the clip also took home the Video of the Year trophy that night. A few years later, of course, MTV had figured out precisely how “alternative” fit into its marketing strategy. Artists nominated in the “Best Alternative Video” category while simultaneously taking home the night’s biggest trophy no longer seemed surprising, and they didn’t have to contribute anything truly strange to the party, either.
Best Artist Website (Year Awarded: 1999)
Ah, yes. Nothing says “internet boom” like a one-and-done category devoted to websites. This is ultimately a pretty benign example of MTV’s blatant trend-hopping, and to be fair 1999 was a time before social networking, which meant that musicians’ websites were standalone affairs that (at their best) involved a lot more creativity than you got in the post-MySpace era. I have no recollection of what the Chili Peppers’ award-winning website looked like circa 1999, but I have to imagine that the Massive Attack site was more interesting, and not just for the music.
Best Video Game Soundtrack (Years Awarded: 2004-2006)
What, you might ask, do video game soundtracks have to do with the art of the music video? Well, nothing. But the mid-’00s marked the beginning of MTV really scrambling to figure out how to keep the appeal of the VMAs as broad as possible, since it was harder than ever to even see the nominees. Videos hadn’t been the channel’s raison d’être for a long time and MTV2 had abandoned its all-videos-all-the-time format by 2004. The question became how to keep people interested in a show devoted to music videos when the channel created to support them had seemingly abandoned them.
This also happened to be the moment when video games really started to move out of the “for kids and nerds only” niche and become one of the entertainment industry’s more profitable sectors. Video game consoles were finally powerful enough for games to incorporate actual pop hits, and the game industry/record industry hook-up was a crassly smart move as sales began to slide. So courting gamers at least made sense from a bottom-line perspective. Anything to keep things going for another few years, right?
Ringtone of the Year (Year Awarded: 2006)
But if video game soundtracks could plausibly have even a slight connection to music videos—they both involved music and your TV, at least—this is the one category that falls so far outside the VMAs’ scope that the only possible reaction is an eye-roll at how mercenary it is. (Fort Minor’s “Where’d You Go,” featuring the artist now known as Skylar Grey, won.) Admittedly this was only a year after the debut of YouTube, and few people were arguing with any plausibility that streaming-video sites might provide the music video with something resembling a second chance. But still… ringtones? If this was the kind of outside-the-box thinking MTV was bringing to bear on the slipping ratings (an almost 50 percent drop in viewership) of its one-time Biggest Night of the Year, it was pretty easy to imagine the VMAs being as hard to find on the channel as the videos it allegedly still celebrated.
Of course a year later came the Hindenburg-esque revamp of the entire VMAs format, an across-the-board bungle in Las Vegas that included obviously desperate and immediately doomed categories like “Monster Single of the Year” and “Quadruple Threat Of The Year.” That night, which started off with Britney Spears’ sleepwalk through “Gimme More”, was one of the network’s more epic trainwrecks; since then, MTV has mostly adopted a keep-it-simple-stupid approach to the VMAs. The future will likely bring more ridiculous categories that fumble to capture the flavor of their moment, but at least MTV seems to have learned that there’s only so far you can push the format before audience indifference turns to audiences recoiling in horror.