MTV’s annual music bacchanal, the Video Music Awards, took place on Thursday night in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and despite its history of taking a magnifying-glass look at pop excess—Madonna in the wedding dress, Britney Spears on the path to glassy-eyed ruin—this year’s edition of the show seemed curiously inert to those watching at home. Which isn’t to say that the people running the event weren’t trying hard: Rihanna gleefully patted her crotch during her performance of the demi-entendre “Cockiness,” and Harlem’s own A$AP Rocky engaged in a little ass-grab of his own during his cameo. Australian actress Rebel Wilson tried to carry a segment based solely on the comedic potential of the implication that her ample frame was adorned with more pubes than your typical Brazilian-ed bikini model’s. But the sex talk felt forced, an attempt to graft hashtags onto Twitter feeds that were already overloaded with talk of not just MTV, but the Democratic National Convention, the later stages of the U.S. Open, and Fashion’s Night Out.
The number one complaint about the Video Music Awards—which frequently comes from people who long ago aged out of MTV’s target demographic but have either chosen to ignore that fact or made themselves blissfully unaware of it—is the fact of its existence on a show that abandoned music in spirit long ago, and officially in early 2010. This criticism is not entirely unfair, though it speaks more to music’s place in contemporary popular culture than anything else. A stream of three- to four-minute videos, even from across the narrow spectrum of contemporary pop, gives listeners more of a chance to surf away from a channel than, say, an hour-long installment of True Life or Jersey Shore. Better to use music as a lifestyle-signifying accessory (à la the musical cues on MTV’s shows being accompanied by chyrons identifying title and artist) or as background for a longer narrative—like VH1’s Behind the Music episodes about artists in turmoil or that same channel’s lists of “bests.” MTV is hardly the only outlet to use enthusiasm about music as mere window dressing; it’s just the most prominent one, and the only one where doing so seems like a slap in the face to its legacy.
But what’s “legacy” in the context of an event that’s called the Video Music Awards, but that’s really not about videos or music or even awards? (Six of the trophies, referred to as “Moonmen,” were given away during the telecast; the Trainspotting update that accompanied Rihanna’s loop-the-loop monster “We Found Love” took the Video of the Year prize, while floppy-limbed British boyband One Direction walked away with the night’s highest quotient of awards.) It’s about spectacle, about MTV drawing attention to its ability to attract star power; that reflected star power even extended to the construction of the evening’s red carpet, which had not one but two stories. When I first started watching the VMAs in a professional capacity, I noted that they really “put the ‘pseudo’ in ‘pseudo-event,'” a reference to Daniel Boorstin’s term for events that only exist for the sake of being covered by the media.
The VMAs’ inaugural outing, in 1984, came at a time when these types of events seemed more foreign, or at least somewhat unseemly. Some 28 years later, they’re commonplace, with entire cottage industries designed solely to facilitate promoting the laundry lists of brand sponsors and C-listers that showed up at that night’s stop on the free-vodka-and-maybe-other-stuff tour.
Which might be why writing about the Video Music Awards days—or even hours—after the event ended in a swirl of Swiftian sass feels almost superfluous. The two-hour show was designed to be consumed and regurgitated almost immediately; ad breaks were bookended by breathless reports on hot Twitter topics. (This dependence on the now didn’t stop the show from being tape-delayed on the left side of the country, though; prime time is one of the few habits that even the 140-character era won’t force broadcasters to break.) I live-blogged the telecast for the Voice‘s online music outpost Sound of the City, and even commenting on certain instances (Katy Perry and Rihanna getting their Mean Girl on when Nicki Minaj accepted the Best Female Video award; Taylor Swift prissily stage-diving at the end of her “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) felt extraneous, thanks to the stream of dispatches about the show cascading constantly.
True, the lack of excitement brought forth by lots of the songs didn’t help the overall vibe. Swift’s breakup anthem is confectioners’ sugar sweet but cotton candy hollow; Pink’s “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” loops a stolen Modest Mouse riff around its own tale of splitting in a way that’s enjoyable, but is overshadowed by the more attitude-laden songs on her forthcoming album. And the stars who did show up—Swift, Perry, Minaj, Rihanna, Drake, One Direction—might be among the higher-wattage bulbs on pop’s marquee, but for every shot of Chris Brown looking uncomfortable in the crowd, I thought “Where’s Beyoncé?” or “What about Justin Bieber?” And yes, A$AP Rocky and 2 Chainz’s performances gave the show a sense of present-day hip-hop awareness, but the absence of Carly Rae Jepsen and Gotye, both of whom were omnipresent throughout pop over the past few months, made it feel like MTV had skipped the summer in order to cram for the first quiz of the autumn.
Frank Ocean probably had the best performance of the night with his subtle (even outside of the awards show’s high-volume context) performance of the heartfelt ballad “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You”; he was a bit nervous at its outset, but his falsetto eventually bloomed into a thing of beauty. But the performer who best epitomized the night—and the place of music in 2012—was undoubtedly Lil Wayne. About midway through the show, he delivered a somewhat uneven performance of “No Worries,” a track from his fresh-out-the-oven mixtape Dedication 4. But earlier in the telecast, he had been spotted wearing a shiny pair of Beats by Dre headphones. As it turned out, they weren’t just covering his ears for show; “Was bangin dat Future & Bob Marley in the lil tunechi Beats, btw,” he tweeted shortly after the telecast ended, promoting not only his forthcoming splinter line of headphones but the fact that he needed something to distract him from what was going on onstage.