If you tuned in to the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards for the sole purpose of hate-watching, good on you, skeptics, critics, and angry tweeters everywhere. You watched the VMAs for the sake of despising them, and that’s exactly what MTV wanted you to do.
Think of the 2015 VMAs as a rage piñata: Not unlike a streamer-coated papier-mâché donkey filled with promise, it was offered up to you as a broken mess of cheap treats and noisemakers long past their popping point, a confetti-strewn heap of industry machinations and regret. You could’ve been content with Rebel Wilson’s wholly unfunny and outrageous jokes that made light of police brutality as she introduced the Hip-Hop Video of the Year. You could’ve felt satisfied after throwing your remote at the television as soon as you heard Iggy Azalea’s incomprehensible verses during Demi Lovato’s performance. And you really, truly didn’t even have to try to hate Miley Cyrus, the Mistress of Ceremonies for this neon nightmare circus, as the pop star succeeded in enraging both the audience and her peers throughout the evening, from her red-carpet arrival with those dreads ripped from the Ghost of Rachel Dolezal’s Past to her dizzying, self-serving finale.
It didn’t have to be this way, and that’s what’s so infuriating. Plenty of thought-provoking, engaging music made in 2014 and 2015 deserved attention, and MTV more or less ignored it on the one night it was supposed to pay up with the accolades. From Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary To Pimp a Butterfly to Nicki Minaj’s script-flipping “Anaconda” to the artists who used their platform for the purpose of furthering social change (John Legend, Common, Run the Jewels, Janelle Monáe, and J. Cole, to name a few) to the (at times nauseating, sure) girl-power-championing missions of Swift, Ariana Grande, and more, pop had something to say. It had teeth. It had sounds that deviated from Pharrell’s hook of the week and conversation topics that resonated with fans of every age and background. It had substance, and that substance was jilted in favor of focusing on an artist who in her opening monologue joked about spending more time on Instagram than she did writing or playing music.
And while scandal and off-script moments aren’t a novelty at the VMAs, both excitement and exhaustion were, in 2015. After winning the Hip-Hop Video of the Year Moonman for “Anaconda,” Minaj paused and turned to Cyrus, confronting her about the comments she’d made to the New York Times that more or less dismissed Minaj’s (justified) umbrage with the 2015 Video of the Year nominees. Minaj was direct, Cyrus was flummoxed — an image of panic personified, really — and the cameras cut away as the visibly irritated rapper continued to tell the walking emoji with the bad extensions what’s good (now doing so off the mic). The second surprise of the evening came at the conclusion of Justin Bieber’s “comeback” performance, which had the crooner doubled over and sobbing as the camera panned out in a sweep of confusion. Those brief dramatic swells snagged the fleeting attention of an audience that was probably entertaining a switchover to Netflix to watch Scream or A Nightmare on Elm Street; Kanye West’s aisle-side amusements made for a welcome reprieve, as watching West react to awards-show happenings is on its own a reason to watch awards shows.
Instead of the spirited, scorching remarks we’ve come to expect from the Gospel of Yeezus, West took his time, reveled in the negative space of silence, and got intimate, excavating the ostracizing he experienced following his 2009 VMA outburst and circling the fact that his most famous line isn’t one he wrote, but one he blurted out in an unscripted moment for MTV’s benefit. Before ramping up and announcing that he plans on running for president in 2020, the emotional shades of West’s speech bounced between the revolution that we had hoped for (“I will die for the art, for what I believe in, and the art ain’t always gonna be polite!”) to resignation (“I just wanted them to like me more”) and back again. We accept the Kanye we think we deserve, and this Kanye — who’s been villainized on the very stage that gave him the mic and ten minutes of airtime to celebrate his genius — is just as weary of this try-hard bullshit that favors headlines and punchlines as the rest of us. Kanye’s silence and Bieber’s tears make for strange bedfellows, but that’s the exhausted hand we’ve been dealt.
For the first time in its two-decade run, the VMAs didn’t attempt to push the award envelope by offering up controversial, titillating, or superlative performances for the sake of celebrating the music and the people who made it. It directly and unapologetically catered to the haters. It was an awards show brought about by the clickbait age, a thirsty, shameless onslaught of bad banter and bewildering performances that insulted everyone involved by downplaying their achievements for the sake of outrage and humiliation. When Taylor Swift won — as we knew she would — the Video of the Year Moonman for “Bad Blood” and brought her gaggle of girlfriends to the podium to accept it, her sincerity summed up all that was wrong with the 2015 VMAs with a single fragment. Grateful, earnest, and elated, Swift clutched her prize and leaned down to the mic. “In 2015, I’m glad we live in a world where boys can be princesses and girls can be soldiers.” The good intentions were there, absolutely. But the fact that any artist in that room — especially after witnessing the absurdities of the evening — could begin any sentence with “In 2015, I’m glad we live in a world…” is enough to prove that the VMAs have gone from pop-culture commodity to the epitome of tone-deaf in one fell swoop. If the overwhelming message from pop at large — that we aren’t glad to be living in the world that 2015 is offering — is ignored, what the hell are we doing here?
We’re clicking. We’re hating. And we’re tired.