For a network that officially abandoned the “M” in MTV nearly six years ago, but which – for all intents and purposes – essentially ditched that “M” closer to two decades ago, MTV’s reliance on the annual Video Music Awards (or VMAs) as its biggest ratings grabber is one of the biggest ironies in music entertainment.
MTV’s music video programming has been all but completely shelved by the network in favor of cheesy reality shows and other programming that targets a very young (I’m talking younger than 20-year-old) demographic. Yet that doesn’t stop the network from staging and heavily promoting its annual celebration of the medium it helped revolutionize some 34 years ago (MTV first aired on August 1, 1981, as a station that ran music videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in case you’ve forgotten or you’re under 25).
The VMAs, MTV’s flagship awards ceremony that first aired in 1984, is still the network’s biggest ratings-getter, averaging between 6 million and 12 million viewers during each year of this decade. However, the ratings have been more down than up over recent years (Sunday’s show was reportedly down by half-million viewers from last year’s 8.3 million, not factoring its simulcasts across network owner Viacom’s other channels). This ratings drop is not surprising when you consider the audience that grew up with MTV during the 1980s and early ’90s do not have a connection with any of the current artists MTV honors and actually stopped caring about the awards show eons ago (none of the people I informally polled said they saw the show, all of whom were 35 and older). And the 12-to-18-year-old demo that MTV’s current, non-musical programming targets is probably growing more and more confused about why this network that specializes in reality programming produces a video music awards show each year, when it doesn’t even show music videos.
To counter this dichotomy and likely realizing its lack of relevance in the music video industry – and the music industry in general – the network has reduced itself to producing a show that is short on videos and talent, but long on controversy. This year’s “get” was finding a host who is more known for her ability to project her tongue six inches out of its mouth (when she’s not dropping F-bombs) than she is for her music (uhh…that would be Miley Cyrus for the uninformed). The network also made sure to capitalize on tabloid media-inflamed “beefs” between some of today’s “it” artists by having them appear on stage in close sequence – or even together in some cases. It also ensured that there was a large dose of 2015’s biggest “it” girl, Taylor Swift (she was nominated 11 times this year). Perhaps also as a recognition of its irrelevancy in music, the show’s producers likely told its presenters and performers to turn up the ratchet factor, something that the “artists” embraced with ease (who was that big woman anyway that mocked police brutality by stripping out of a police uniform and revealing a t-shirt laden with the F-word?).
If the music and artists have changed over the years, there’s one thing about the show that hasn’t. It’s still one of the most unabashedly shameless and self-indulgent productions on TV, relying on its past triumphs – or twitter-friendly, buzz-worthy moments – to hype what it hopes will be its next ones.
For example, the Kanye-West/Taylor Swift “I’mma let you finish” episode from 2009’s ceremony factored heavily in the producers’ decision to pair the two on stage in this year’s event. Swift, who apparently tries to make nice with everyone, made sure viewers knew all was forgiven (at least from her perspective – we’re still not sure where he stands) when she presented West with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award for career achievement. But Kanye, in his nearly 15-minute rambling acceptance speech, backhanded MTV by stating (albeit truthfully) that the network only paired the two to increase the show’s ratings (no one said that award recipients had to kiss MTV’s ass while onstage). It was one of those few coherent Kanye moments where I actually agreed with the rapper. And when Kanye spoke that truth, he likely reflected what many have thought for years. Just as the “M” in MTV no longer stands for music, the “V” in VMAs is just as unimportant in that acronym. And as Kanye continued to ramble on about his recollections of which artists should have won which awards in the recent past, it became even more clear – even if in a weird sort of way – that, when it comes to winning at the VMAs, the videos don’t really matter anymore, not to the network or its awards show viewers.
Perhaps you’re not part of MTV’s current target demographic and you’re old enough to remember the days when music videos really did still matter – at least in the context of what this awards show is trying to sell us. You might recall when videos were considered groundbreaking – when they were arguably as memorable as the songs they promoted, like Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” A-ha’s “Take On Me” or any number of Michael Jackson’s videos. When those videos won awards, you knew it was because of their originality, their innovation, or their directors’ abilities to push boundaries in technology and visual effects, and not just because the artist or song was immensely popular. Even as recently as 2009, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” was considered (arguably) one of the best videos of all time. It inspired many people to mimic Beyonce’s choreographed dance in self-made amateur videos that went viral on YouTube and helped catapult the song to #1 on music charts around the world. It also was the source of Kanye’s ire when he protested its loss (in the Best Female Video category) to a Taylor Swift video that I can’t even remember, making Swift the target of his infamous “I’mma let you finish” wrath during her acceptance speech. (Beyonce later won the Video of the Year award during the same ceremony, making us scratch our heads about how the Video of the Year by a female artist wouldn’t also be the Best Female Video winner, but I digress.)
In 2015, in the absence of any really special music videos, the show merely came across as an artist and song popularity contest, as it has for much of the 2010s. For instance, this year’s biggest chart hit, “Uptown Funk,” won an award for Best Male Video (for Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars), but it was for a video that was merely an unspectacular performance of the wildly popular single…nothing that will likely be talked about 20 years from now (the song, maybe…the video? – I doubt it). Even in the buildup to Kanye’s Video Vanguard Award presentation (that’s like a lifetime achievement award for music videos), you’d think they’d at least show a montage of the landmark music videos the artist has created over his storied career – you know, the videos that contributed to him being considered an MTV “video vanguard.” Instead, the show aired a documentary-style short film of the conflicted rapper in various introspective circumstances (including some with his daughter North), attempting to present him as a more sympathetic character (his acceptance speech ruined any chance of that happening).
It now seems the network doesn’t even care enough to make sure that logic prevails when it comes to nominating and deciding its award winners. For instance, Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” won for Video of the Year, which would naturally have made it a candidate for Best Female Video, right? Not at all. It wasn’t even nominated for the female video category. Instead, her other video “Blank Space” won that award. Also see the above-described similar situation with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” winning Video of the Year, but not Best Female Video. It’s as if being nominated in the Video of the Year category somehow transports you out of the Best in Your Own Gender field, which obliterates any shred of common sense.
None of this likely matters to MTV or the artists it parades across the VMA stage each year. The network knows what its cash cow is, even if it only gets milked once a year. Television networks, including MTV, are only in the business of securing high viewership ratings. Having professional tongue wagger and headline seeker Miley Cyrus host the event was probably the best MTV could do to ensure that this year’s ratings would not be a bust (remember, LL Cool J was already used this year). Likewise, artists such as Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and even Taylor Swift know that an appearance on the show – especially a controversial or twitter-breaking one – would likely result in more music and video streams, higher song downloads and greater record sales than the artists experienced in the days leading up to the annual telecast. Bieber and Swift had new singles to promote, and The Weeknd’s album was dropped just two days before the event and will no doubt benefit from his performance of Billboard’s current #1 single “Can’t Feel My Face.” And this reciprocal relationship between the VMAs and artist is no different from 1984 when the show premiered and Madonna paraded across the stage in a wedding dress and slithered through a tame-by-today’s-standards performance of “Like A Virgin.”
And it’s that 31-year-old reference that makes one wonder whether this show has overstayed its welcome in the glut of awards shows that air annually, and, if so, how long this misplaced event will last. The VMAs are rumored to be on life-support as the show’s relevance (on a network that doesn’t show music videos) is increasingly questioned. Can you still see MTV putting on this show in, say, 2030, when the network won’t have specialized in music videos for nearly 30 years – or over half its existence? Heck, will MTV even still be around then?
Yet, as ironic as it is that the VMAs continue to exist – particularly on the non-music-related MTV – it’s my estimate that the VMAs won’t be cancelled any time soon, or at least as long as there is an MTV.
After all, it is still one of the network’s biggest ratings winners, even if it only happens once a year, and it no longer makes any sense.