In Defense of Saving the VMAs

Miley Cyrus & friends getting funky at the 2013 VMAs

A month removed from this year's debacle, it's time to understand that the Video Music Awards are worth reviving, worth enjoying like we did decades ago.

On 16 May 1929, a little less than 300 people showed up at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and eventually wound up in its Blossom Room. It took about 15 minutes before each of the brand new, first-ever Academy Awards had been given out at a pace of nearly one a minute. According to, there was no real drama involved in the evening -- winners were notified that they had won their prizes three months prior to the ceremony. The most time-consuming moments came when, as the history states, speeches were made either before or after the actual awards were handed out (details on that particular element are sketchy). It cost five bucks to get in the door.

It's hard to imagine that all the way back in 1929, those 300 people would have guessed that the Oscars would eventually become the gold standard for trophy shows in all of Entertainment Land. But it has. Movies have since earned a transcendent appeal among generations, offering some of the most communal moments popular culture has afforded the stereotypical American family. Awards shows, meanwhile, have become a sort of art-form itself, monopolizing water-cooler conversations and providing fodder for a smaller, more interconnected social world that generates pockets of obsessives who simply can't get enough of trying to predict (and then subsequently commenting on) who wins what. The whole process has become a bit of a subculture of a subculture of a subculture. 

Fast-forward to some 55 years after then-Academy President Douglas Fairbanks handed out that first Oscar, and MTV introduced the statue to his flamboyant (and somewhat embarrassing) second cousin, the Moonman. Indeed, on 14 September 1984, the first-ever Video Music Awards were handed out at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and the seemingly never-ending trend of overexposing celebrities took another step forth along its much maligned and often-ridiculed path. Outrageous was the word MTV wanted to apply most to its flagship enterprise and about three decades later, it's also the word that probably best describes its headline-grabbing history. 

It was supposed to be the hip alternative to the often-stuffy world of televised trophy shows, a place where we could see celebrities wearing shirts without all the buttons buttoned. At the time, MTV itself was a relatively new toy within the fabric of music consumerism, remember. The whole VMA exercise was a way to gain exposure and publicity for a fledgling network that was in desperate need of both. Plus, outside of an occasional late-night performance/special, where else were you supposed to see actual, live musicians playing actual, live songs? MTV had the market cornered and for any supposed pop music enthusiast, this "ceremony", as it were, was both novel and fascinating. All told, if you were a fan of any artist that was supposed to show up to either perform or present, this was can't-miss stuff.

So, what happened? How has the Video Music Awards become so hard to watch in recent years? Is it my own personal adventure into adulthood? Have I become too old to appreciate it? Or is the show still too young to be taken seriously? Worse yet, has it become too obsessed with creating Moments (with a capital M) than it has substantial programming? Could it be possible that the VMAs have become nothing more than an outsized reality show, a sign of how devolved and mindless the TV world and its many followers have grown to be? 

"The VMAs are facing a bit of a midlife crisis," The Daily Beast's Kevin Fallon wrote last month, before this year's installment even went down. "The show has a history and a future but there's an increasing tension between them. Older fans are enticed by its history as the 'dangerous' awards show, the one responsible for those Moments, while a younger demographic, one that may not even realize that MTV ever even played music, is eager to see its own new class of pop stars on stage... Catering expressly to either group would be, as the Academy Awards producers have learned, a huge mistake. Target the young viewers -- here’s Anne Hathaway and James Franco! -- and hear the wrath of traditionalists. But make a reactionary move back to tradition -- all right, how about Billy Crystal? -- and get just as much flak about the show being dated." ("VMAs 2013: MTV’s Awards Show, Once Crazy, Is Getting Old", 22 August 2013)

Herein lies the very real problem at the center of the Moonman's current conundrum: It doesn't know what it wants to be in part because nobody knows what they want it to be anymore. 

The most obnoxious fallout from the now-infamous Miley Cyrus routine is hearing or reading reaction that suggests how irresponsible and/or disgusting the singer was during her time on stage (regardless of how much of both she may have been). Such response, if nothing else, clearly indicated precisely how old a generation who grew up on VMA lore has become. Gone is the infatuation with girl-on-girl kisses (Brit, Madge and Xtina in 2003) and in is a world that runs on unprecedented judgment (hello, Internet).

Twerking has heretofore been dubbed a soft-core version of soft-core porn for a collective becoming increasingly hard to settle down. Disney Channel stars may never be trusted again. Innocence is lost. And MTV's most celebrated awards show is suddenly dismissed as too much of a train wreck to stomach from now until forever and ever amen. 

But does it have to be? The short answer, of course, is no. Television trophy shows are hard to do. To pull it all off successfully in the first place, let alone during a time when it's so easy and expected for the populous to pounce on all that goes down without giving any opinion or stray thought an extra moment of consideration, is a feat of significant proportion. To do it while still maintaining the type of off-the-cuff, ruckus-like atmosphere to which the Video Music Awards once became so synonymous is, at this point, damn near impossible. Some of the show's greatest moments have come as a result of the network and its stars walking a pitch-perfect line between appropriate and "Oh, No!" These days, that line is compromised because of how seemingly imperative it is to highlight excess. You never really know how far over the line you are until you actually realize you're already on the other side of it.

Such is why it's become easier and easier to push recent editions of the VMAs to the side of the road: As popular culture has ebbed, its stars have flowed. The disconnect between the audience and the latest breed of celebrity is at an all-time high as a changing world continues to try and make that bond somehow more tangible, somehow more ... connected. The advent and popularity of a news-gathering approach centered around the now-infamous acronym "TMI" has afforded onlookers the ability to internalize information that frankly should be kept secret. You know why it was neat to see Michael Jackson perform a pre-recorded live version of "Bad" at 1988's ceremony? Because we didn't have three weeks of leaked rumors about what might go into the performance and a constant flow of think-pieces about why the thing shouldn't be pre-recorded in the first place.   

Still, I, for one, come in peace. Putting aside all of the huffing and puffing about how insatiable the world in which we live has become, I bring these words to the you with the intention of somehow breathing life into the future of MTV's Video Music Awards. I sit here to relay the message that all hope is not lost. Actually, I come to suggest that there might be two words that could help save this franchise. Those two words? The Grammys. 

"With Bon Iver winning two Grammy's in 2012, the Grammy's are making a comeback," the editorial staff of Buffablog wrote in 2012 while listing five reasons why the Video Music Awards as a practice is no longer relevant. "Thanks to the likes of Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound, Brooklyn Vegan, and of course buffaBLOG, Hiplanta, and our entire 8 blog family, good music is once again making its presence known. In the digital age great music is much easier to come by; so much so that it can, at times, (be) overwhelming trying to keep up with all of the great releases. 2011 was a banner year for great music, and it is tremendously invigorating to see that talented musicians are starting to get credibility at music's highest level. The trouble is the VMAs concentrate on pop music, and neglect indie, underground hip hop, and even hard rock scenes that are not only growing in popularity, but putting out music that is standing the test of time. There is no telling if 5 years from now anyone will even know who Nicki Minaj is, or care." ("Five Reasons Why The VMAs Are No Longer Relevant", 9 September 2012)

Correct sentiment. Wrong position. 

The Grammys, to those who still pay attention, has easily become the most watchable awards show of all the major entertainment ceremonies. How has the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences done it? That's easy: The group has adjusted its program accordingly with the times. Gone are stale, rigid performances of stars doing their nominated hits. In are imaginative duets and collaborations aimed at actually giving fans something they actually haven't seen before. More importantly, the show does it with brains. Rather than offering up the aforementioned Cyrus singing the hook to the song of the summer... while the chorus's actual voice is sitting in the audience... the Grammys gives us the poignancy of Elton John and Eminem or the thoughtfulness of Bob Dylan with Mumford & Songs and the Avett Brothers. There's an air of intellect that goes into the Grammy pairings that these days is sorely lacking from the VMA slate. 

That said, the people who put on The Biggest Night In Music have been smart to adjust and not conform. Even after all these years, the main categories are still the main categories. Album of the Year. Song of the Year. Record of the Year. There isn't a constant desire to update its approach or style based on what some believe is a trend or fad within the desired demographic. "Best Video with a Social Message" and "Best Song of the Summer", for instance, didn't exist back when Pearl Jam was rockin' in the free world with Neil Young on a VMA stage. Consistency helps breed credibility. Flippantly adding and taking away categories makes the Video Music Awards seem low-rent, like it or not. Why put any weight in what you are seeing if what you're seeing has no interest in being heavy?

"I have to wonder," someone on the blog Ego Rich wrote earlier this year, "whether there is a point to the VMAs anymore, kind of like there isn’t much of a point to the Daytime Emmys. Both awards ceremonies seem superfluous, honoring media that are either dying or falling into one hell of a rut." ("Are the VMAS relevant?", by Staff 20 July 2013)

The keyword in that passage? Rut. Rut means salvation is possible. Rut means the bad will eventually be superseded by the good. Rut means temporary. Rut means hope. 

I love MTV's Video Music Awards. I really do. Growing up, I would videotape the ceremony, eventually bootlegging the performances onto cassette tape and listening to them constantly in my never-failing Sony Walkman. When I was in my teenage years, I would very literally spend hours dissecting the speeches winners would give, the mini-concerts the artists would offer and how each host fared. You could have thrown the Oscars, the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Grammys into a bucket and combined, they still couldn't outdo what the VMAs offered in my eyes. For a lot of years, it was the holy grail. 

Growing older, for all its complications, does not have to mean that I or anybody else should turn our backs on what was once the most-hyped television event of the summer. It does, however, force perspective onto our younger selves, reminding us of questions we ask about our own personal taste, about our own personal preferences. And much like it was hard spending that first night at college without family or how impossible landing that first job out of school seemed, maybe the Video Music Awards are itself going through its share of growing pains. A quarter-life crisis. A midlife crisis. Or, very simply, an identity crisis. 

Even so, there should be hope for the thing as it moves forward, all Twerking jokes be damned. By the time the Academy Awards turned 30, it was 1959 and the ceremony had spent only six years being broadcast on television. That's 24 trophy shows that nobody outside of a room in Hollywood even saw. These days, the luxury of ignorance is so much harder to come by. It may have taken an absurdly long time, but Oscar eventually worked out his kinks. 

Who's to say that his flamboyant (and somewhat embarrassing) second cousin can't eventually do the same?

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