This year’s MTV Video Music Awards nominations have just been announced, and the five candidates for Video of the Year were easier to predict than the Uncle Buck reboot’s inevitable cancelation. Of the seven pop artists operating today that even your family’s longtime auto mechanic could name, five of them received nominations for the VMAs’ top honors today: Adele (“Hello”), Beyoncé (“Formation”), Drake (“Hotline Bling”), Justin Bieber (“Sorry”), and Kanye West (“Famous”). (The sixth, Taylor Swift, won the damn thing last year — and, given recent events, likely would’ve declined attendance at the ceremony this August regardless — and the seventh, Rihanna, received four other nominations.) For anyone unconvinced about the current oligarchic structure of pop music’s student government, this would be Exhibit A.
Now, to suggest that the VMAs have ever been anything but a popularity contest would be largely ridiculous. But it’s a popularity contest that has been won in the past by Jamiroquai, Sinéad O’Connor, and a mid-40s Neil Young. Even in the past decade, the VMAs have given honor-to-be-nominated consideration to Justice, M.I.A., Tyler, the Creator, Florence and the Machine, and the friggin’ Ting Tings. It was never totally about the videos, dammit, but there used to be room for surprise, for novelty, for some vague suggestion of The New and/or The Alternative. Even in 2014, Sia’s disquieting surprise hit “Chandelier” elbowed its way into the discussion, and last year, Kendrick Lamar’s civil-rights anthem-to-be “Alright” (Hot 100 peak: No. 81) provided some relief from the monoculture. This year, the closest thing to an outsider pick would be Kanye’s controversial “Famous” clip, a video that got its own stadium-sized premiere.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily — none of the clips nominated were cheapies, grandfathered into VOTY consideration by virtue of an artist’s previous resumé. All five of the videos are striking visuals that each, in their own way, became iconic for the creator responsible — not to mention enormously, deservedly popular. Three of them have already inspired their own Saturday Night Live sketches. If you had to mount a defense for the enduring relevance of the music video as a pop-cultural art form, these would be the five clips from the past 12 months that you would point to. It’s hard to say which of them should even be considered the front-runner to win the thing — all five have a convincing case.
That in itself is something of a bummer, though. MTV originated as one of the most equal-opportunity showcases in pop — musically, if not always culturally and racially — and big winners at the inaugural ’84 VMAs included aging jazz-fusion artists, reinvented former rock stars, and cutting-edge new-wave weirdos, as well as ascendant singular pop talents. The videos used to make the stars, just as much as the other way around. Now, the only full-length visuals with the cultural capital to be part of the larger musical discussion are from the artists we’re already sick to death of talking about. It’s hard to remember the last music video from a non-major artist that went viral in any way — forget trying to remember the last OK Go, who was even the last Rebecca Black? The last Bauuer? It’s been a while, and you’d probably need to go to Vine, not MTV (or even YouTube) to find it anyway.
It’s hard to say this catering to pop’s one percent isn’t a smart evolution on MTV’s part: Last year’s VMAs was among the most talked-about award shows in recent years, primarily because the producers were wise to mix up as many of the country’s biggest and most inflammable pop stars as possible. Videos haven’t truly powered the channel for the better part of two decades now, and the brass knows that the true winners and losers of the VMAs won’t be decided onstage, but on Twitter. It makes sense to keep the spotlight on the biggest names. It’s just a shame that there’ll be no shine left for anyone else.