In 2006, the MTV Video Music Awards were on the brink of absolute disaster. That year’s ceremonies, hosted by an expired Jack Black, were brutally short on memorable moments, all downhill from an opening performance by Justin Timberlake and Timbaland that at least felt moderately zeitgeist-y. Performers included OK Go, post-prime Ludacris, and (of course) Tenacious D. James Blunt, Avenged Sevenfold, and Fort Minor all won awards, the latter for “Best Ringtone.” Panic! At the Disco took top honors for “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” and the Killers closed with “When You Were Young.” Kanye was merely a presenter. Aside from belatedly sounding the death knell for rock music’s dominance on MTV, the little-watched and miserably received ’06 VMAs showed what the channel was currently missing more than anything: Blinding, undeniable star power.
Ten years later, the VMAs have swung all the way in the opposite direction. Now pop stars are not only thrust front and center, they’re expected to provide more of the show’s content than the awards themselves — you could probably have fit every non-Vanguard award presented last night (only a half-dozen, by the way) into the time it took Kanye to introduce and premiere his new music video, and certainly into Beyoncé’s one-act of a performance. Tellingly, the ceremony didn’t even have a host this year — just DJ Khaled serving as hypeman, and Key and Peele playing Internet proxy by approximating Twitter shock and awe over the star wattage on display, seemingly unsure of their own level of satire.
It’s not an inherently bad strategy. Thanks mostly to Kanye, Taylor, Beyoncé, Miley, Nicki, Justin(s), and Rihanna, the VMAs of recent years have been some of the most entertaining and widely discussed in the show’s history, proving MTV justified in leaning away from awards and videos and toward pop largesse (slash combustibility) and self-consciously realized Big Moments. But when you essentially cede control to your most famous attendees and let them provide their own scripts, you run the risk of them writing you a VMAs like last night — one that felt blustery, rudderless, hollow, and ultimately kinda boring.
Rihanna set the tone early on with the first of her four greatest-hits (assuming her career started in 2008, anyway — are we really too cool for “Umbrella” already?) medleys, a Jock Jams Megamix run through her most hi-NRG smashes. She somehow still managed to sleep-dance through that opening number, barely bothering to sing along to most of the rapid-fire choruses. The underwhelming and confusing performance (only afterwards did anyone bother to explain that there were three more Rihanna mini-sets to come) was followed by what felt like at least five minutes of MTV correspondents shouting about how fire the thing was, an exhausting trend persistent throughout the night.
Most of the evening’s name performers followed in suit. Future mumble-shouted his way through a doggedly standstill performance of “F**k Up Some Commas,” a single that feels like it’ll celebrate its 20th anniversary sometime next June. Ariana Grande invited Nicki Minaj to her Soul Cycle class to perform “Side to Side,” a Dangerous Woman cut maybe ten percent of the audience was familiar with, ending with a get-on-your-knees subjugating of a couple of male backup dancers that feels more crass than provocative or affirmative in 2016. Britney groped G-Eazy a bunch and lip synced competently, if unconvincingly, to one of each of their hits. None of the performances were disastrous, but the fury never quite matched the sound for any.
Of course, the runway was kept clearest for the two most important and reliable figures in VMAs lore this century, Kanye West and Beyoncé. Hoping to catch lightning in an airline water bottle for a second straight year, MTV again gave Kanye a microphone, a stage, and an empty teleprompter, in the expectation he’d eventually ramble his way into Internet immolation. But ‘Ye didn’t seem to be feeling as :100 emoji: this year, doing some righteous preaching about daring to dream Disney-sized dreams, and teasing his ongoing Taylor feud without actually providing any new fuel for it, before premiering his Flashaconda of a music video for “Fade.” Like his speech, the Teyana Taylor-starring “Fade” clip felt like click-worthy content without a true headline, and it’s hard to imagine either part of his involvement in last night’s events will make the ultimate Hall-of-Fame reel of Yeezus at the VMAs.
And yeah, Beyoncé. No point in pretending that the Queen’s five-song Lemonade production was anything less than staggering, the kind of fulcrum performance that can provide stability to any awards show entirely on its own. It was an all-timer, and for the second VMAs in three years, it’s hard to imagine this year’s ceremonies will be remembered for anything else. But while the LeBron of Pop’s performance justified the channel’s blind faith in her healing abilities and single-handedly carried the evening, it also served to emphasize just how static the rest of the performances were in comparison. More importantly, it showed how ill-advised MTV is to place anywhere near the same degree of trust in her peers to deliver a similar level of spectacle, when most of today’s stars can barely get their award-show productions up to festival level, and Beyoncé provides her very own Olympic opening ceremonies.
In fact, the second-most enjoyable performance of the night — not counting Drake’s surprise appearance at the end, playing the smitten 17-year-old clumsily pinning the corsage on Rihanna’s prom dress — probably came from the Chainsmokers and Halsey, a late-add duet on America’s current No. 1 single, “Closer.” The staging was amateurish and the singing was pitchy, but there was a charm to it that, by definition, was lacking from the rest of the evening’s roster: the charm of the outsiders on the inside for the first time. Which is hardly to say that either Halsey or the Chainsmokers are pop underdogs — the latter duo is currently on their third straight top-ten crossover, while the former sold out Madison Square Garden almost a year ago. But neither artist is so big that they had to be at the VMAs last night; they were there simply because they had a really good pop song that a lot of young fans wanted to see performed. By 2016 standards, that basically makes them Elliott Smith at the Oscars.
While MTV is thankfully unlikely to revert to their 2006-era stodginess anytime soon on their marquee night, hopefully 2016 also represents a pendulum peak which they’ll soon begin to swing back from. Stars should undoubtedly be the VMAs’ bread-and-butter, but when they end up comprising the whole meal like this, indigestion is inevitable. Next year, don’t relegate Troye Sivan and his over-sized tee to the pre-show, let him be weird on the big stage. Don’t just cut away to Desiigner during Future’s performance, let the kid get out there and do the ATLien one better. Hell, let Bryson Tiller live a little, why not? Point is, don’t let the biggest stars just coast through the broadcast, safe in the knowledge that the show is too reliant upon them to challenge them to do better — make ’em keep earning it. Or just hand the entire thing over to King Bey.