The MTV Video Music Awards are a vile and depraved celebration of everything that is wrong with popular culture. And then there are the bad parts.
Sunday’s broadcast of the only tangentially music-related event was filled to the brim with them.
You might be tempted to write off a reaction such as mine to the fact that people my age – or any age north of 25 – are “not the demographic the VMAs are trying to reach.” But demographics have to do with marketing. Good music proves itself capable of making cross-generational leaps all the time. That’s a result of the music itself. So the age argument holds no water. There is something far more sinister at work here.
And I’m not just talking about the Miley-bombing we all endured.
Advance buzz suggested that this year’s show – already a dubious proposition, since MTV doesn’t really air music videos any more and hasn’t for more than a decade – would be all about JT. No, not James Taylor, baby boomers, but Justin Timberlake, who has been deemed the King of Pop, now that Michael Jackson is no longer here to give him any competition.
That advance buzz turned out to be understated. Sunday’s entire show was a rather cloying love letter to Timberlake, who was granted a 15-plus minute opportunity to turn in a medley performance of his work throughout the years, during which he underscored the fact that his former band-mates in ’N Sync are complete has-beens, by allowing them to pop up on stage, stay for less than a minute, and then disappear again. Ouch.
Let’s get this out of the way: Timberlake is talented. His “20/20 Experience” is an interesting amalgamation of blue-eyed R&B tropes, immaculately catchy pop tunes, interesting production, and mildly hipsteresque sound collages.
Timberlake took home the most “Moonman” trophies Sunday, with a total of four, including a “Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award,” just in case anyone was oblivious to the fact that JT is the new Michael Jackson, everybody! Timberlake also appears to have a sense of humor, doesn’t get caught making an idiot out of himself in public, smiles more than he scowls, and generally seems to be a grateful, maybe even humble sort of guy.
These are all good qualities, certainly. But please, can we stop the boot licking now? “The 20/20 Experience” is not Marvin Gaye, it’s not Prince, it’s not D’Angelo, and it sure as hell ain’t Stevie Wonder. If you ask me, as far as R&B/soul/rock mash-ups go, it’s not even the equal of the work Terence Trent D’Arby (now Sananda Maitreya) did in the late ’90s. It cheapens Timberlake’s work to treat “20/20” like it’s “Pet Sounds,” “What’s Going On” and “Nevermind” all in one. Let’s be honest with ourselves. The album sounds so bold and adventurous because virtually everything that surrounds it in the mainstream is completely vapid and damn close to soulless.
Speaking of soul, we should all be wondering who stole the one that might’ve once belonged to Miley Cyrus.
Yes, the former Hannah Montana, now more famous for YouTube- and Facebook-shared bong hit images than anything else, was the vehicle for America’s “What is this?” moment. When she emerged on stage dressed as a pole dancer with a Pink obsession, you could practically feel the entire audience at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn cringe in horror. What transpired was a raunchy outtake from a “Girls Gone Wild” DVD, with Billy Ray’s little girl cast as the bizarrely naughty lead. Cyrus appeared to be having some sort of seizure, as she flailed around, her tongue periodically sticking out of her mouth at strange angles in some surreal simulacrum of soft-porn sexiness. Robin Thicke, who showed up to perform “Blurred Lines” with Cyrus, came across as a dirty old man in this atmosphere. The word that came to mind was “gross.”
You wanted to laugh, but really, you should’ve been crying. Cyrus is the living embodiment of a social media-controlled pop culture gone horribly wrong. She seems to think it’s hip to be a “ho.” A casual glance at Facebook on any given day suggests that Cyrus is far from alone. And that’s sad.
There wasn’t much to redeem the VMA’s. Daft Punk appeared, but barely; Kanye West didn’t do anything too freakish, but simply performed “Blood On the Leaves” while bathed in Auto-Tune; Taylor Swift was Taylor Swift, which is to say, she fulfilled her role as America’s Sweetheart just by showing up; Lady GaGa changed costumes often, and performed her new song, “Applause,” which was pretty much “meh.” (The audience at the Barclays Center appeared to be booing her, too. Tough crowd, GaGa!)
Bruno Mars was probably the best performer of the evening, because he actually can sing, and he did, though Macklemore & Ryan Lewis provided another highlight when they managed to make it through their “Same Love” without turning it into some sort of maudlin grandstanding event. (The song makes a plea for tolerance toward the gay and lesbian communities, and features Macklemore revealing that he thought he was gay when he was a very young kid, because he liked to draw. A little condescending, this line – and line of thought – but nonetheless, the performance struck the proper emotional tenor by remaining relatively understated. The group won the rather clumsily titled “Best Video with a Social Message” award for the song.)
What did all of this add up to? Not much. MTV is no longer a marketing force when it comes to music videos. Most are watched via YouTube, and YouTube hits have been proven to have a direct effect on “album” sales and downloads. That the network would host an awards ceremony for something it no longer is connected to in a full-time manner is itself laughable. Less hilarious, however, was the music being tangentially honored. Very little of it is memorable.
Perhaps the most telling image of the 2013 VMA’s came courtesy of Rihanna. Shot in cut-aways while seated in the crowd, the singer appeared bored, disaffected, a little bit out of it, haughty, more interested in her cellphone than in anything going on in real time right in front of her.
It was hard to look at her and not see the future face of America. Pretty and well-maintained on the outside. But there’s an ugly underneath.