VMAS 2016: It’s Time to Declare an MTV State of Emergency
Earlier this year, my hopes were slightly raised when MTV announced its plans to focus on music related content in the near future. I thought to myself, “Maybe the reality era is almost over and MTV is ready to make a comeback.” Aside from their new vintage channel MTV Classic, the world still needs a televised platform to discover new music. The music industry has suffered as a whole since MTV abandoned the music video format in the mid 2000s. Say what you want about shows like TRL, that show’s heyday exposed audiences to a wide array of artists and genres ranging from bumble gum pop to nu-metal.
Talk about a missed opportunity – the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards should have been the perfect time for MTV to showcase their renewed interest in music. Instead, the average viewer witnessed the same trainwreck that has plagued this once mighty awards ceremony for over six years.
There is an old quote that says, “High tides raises all ships.” Well, high tides could sink all ships as well. Throughout the night, I surfed through Facebook and Twitter and I didn’t come across too many positive comments about the show itself. People still watch the VMA’s to discover the latest and greatest artists in music. However, the decision makers clearly thought that Britney Spears groping G-Eazy’s penis deserved more screen time than paying tribute to befallen legends like Prince and David Bowie. You know, all-time iconic visual artists that propelled MTV back in its heyday.
The 2016 VMA’s reeked of desperation and the focus was clearly on, “How could we maximize our social media mentions and make this moment go viral?” The beauty of viral content is how it reaches the mainstream radar from out of nowhere…RKO anyone. Even the reaction to Drake’s “Hotline Bling” wasn’t preordained from a television script.
And this isn’t just MTV’s fault; the finger needs to be pointed at the music industry as a whole. I specifically called out Britney Spears’ lip-synched performance as this downward spiral began in the late 90s when artists of her ilk broke all time records for album sales. Mainstream audiences were given the equivalent of fast food rather than a filet mignon from the most popular steak house. Mainstream record labels moved away from the likes of Sublime in 1996 and drove down the Backstreet Boys Boulevard in 1998 as money matters more than anything in this business. These major labels also told Napster, “To fuck off,” during the same time period and still have not recovered from their own self-inflicted wound.
As someone who was raised and surrounded by strong independent women, my heart goes out to younger girls who felt uncomfortable having to watch Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears, and Halsey surrender their lust to the men around them. Each performance was a grade-A example of the hypersexualization of women in mainstream media. In 2016, there are finally some strong female leads in major film franchises like Star Wars and the VMA’s made it feel like the world took one giant step backwards. Female musicians deserve so much better. No matter the face or name, it felt like most of the performers in 2016 tried to recreate the old school 80s Madonna or Miley Cyrus sexual controversy from 2013. Quite frankly, we went from having powerful, soulful, and groundbreaking singers such as Lauryn Hill, Gwen Stefani, and Dolores O’Riordan perform in 1996 to this pop culture monstrosity.
Speaking of 1996 – Metallica, The Fugees featuring Nas, The Smashing Pumpkins, LL Cool J, Neil Young, Hootie & The Blowfish, Alanis Morissette, Bush, The Cranberries, Oasis, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Kiss, No Doubt, and Beck performed at the VMA’s in 1996. You know what I love about this list – the musical diversity and authenticity. You know what aggravated me about the 2016 Video Music Awards – the lack of musical diversity and authenticity.
The three major labels left in this business continue to monopolize the industry and homologize music that is marketed towards the masses. I look at that list in 1996 and miss the individualism each artist displayed. Attitude, style, personality, originality, and accessibility – they all had the “it” factor. Greatness can’t be fabricated and the VMA performers in 1996 contained a spirit that I personally feel has been hijacked in the mainstream.
There were 16 performances during the VMA’s in 1996 and two of those occurred during the pre-show. There were only 10 performances in 2016 and 2 of those occurred during the pre-show so most viewers only watched 8 performances. Some of those performances were full-fledged Hollywood quality productions nonetheless. Neither Beyoncé or Rihanna need all those distractions; the melodies in their songs are strong enough to capture mainstream attention.
Over the last 20 years, the VMA product has shifted from The Smashing Pumpkins performing with a full-fledged orchestra to Nick Jonas lip-synching about bacon inside a fake New York City diner. Did I hate every performer last night? No. Unfortunately, most of the performers are so well established that it just doesn’t carry the same luster. Where is the NEW? Case in point; look at how The Weeknd stole the show last year because people were wowed by the gracefulness in his voice. His confidence in his material spoke volumes about his potential as a next generation pop icon. No tricks or publicity stunts were needed. Talent above everything else! The Weeknd’s moment in 2015 is exactly what audiences crave from the VMA’s!
MTV, the ball is in your corner. You want to be a destination for music, start acting like one! Regardless of my criticisms, this channel had such a profound impact on my life from the mid 90s – early 2000s. Their music countdowns (Rock, Hip-Hop, Pop) were so quintessential to my growth as a music listener. I yearn for younger generations to understand why Generation X and the older millennials were so captivated by the Music in MTV programming. The MTV brand will outlive the cable industry, especially if it stops feeding into the TMZ machine. Look at Netflix for example; audience growth will occur if there is quality in the product. The controversial approach towards the VMA’s feels old and stale; we have practically seen it all. Give us quality in the music product and we will respond in droves.
I write these heartfelt words on August 29, 2016 – what would have been Michael Jackson’s 57th birthday. I proceeded to watch Michael Jackson – Live In Bucharest and numerous live videos of Prince after the VMA’s for some motivation and personal salvation. Their greatness still gives me hope for a better future. The music world sometimes looks extremely bleak. Every genre, even my beloved heavy metal, needs a reawakening. There is so much talent out there. As a collective whole, audiences need to support and push for the success of unique artists – across all genres – so they could shine on platforms like the VMA’s. Don’t settle for this clickbait world that we live in. This downward spiral could be reversed. Why can’t 2017 or beyond recreate the authenticity of 1996?