At this point, the MTV Video Music Awards should give a lifetime achievement award to the sentence “MTV doesn't play music videos anymore.” It's a sentiment that's older than many current VMA performers. But cynics be damned, the VMAs are still one of the most entertaining and provcative award shows we have. Your great aunt is still recovering from that Robin Thicke/Miley Cyrus performance.
Here's why we'll always watch MTV's yearly descent into the videodrome.
1. The performances are actually entertaining.
The VMAs let pop artists go beyond the stodgy confines of a Grammy performance and deliver something cartoonish, impish, strange, or potentially offensive. To clarify: It lets pop artists of 2015 be pop artists of 2015. Madonna's decadent performance of “Vogue” in Marie Antoinette garb would never fly at the Grammys, particularly in 1990. Irreverence is a particular strong suit of VMAs performances. Think of the creepy Metropolitan Opera performance of Kid Rock's “Bawitdaba” in '99, or the hundreds of Slim Shady doppelgangers who invaded Eminem's “The Real Slim Shady” performance. It's more about having fun than commanding respect like every quaint collaboration on the Grammy stage.
2. Truth: “Video of the Year” still means something.
With few exceptions (and I'm looking at you, “Lady Marmalade”), the choice for Video of the Year is almost always right on. “Wrecking Ball” was the greatest video of last year, “Single Ladies” was the best of '09, “Umbrella” the best of '07, and “Work It” the best of '02. Though music videos are far less ubiquitous than they once were, there is something meaningful about the videos that still stand out year after year. “Wrecking Ball” ushered in a radder, adult Miley. “Single Ladies” elevated Beyonce from “pop superstar” to “unknowable force.” Even Panic at the Disco's 2007 win for “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies” indicated that rock music belonged to the skinny-jean community.
3. The Grammys are about playing nice. The VMAs are about stunts.
When you turn on the Grammys, you expect to see famous musicians. When you turn on the VMAs, you expect to see famous musicians up to no good. Is that Lady Gaga as a male drag alter ego Jo Calderone? It is. Is that Katy Perry in boxer regalia? Mmhmm. Did Miley Cyrus just allow a homeless youth to give her Video of the Year speech? Did some member of Rage Against the Machine just climb up on the scenery? He did. The rambunctiousness and showmanship are truly unpredictable.
4. The speeches are sincere.
At other award shows, speeches tend to be longish and filled with thank-yous to folks you've never heard of. At the VMAs, winners are shouting over a screaming audience, which usually forces them to be quick, ebullient, and sincere — and even a little nasty. In Taylor Swift's Best Female Video speech in 2013 for “I Knew You Were Trouble,” she sassed the guy who inspired the song, held up her trophy, and noted, “Now I've got one of these!” Naturally, the camera then panned to One Direction. Did I mention this whole show is damn mischievous?
5. The Video Vanguard Award has been responsible for two of the most explosive performances of the past few years.
One of my favorite VMA revamps of the past few years has been the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, which used to be a way of telling popular artists, “Look! You've been famous for awhile now.” Now it gives great entertainers a reason to perform an insane medley of hits. Justin Timberlake offered up a long, impressive array of hits (including an NSYNC reunion) in 2013, and Beyonce served up almost every song from her “Beyonce” album in 2014. Here's hoping we get a vocally flawless Video Vanguard performance from the likes of Pink or Lady Gaga soon.