What do the MTV VMAs Mean in a Post-Monoculture World?

Ten years ago, at the MTV Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus, then just 20 years old, twerked onstage, to the dismay of many, in a latex bikini alongside Robin Thicke as her anthemic “We Can’t Stop” transitioned into his controversial “Blurred Lines.” It was a career-defining moment for Cyrus, trading in her Mickey Mouse ears for space buns. A decade later, it’s a part of pop culture history.

The VMA stage has always been home to infamous moments like this, giving performers a platform to take risks. It’s where Britney Spears (19 years old at the time) draped a python over her arms to sing “I’m a Slave 4 U” and where Madonna performed, at the first-ever VMAs almost 40 years ago, her sacrilegious mega-hit “Like a Virgin,” popping out of a cake in a less-than-traditional wedding dress. It’s also where, 20 years ago, those two pop icons, with Christina Aguilera in tow, locked lips, inciting a good old-fashioned moral panic.

At the VMAs, the stakes are decidedly lower than that of the Grammys, where the Recording Academy votes on who will take home the prestigious award. Here, the winners are determined by rabid fandoms, and the award itself is shaped like an astronaut landing on the moon, a reference to the first clip MTV ever aired back in 1981. An event where celebs are known for going off script, it’s where stars let their hair down and slip into something more comfortable, like a meat dress, or into an unscripted rant about how Beyoncé actually had the best music video of the year, or that “the world is bullshit.” In 2013, MTV cofounder Tom Freston, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the origins of the award show: “We just got picked up in New York, and it seemed like a good time to have a party. Then the idea became: Have a party, but somehow do it so we legitimize the video music form.” Like most teens and young adults in their demographic, they also just needed an excuse to party and, if you had cable, you were invited.

Over the years, the red carpet alone has inspired instantly recognizable Halloween costumes. But looking back at the most recent few years, few looks and watercooler moments come to mind. Even at Tuesday’s show, there was lots of applause but little to no laughter or surprises, due, in part, to the absence of a host to provide comedic relief. Presenters stick to their lines, and performances go according to plan. Though viewership of last year’s show reached 3.9 million, after years of declining ratings, it might have been audiences tuning in for the hope of it all, just in case Taylor Swift announced her studio album, Midnights, while accepting her award for video of the year, which, of course, she did. And, yes, there have been some great performances by boundary-pushing artists like Lil Nas X and Doja Cat. But each year, the sense that the VMAs are a relic of a bygone era of uncensored celebrity comes creeping back in.

This year, due to the union strikes, stars have been cooped at home, all dressed up with nowhere to go and nothing to promote. But on Tuesday, chart-topping musicians like Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Ice Spice, Karol G, Featherweight, Lil Wayne, Cardi B, and many more descended upon the pink carpet at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. All together in one room for “Music’s Most Iconic Night,” a sentiment that was plastered on pink posters across the venue.

At the top of the show, VMA winner and emcee for the night, Nicki Minaj, referenced a network concern (remember “what’s good, Miley?”) without naming what exactly it was. “It’s okay, MTV, I can control myself,” said the “Super Freaky Girl” rapper. “Because if you can’t control yourself, you can’t control anything around you.” This sentiment set the tone for the evening, which went off without a hitch, a well-oiled machine where everyone played nice. Something like an A-List talent show where Taylor Swift, who had a camera devoted to capturing her reactions nearly all night, is your biggest fan.

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