It’s been so long since there’s been any live music that I was actually excited for something I have never once cared about in my entire life: the MTV Video Music Awards. MTV went to New York this year to hand out its coveted Moon Person awards, and though Gov. Andrew Cuomo has disallowed everyone else from holding live performances, MTV got the go-ahead.
The whole presentation was almost an homage to COVID-19 with an undercurrent of social justice. Frontline emergency workers were lauded for dancing and singing in empty hospital wards, cleared out for the onslaught of Wuhan virus patients that in many places never arrived. The “live” audience was a bunch of cars, presumably with people inside, but maybe it was just product placement. In accepting their awards, artists said, “Justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor.”
We Couldn’t Escape COVID-19 and BLM
A pandemic-inspired mood pervaded virtually all elements of the show. There was no visible live audience, and the presenters stood what looked to be six feet apart. They did this even though they could all have had rapid-response tests earlier in the day to make sure they weren’t infectious. Perhaps they were trying to set a good example to the young people watching the show.
The same went for unnecessary face masks. Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande performed in masks, and their back-up dancers popped and twirled fully masked, looking like automatic bodies with no personality and no face. The masks were so clearly just a nod to the coronavirus restrictions and this overarching narrative that we all must wear face coverings even when we don’t need to. “Wear a mask, it’s a sign of respect,” Lady Gaga said. It certainly wasn’t respectful to the audiences at home, who could hardly enjoy the performances because half the artists’ expressions were blocked off.
Megan Thee Stallion popped a bottle of champagne alone somewhere off-screen and socially distant when she accepted the award for Best Hip Hop. It was extremely anti-climactic, but it’s what many artists did.
Grande and Justin Bieber won an award for “Best Music Video at Home,” which was a coronavirus-inspired category to nominate those music videos that were made while musicians were social distancing and self-quarantining. There was also an award for Best Quarantine Performance, and another category gave a nod to the songs that inspired the most TikTok dances, a popular lockdown pastime.
Another category, “Video for Good,” celebrated the most politically woke video because, according to celebrities, only political art is worthwhile. After winning for her “I Can’t Breathe” video, H.E.R. said she’s “super proud of everyone speaking out for social justice” while accepting her award from a nondescript off-stage room.
Keke Palmer spoke about the recent madness in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and how the phenomenon of Black Lives Matter shows that her generation is standing up and taking responsibility. “It’s our time to be the change we want to see,” she said, as the unseen crowd let up whoops and cheers. It turns out they were on Zoom or something equally as horrible.
‘Live’ TV Requires and Audience
Without an audience, the normally salacious performances fell flat. “Tonight we are taking over the best city in the world,” Palmer said, and while we could hear VMA fans cheering, there were no real people to see. It was just noise.
Prerecorded songs on New York rooftops were as good as they would have been had they just been music videos, but as a replacement for live performances before a live audience, they were just more of the same — a reminder that we’ve been deprived of a “live life” since March.
The hosts kept saying there would be live music, but it was indistinguishable from the prerecorded songs, and because MTV showed both, there was nothing special about any of it. Miley Cyrus, in a Joan Jett haircut, sort of performed, but it was really just a music video, without the crowd or live element.
The canned cheering was worse than a laugh track on a sitcom, and somehow even more insulting. As the performers danced around and sang through face masks, it all just seemed so irrelevant and stupid.
The real lesson of the VMA’s is that there’s no such thing as “live” TV if there’s no audience. Seeing performers with covered faces thank no one over and over again for their awards, feigning humility before the sound of canned cheers, was just silly. There was nothing brazen about the VMAs this year, and for once, we could have used it.
I watched the VMAs in hopes of a diversion from this absurd timeline we’re living through. Instead, the awards show smacked me over the head with coronavirus and social justice the whole time.