It’s been a weird summer for music. Since May, about a dozen of the world’s biggest artists have released albums and yet it still feels like there’s no sure, clear winner for song of the summer. A certain group of listeners might award a late entry win to 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s “Fefe,” while a whole bunch of others would refuse, on moral grounds, to even entertain a listen. “Boo’d Up” feels like it could land as the runaway winner, but is it more everpresent than “I Like It”? Between “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What,” and breaking every streaming record that he ever faced, is it even possible for Drake to not win this thing? There’s also a case for forgetting what song of the summer even really means and just awarding it to Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson’s love, which has been the season’s biggest breakthrough, garnered the most conversation, and, over the course of three months, has changed the most opinions. Then, of course, there’s “Bitch I’m a Cow.”
Music appreciation today is as varied and influenced by the platform it’s streamed on, the landscape it’s heard in, and the history of the artist who’s performing it, as much as whether or not the song is good. That shows how fractured and hungry the industry has become over these past couple of years, yes, but also that popular music isn’t really a category that exists anymore. Pop as a genre, yes, but songs that are agreed upon as the most influential of the moment? That’s a bit trickier to parse.
So it was kind of funny, then, watching a music awards show hosted by a TV channel, that at one point was a defining platform for listeners and artists but is now essentially irrelevant, try to determine what is, in fact, hitting. Given the network’s recent history, they were running from behind at the jump. MTV rebooted TRL to inject some music (and nostalgia) back into the network, but it’s been a ratings disaster. At the VMAs they followed the same shoddy path by letting Jersey Shore cast members host the red carpet and attempting renewed relevance based on old favorites by rebooting The Hills (in an ungraceful lead-up that made the announcement obvious before it even happened). It’s worth noting here that the VMAs has lost 50 percent of its viewership over that last three years, with only 2.6 million people watching last year’s show, an all time low. MTV is a channel hanging off of a cliff, reaching up with its last hand to grasp the positive memories that stand just on the other side of the ledge.
The VMAs this year were not memorable. The first performance was Shawn Mendes standing with a guitar, thinking what a fun, surprising twist it would be if rain started falling on him. Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick invited the Rockettes on stage to the delight of...whom? Which is a question that kept popping up: who was this show designed to please? Who, really, was it for? Last summer Nielsen reported that hip-hop passed rock as the most popular genre in America and yet there wasn’t a single rap moment here until a (very long) hour in when a pre-recorded Nicki Minaj performed from the center of the World Trade Center Occulus. The show purposefully obscured what most people came to see.
The best segment of the night, and the only time nostalgia actually worked, came thanks to Jennifer Lopez, who was honored with the Video Vanguard Award and performed for ten minutes. She ran through “Waiting for Tonight,” “Get on the Floor,” “Dance Again,” “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” “Get Right,” throwing on a white fur for “All I Have,” eventually summoning a 6 train onto the stage to perform “Jenny from the Block,” before reviving Ja Rule for “I’m Real.” It was a too brief respite, a reminder why the VMAs are on TV in the first place, and what real showmanship looks like. It’s sexy, it’s fun, it’s dance, it’s not too self-serious. It’s taking Cardi B and Rihanna snippets just to shake your ass to something good. It’s your boo in the front row, next to your kids and your mom, beaming and recording the whole thing. It was a brief reminder that music is entertaining and something we listen to for fun and because it makes us feel good. Now let’s give J-Lo the Super Bowl.
Music is transforming at warp speed and the traditional gatekeepers and standard bearers will no doubt get left behind. The relevant and culture-shifting artists of today don’t really know how to engage with a show like this because it simply doesn’t mesh with how the rest of the world works. It’s too long, too boring, too careless. The VMAs failed spectacularly. They simplified an entire region of music into “Best Latin.” They attempted a historic moment by calling Maluma’s “the first Latin performance” when J-Lo was literally on the stage moments before. Instead of hanging on by these threads an awards show like this should bow out gracefully or change dramatically. God knows the artists aren’t going to change for them, they’ll just stop showing up.
Sooner rather than later, achieving song of the summer will also become meaningless. There will just be too many songs for too many subsets of listeners. At the VMAs they tried to offer time to each. There was Juice WRLD for the sad rap crowd, Panic! At The Disco for throwback emo, Travis Scott for the hypebeasts, Lauv, who I’ve never heard of but have since gathered is probably big on Spotify. But stretching the show to cover all the bases only diminishes its purpose and effect; makes it all to obvious that MTV is just working harder and harder at play catch-up rather than leading the conversation
Music, especially hip hop, is moving at such a warp speed that by the time one new sound arrives, the next flow has already sprouted elsewhere. Chief Keef is only 23-years-old, but generations have grown up under his influence. The 19-year-old Juice WRLD wore a Givenchy rottweiler shirt. Time has really moved fast enough that that’s acceptable and possibly even cool again. (And can I finish this review without mentioning that industry plant boy band of hypebeast clones?). Realistically, though, there is no legitimacy in an awards show that, amid all this fast-paced change, is somehow still nominating Logic for "1-800-273-8255," a song that came out before last years show.
The problem with the VMAs is that, for a product of a channel that is banking on our fond memories of it, it was forgettable even as we watched. By the time Madonna came out to talk about herself instead of Aretha Franklin, I was counting down the minutes until it was over, only to realize that I waited all that time, and all I got was an Aerosmith finale.