It may have been One Direction’s performance at the VMAs yesterday that made me realize I’m out of touch. As the band took the stage at Staples Center last night, several thoughts crossed through my head, including:
Who are these people?
I’m older than them?
Why aren’t they singing that catchy “Glad You Came” song?
Oh, that’s another British boy band?
They’re all wearing skinny jeans?
Why did I get such a big popcorn?
One Direction, or “1D” as the tweeny-boppers call the overseas sensation on Twitter, energetically jumped around on stage, singing lyrics without a hint of a Brit accent. Teens in the crowd wearing what amounted to homecoming dresses wailed with delight, and everyone in my seating section — and I do mean everyone — sat quietly or whispered to their plus ones: “I don’t know the words.”
One audience member to my right even said, “I remember Britney with a snake! What is this?!”
Rihanna’s opening performance felt lackluster in the arena, 2 Chainz moment on stage had me counting his necklaces rather than listening to his music, and Taylor Swift’s performance smelt of my tenth grade diary.
We all remember Britney with a snake. What are the VMAs now?
The kudos fest used to be synonymous with over-the-top performances featuring ridiculous costumes, impressive dance routines and scandalous moments that America would be discussing the next day. We have seen Diana Ross fondle Lil Kim, Britney and Christina swap spit through Madonna, Kanye butt into other people’s business, Rose McGowan sport a fishnet, Gaga drip blood, Fiona Apple hate the world, Tommy Lee and Kid Rock fight over Pam, and oh, Michael frickin’ Jackson. Even last year’s show and broadcast at the Nokia offered fun bits like Beyonce confirming a Blue Ivy bun in the oven while on stage and Gaga speaking in third person while in drag.
The success of the Video Music Awards comes not from doling out Moonmen (though celebs forcing a surprised reaction when they receive the kudo is always an amusing part of the evening for me), and maybe not even from beautiful performances, but rather from its wild, unscripted antics. Yet, I am realizing that those moments are like lightening in a bottle, derived from an amalgamation of explosive personalities, creative zest and the FCC’s nightmare of live broadcasts on MTV.
What was last night’s show? Safe. Standard. Celebs arrived, did their work on the red carpet and took their seats at the Staples Center. The loudest cheers of the evening came from boy bands whose members may or may not seem interchangeable to anyone over 22 and from a “Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt 2” sneak peek that left some in the audience heading out for another drink at the bar. Even Lil Wayne donned his Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, zoning out during the broadcast.
If last night is proof of anything, it’s that we’ve entered a strange lull in pop culture. What’s “hot” right now is Taylor Swift’s vanilla, catchy pop tracks and whether a member of The Wanted is single or not. Lady Gaga’s shock value has worn off, Nicki Minaj can only wear so much glitter, and where is Eminem? I mean really, where is Eminem?
Most stars are over-handled by a team hell bent on dodging bad press, so broadcasts like the VMAs feature bored-looking celebs on their best behavior. No publicist wants another “I’ma let you finish, but…” moment on their hands. But where’s the fun in that?
Last night’s celebs and performers did not take the VMAs as an opportunity to do with the show what iconic folk from the past have — use it as a vehicle for irony, sensation, or just pointless ridiculousness. The show’s producers probably heaved a sigh of relief at the end of the broadcast, having avoided on-air nudity, fights, and anything else that would require a quick cut to another part of the stage.
Yet, perhaps MTV’s relief after a show should be a litmus test for how good the VMAs were that year. Viewers don’t really care about who won awards — this is not the Oscars, after all. Those Moonmen are mere formalities, providing a scheduling framework for the insanity. Viewers want what stresses out handlers and MTV: wild, jaw-dropping moments that leave audiences members nudging each other and saying, “Did you see that?!” Last night came up dry, probably to the joy of those working behind-the-scenes. But producers and handlers, if you’re feeling complacent and relaxed during the broadcast, if you’re high fiving one another for a seamless job well done, if you’re garnering praise for doling out a wholesome show that ruffled no feathers, you may be forgetting what the Video Music Awards are really all about.