If one single moment sums up the 2017 VMAs, it was this.
Robert Lee IV, a pastor and a descendent of Civil War general Robert E. Lee — whose statue was at the center of the violence in Charlottesville earlier this month — introduced himself to the audience and said, “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. As a pastor, it is my responsibility to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.” He then introduced Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, the woman killed when a suspected neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville.
“Only 15 days ago my daughter Heather was killed protesting racism,” she said. “I miss her but I know she’s here tonight.” She then announced the Heather Heyer Foundation, which will help provide scholarships to students interested in pursuing law, education and social justice issues. “I have committed myself to making her death count.”
As Lee and Bro walked slowly toward the back of the stage, the camera moved to Hailey Baldwin — wearing a mesh bodysuit that highlighted her black panties — who introduced the next performance, from Rod Stewart and DNCE. As Bro, visible in the background, received a deep and heartfelt embrace from Kesha, Baldwin flashed devil horns and gushed, “We’re headed to Vegas to ask just one question: ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’!”
The 36th annual MTV Video Music Awards, broadcast live from The Forum in Los Angeles, ping-ponged between such extremes for the entire night. Water-cooler-chatter-spawning shade was thrown between Fifth Harmony and former member Camilla Cabello and (more subtly) Taylor Swift and show host Katy Perry, while Alessia Cara and Pink made powerful statements about body-shaming and accepting people for who they are. A rousing opening set from Kendrick Lamar — performing a medley of “D.N.A.” and “Humble,” which meant the first words heard during the entire show were “Police brutality” — was immediately followed by Ed Sheeran playing the deeply uncontroversial “Shape of You”; in the middle of the song the cameras cut to Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff eating a banana.
And early in the show, a Dior-clad Paris Jackson, Michael’s daughter, said “If we were to put our voices together, do you realize the impact we could make? We must show these Nazi supremacist jerks that we have zero tolerance for their violence, hatred and discrimination. We must resist!” She then said, with an impressively self-aware laugh, “And now: the nominees for Best Pop Video!”
Of course, the VMAs have walked the line between the profound, the profane and the inane almost since their inception — Miley Cyrus followed up her 2013 twerking fiasco (the last major water-cooler moment the VMAs have had) by having a formerly homeless youth accept her Video of the Year award in 2014 and plug My Friend’s Place, an organization in Los Angeles that helps young homeless people find housing, jobs, health care and schooling.
But rarely have the two extremes clashed as jarringly as they did on Sunday night. On the down side, host Perry was dealt a rough hand by the script writers whose terrible jokes, particularly about the alarming state of the world, fell flat without exception and deserve no recounting here. Swift premiered a video for her polarizing new single “Look What You Made Me Do” that was so narcissistic and self-referential that one could spend 5,000 words unspooling it (no thanks). Demi Lovato sang her hit “Sorry” from the Palms in Las Vegas on a stage in the middle of a swimming pool, wearing an awkwardly cut, garishly blue one-piece swimsuit — with chaps. 30 Seconds to Mars and Travis Scott played their new single through a thermographic video effect that was kind of cool but also kind of pointless. Julia Michaels’ performance cut to a commercial before she’d even gotten to the chorus. DJ Khaled continued to overshare his 10-month-old son. Perry’s show-closing, basketball-themed performance of “Swish Swish” ended with her awkwardly suspended in mid-air above a hoop and backboard as the credits rolled.
Yet unlike the 2016 VMAs — which were shockingly oblivious to the social and political climates at the time — this year’s show did not shy away from making statements, the most effective of which were about suicide awareness and self-acceptance. Jared Leto gave a heartfelt speech remembering Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, both of whom committed suicide earlier this year. Logic, accompanied by Alessia Cara and Best New Artist winner Khalid, performed his moving suicide-awareness song “1-800-273-8255” as dozens of suicide-attempt survivors stood onstage wearing matching T-shirts that said “You are not alone,” many of them weeping. Earlier, Cara — one of the most unassuming stars to come along in many years — began her performance of “Scars to Your Beautiful,” a song about body-shaming and self-acceptance, in a glamorous dress, a wig and heavy makeup; black-clad dancers quickly removed the dress and the wig as she wiped away her makeup and finished the song in ordinary black jeans and a tank top. Cardi B turned a simple introduction of Demi Lovato’s performance into a wildly eccentric vamp that included a statement of support for banished NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick — ” As long as you kneel with us, we gonna be standing for you, baby” — all while fending off a wardrobe malfunction.
And Video Vanguard winner Pink performed a dazzling, career-spanning medley that showed off her stellar voice and dancing skills. But even that show-stealing performance was overshadowed by her acceptance speech, wherein she told a story about her 6-year-old daughter Willow — who was in the audience — saying she was ugly because she looked like a boy. Pink told of putting together a “power point presentation” of various “androgynous rock stars — Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Annie Lennox, Prince — and artists who live their truth and were probably made fun of every day of their lives, but carry on and inspire us.
“We help other people to change so they can see more kinds of beauty,” she concluded, saying to those artists, “Thank you for being your true selves and lighting the way for us, keep shining for the rest of us to see. And my baby girl — you are beautiful.”
The surreal state of the world wasn’t the only uncertain backdrop for this show: The VMAs and MTV are in an existential crisis as the network and cable-television itself flail for an audience in a cable-cutting world. But unlike last year, at least the 2017 VMAs showed signs of life. The catfights, glamour and attempts at water-cooler moments that are the show’s stock in trade were the low points of this year’s show, overshadowed by its surprisingly successful plays for relevance and poignance. It could easily have gone the other way — and that uneasy, unpredictable mix of the inspiring and the inane that’s worked in the past just might be the way forward as well.