TV Review: The 2017 MTV Video Music Awards Get Some Things So Right — and Others So Wrong

Katy Perry hosts the MTV Video
Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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?’!”

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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.

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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.

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    1. Carlos says:

      I was glad MTV tied to incorporate social issues but for the most part the MTV awards are no longer must see TV. And the overall the show no longer has relevancy. MTV having music awards is like HMV having music awards. People neither watch nor buy music from either one of those entities anymore. something like say the Youtube Music awards or the Spotify music awards sound more relevant. And for the most part these artists do not entertain or mix social commentary with music as well as the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson or Nirvana. Certainty we all recognized those songs but frankly those so called big artists look like kids hanging out all mall. Where’s the star power of yesteryear. Sorry, MTV but the magic’s gone.

    2. Rena B. says:

      The show was an embarrassment. This week I thought the world-spanning floods were a sign that the end of the world is near, until I watched the VMA show, and then I really knew the end of the world was near. Sexed-up performances mixed with broad political gibberish, fantastic pyrotechnics mixed with inane, disconnected banter, jumpy camera work, unimaginative, jerky dancing, unflattering costumes, men in heels, unintelligible rapping and off-key singing. Maybe Miley Cyrus was the best singer, although I don’t know what about. I love Pink, but she has never done any groundbreaking work. She has been a pop follower rather than a leader, so for her to get a Vanguard award shows that the well has run dry.

    3. Shelley says:

      With their pathetic liberal political viewpoints being touted this VMA was mainly just a big waste of time disappointment.
      I tuned in to watch music entertainers not a bunch of crybaby political analysts.
      Enough is enough, get over it!
      They need to get back to showing what little dignity and talent they may still have or this award show will probably just die, RIP.

    4. Scott Bannigan says:

      MTV Music Awards I thought was supposed to be about music, not mindless awkward liberal jiberish. That’s what CNN is for.
      What a crap event, MTV has really flush it’s self into the toilet this time.
      So-called celebrities should entertain not waist airtime with their nonsensical political dribble that no one cares about.

    5. lindsey says:

      monologue bombed d.c. pierson & co with many swings and misses

    6. kywenzel says:

      I think your remarks are spot on. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, even the bad jokes and awkward moments.

    7. Stupidity and immorality make the VMA’s impossible to watch anymore. They pander to masses that look to them to lead, yet they are so propagandizing, out of touch with normalcy and stupid it hurts.

    8. Allan Falk says:

      lot of speeches by these people at the vma……but ANTIFA and BLM are violent and rioting in the streets clashing with police, why not a word about them?

      people have had enough of hollywood actors and musicians liberal preaching …….

    9. AmandaSue2 says:

      I used to watch the show live, then I started to record it…and now I read the reviews the day after. Sadly, it’s not entertaining to me anymore. Unfortunately, I don’t feel connected to some of the artists — I don’t know who they are, and with a few exceptions, many of the songs sound the same. The time-tested, distinctly recognizable talents; Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Sting, GaGa (etc) who you KNOW in the first two seconds of the song…well, that doesn’t happen like it use to, for me. Also, I’m weary of all the politics. I’m still looking forward to seeing what everyone wore, so I’ll google it. I enjoyed binging on Tom Hardy movies all night. Gawd, Netflix and Amazon Prime are the best thing EVER!

    10. Lori says:

      Hard to believe Hollywood could sink any lower but they’ve managed to pull it off. Just crap and trash. The days of genuine entertainment and talent are long over.

    11. Jules says:

      This awards show jumped the shark many years ago! Pull the plug on it already! I never even heard of most of these performers” – they are certainly not musicians. I guess I’m too old because I thought P!nk was awesome – both her singing and her speech and the rest of the show was pretty much crap!

    12. Alex says:

      MTV is no longer important, I bet the ratings will be low.

    13. CC says:

      Sooooo sad.

      • Katy says:

        Just proves talent doesn’t necessarily mean smart. No religion no politics no race. Shutup and be entertaining. Or get off the stage. We didn’t pay for your opinions to be forced into all like you are some kind of dictators. Telling everyone to buy soda instead of milk.
        Keep your hate to yourself.

        • Frank says:

          Horrid show. Sick of the haters.

        • Michael anthony says:

          Or maybe you should change the channel. Many like artists taking positions, because they can have impact. Instead of lubricating what we should watch, change your channel.

    14. Allan Falk says:

      “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””

      My god, what a crapshow……supporting Kaepernick and antifa at a music event……….mtv rip

      • Michael anthony says:

        Read the article. Novato didn’t say it.

      • Katy says:

        This is the new discipline screw your team mates and the industry that paid you. Too many hits to his brain.
        Any the press etal propagandize it for MONEY. Let’s get ourselves some attention. Feedbag.

        • Tom says:

          I agree.

        • Michael anthony says:

          Lord, you have an opinion on everything. It’s called freedom. Just like you’re allowed to spout your nonsense, Colin can choose what he wishes. One would assume if you had family or friends killed, you might feel the same way. Unless you have, your opinion counts for nothing.

    15. Frank says:

      “Demi Lovato sang her hit “Sorry” live from the Palms in Las Vegas on a stage in the middle of a swimming pool” –correction needed. Her performance was pre-taped…she was in attendance at the show in LA.

    16. Katy says:

      The daughters foundation will be run by volunteers hopefully. Otherwise it’s just exploitation. Sad.

    17. Steve says:

      People who post in this thread.

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