TV Review: MTV’s Video Music Awards Were Low on Star Power

This year’s MTV Video Music Awards, held at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, felt eerily emptied out. It wasn’t, or wasn’t solely, that quite so many crowd shots of Radio City included a painful number of empty seats. Exactly who was missing was the problem. The VMAs, this year, were pointedly devoid of the star power that had defined the show for so long. An awards ceremony that thrives on the delicious collisions between megastars this year only offered carefully stage-managed appearances.

Beyoncé wasn’t there; neither were Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Adele, Justin Bieber, or Ed Sheeran. Yes, awards seasons are cyclical, but several of these stars were nominated for prizes, as was Drake, almost certainly the biggest artist of the summer. He showed up only in the form of interstitial music ringing in the presentation of an Artist of the Year trophy, won by Camila Cabello.

It wasn’t just that the VMAs were striving to cater to Generation Z and honoring stars that elders hadn’t heard of. Indeed, the Video Vanguard Award, a lifetime achievement prize that in recent years has gone to Beyoncé and Rihanna, went to Jennifer Lopez, who performed a medley of hits likely more familiar to millennials than MTV’s stated target audience. Lopez used her moment to deliver both an elaborately staged and admirably athletic performance and a lengthy speech that showed her gift for relating to the public; happily aware of her uniquely high wattage, she showed the sparse audience what a real star looked like.

But the show seemed starved of what had historically made it itself. Nicki Minaj, for instance, was a rare example of a major current star in attendance, but her performance was done off-site and had seemingly been pre-taped. And her acceptance speech for the Best Hip-Hop prize, early in the ceremony, made clear how much less essential the VMAs are than direct channels to fans: Minaj told the audience to tune into her Apple Music radio show, where they’d find out which of her nemeses she was most angry at. (In so describing, Minaj dropped a random homophobic slur, one that might once have been the ninth-most-noticeable bid for attention at the VMAs but that stuck out this year as discordant for an unusually tame show.)

There was a time when the VMAs were a change-of-season status report on pop: As MTV’s target audience heads back to school and those slightly outside that audience get ready to turn their mind to graver things, the pop world had historically united to put on a show that could carry viewers into the fall. Just five years ago—at a VMAs headlined by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Drake, and Justin Timberlake, at which Miley Cyrus stole the show—Rihanna showed up just to watch. This year, the ceremony was padded out with worthy but confusing performances by emerging artists that might have been better served elsewhere on MTV’s air.

And the few top performers who showed up were pushed into double duty, vastly more than is typical. Ariana Grande won a prize and performed (her Renaissance-inflected take on “God Is a Woman,” involving her own mother and grandmother, showed a welcome spark of visual imagination). Shawn Mendes performed, in predictably strong voice and unprovocative staging, and presented an award to Jennifer Lopez. Cardi B “opened the show” (doing a brief comedy bit) and accepted an award with Jennifer Lopez—who managed, in fact, to win a competitive award on top of her lifetime-achievement award during an overlong ceremony. And Cabello wasn’t just effectively the only person to whom the camera cut during Madonna’s lengthy preamble to presenting the Video of the Year trophy; she also took the prize.

“Havana” is a successful song, and Cabello a compelling young star, but the win was suitably bizarre for a show that seemed lost. Nominated videos by Drake, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and Childish Gambino made more impact (the last of these was a viral smash when it debuted).

Cabello, at a loss for words, ended up dedicating her award to Madonna, a star whom she said she idolized. Meanwhile, Madonna had spent her wind-up to presenting the night’s top award paying homage to Aretha Franklin, a random connection that ended up feeling relevant. Her introduction was widely balked-at on social media for being self-centered, but in fact seemed to provide rare evidence of a common thread between the Queen of Soul and the Queen of Pop. While Madonna may lack Aretha’s fullness of voice, she has a comparable understanding of how to hold an audience through the sheer power of charisma and self-belief—and she held the viewer’s gaze better than did most of the evening’s performers.

Those among today’s artists who can reach a major audience choose to do so entirely on their own terms and without mediation. What’s left for the audience hoping for a moment of delight are rising stars testing their skills and younger artists looking for a shot. A good awards show places stars into conversation with one another—not merely over who should win, but also over who’s caught in a reaction shot, who’s thanked in a speech. This year’s VMAs felt so subject to stars’ demands to be hermetically sealed from one another that they didn’t feel like much of an awards show at all.

After all, fans will tune into Nicki Minaj’s online radio show or Drake’s Instagram or Beyoncé’s tour footage and not need MTV as a vector—and those stars know that. Perhaps future VMAs will put further emphasis on the emerging artists who grabbed moments during the ceremony; it seems more plausible than trying to catch a generation of artist who seems, effectively, to have quit MTV. If the network can’t get Beyoncé (or the next dozen or so of her closest peers), it may as well try to craft new stars.

TV Review: MTV's Video Music Awards Were Low on Star Power

More Music

  • Bishop Briggs

    Bishop Briggs, Blackwave Among Winners of Inaugural Music Moves Europe Awards

    Emergent artists from across the EU are in Groningen this week to play showcases for music festival bookers, and several award shows took place Wednesday evening to toast top talent. Accordingly, bands were on hand from all corners of the European Union to collect prizes (and grant money) that will further careers. The Music Moves [...]

  • Phil McIntyre Steps Down as Roc

    Phil McIntyre Steps Down From Roc Nation Management, but Remains Affiliated With Company

    Phil McIntyre has stepped down as president of Roc Nation Management, but his PhilyMack management company remains affiliated with Roc, a source close to the situation tells Variety. PhilyMack, which McIntyre founded in 2006, partnered with Roc Nation in 2015. The source stressed that McIntyre’s role at Roc Nation Management  — whose clients include Rihanna, [...]

  • Miley Cyrus performs during the "I

    Metallica, Miley Cyrus and a Reunited Soundgarden Pay Tribute to Chris Cornell

    Metallica, Foo Fighters, Miley Cyrus and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine headlined an all-star lineup honoring the late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell at a mammoth five-hour tribute concert in Los Angeles Wednesday. Mixing rock n’ roll with elements of pop, punk and stripped-down acoustics, the sold-out event was a journey through Cornell’s decades-long career and a [...]

  • Hikaru Utada to Perform 'Kingdom Hearts'

    Hikaru Utada to Perform 'Kingdom Hearts' Songs in PlayStation VR

    PlayStation VR owners can catch a special performance from Japanese-American singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada starting on Friday, Jan. 18, according to the PlayStation Blog. Filmed at the Yokohama Arena, the “Hikaru Utada Laughter in the Dark Tour 2018 – ‘Hikari’ & ‘Chikai’ – VR” features two songs from the “Kingdom Hearts” franchise — “Simple and Clean” [...]

  • Heather Parry Live Nation

    Live Nation Investigation of Heather Parry Also Targets Leakers (EXCLUSIVE)

    Over the past two weeks, the law firm of Paul Hastings LLP has been probing allegations reported by Variety last month that Heather Parry, the head of Live Nation Productions, had verbally abused employees and used offensive language in the workplace. But the lead investigator, Elena Baca, seems to be just as interested in uncovering [...]

  • Gladys Knight

    Gladys Knight to Sing National Anthem at Super Bowl

    The Super Bowl just got more soulful. Gladys Knight will sing the National Anthem during Super Bowl LIII. The seven-time Grammy-winner’s performance will take place during the pre-game festivities and be televised live on CBS before the game’s kickoff. “I am proud to use my voice to unite and represent our country in my hometown [...]

  • Maren Morris

    Maren Morris Reveals Dates for Massive Tour Supporting New Album, 'Girl'

    Maren Morris today announced dates for her headlining to in support of her forthcoming sophomore album, “Girl.” The tour launches in Chicago on March 9 and features country artists Cassadee Pope and RaeLynn in support. Tickets for the general on-sale will begin Tuesday, January 22 at 10 a.m. local time. Citi is the official presale credit card [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content