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.