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2016 VMAs: Only the Good Parts

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

The 2016 MTV Video Music Awards just happened, and the Ringer staff was here to process the pop-cultural event. See all of our reactions and analyses below.

Taylor Swift Wins Again

Lindsay Zoladz [12:40 ET]: In every performance but Beyoncé’s, this was a night nostalgic for the glories of VMAs past — of MTV trying to bottle spontaneity but winding up with spoilt milk. “Let’s just invite Kanye West to do the same thing he did last year, but let’s hype the shit out of this uNpReDiCtAbLe moment!” (Using the moment to premiere the “Fade” video was an anticlimax; Kanye has never made a music video as interesting as even his worst award show performance. Tell me I’m wrong.) “Britney Spears always gets people talking … so let’s invite her to perform her lackluster new single that no one knows, instead of the type of career-spanning montage that we really want from her?” A-listers seemed uncharacteristically bored at this show from the beginning; I think I even caught Nicki Minaj yawn as she was getting simulated brain. Rihanna’s four performances were excessive; Jimmy Fallon somehow even failed to reach the low-hanging fruit of making Ryan Lochte jokes. This night was an endless marathon of bad decisions on MTV’s part — sure they were benevolent enough to give Lemonade 25 minutes, but it felt like they gave Key and Peele’s dystopian Statler and Waldorf routine twice that. It was an aimless mess, and not in the good, chaotic way; in a year where it feels like there’s so much to say, the whole show just felt like three hours of dead air. I never thought I’d say this in summer ’16, but Taylor Swift seemed smart tonight. She stayed home.

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Getty Images

R.I.P. Drake

K. Austin Collins [12:40 ET]: What Bill Murray whispered to Scarlet Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation became a mystery for the ages. What Rihanna whispered to Drake tonight, after the “The Kiss” (it already has a title, it’s already the stuff of legend) is a mystery, too, but “That wasn’t funny” is a compelling read. And Drake’s visible pout in the immediate aftermath makes for good supporting evidence: he got rebuked. Deservingly! Drake … what are you doing? The VMAs are not a rehearsal dinner — and if there were a wedding to rehearse for, it’d be of Rihanna to herself. Rihanna’s made a career of the cold swerve. More than any other pop artist sharing her lane, she’s stayed convincingly unattached, even when together. She has no Tom Hiddlestons, no Mac Millers (whoever that is). Her name won’t be smooshed into a clumsy portmanteau with her beau’s: her name is literally portmanteau-proof, because since the beginning, she knew.

Tonight, she sang “Stay” — a duet, technically, but who remembers it that way anymore? — as a solo act. She reminded us who she was — and that the men to whom her songs are addressed are no one in particular. (The “We” of “We Found Love” is Rihanna + wine glass.) She threw out her earpiece and her voice flew higher. Drake: You’re the earpiece. Her acceptance speech began with a joke about being bigger than you, and, look, you started it. She was reminding you, and all of us, of why she was here. It was a night dominated by the singular women of pop — Beyoncé, Britney, Alicia, Mary J. — and it began and ended with her. Good for you for knowing her government name, and good for her for reminding you who she is.

We Do Not Acknowledge the Chainsmokers

Rob Harvilla [12:32 ET]: The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” featuring Halsey, is the no. 1 song in America right this second. No foolin’. This is impossible to believe, an hour removed from the trio’s chintzy synth-pop nightmare of a performance, like a hard-R grindhouse remake of the talent-show scene from Revenge of the Nerds. It only further exacerbated this show’s baffling pace and truly vicious approach to scheduling, sending Britney Spears out there to die in Beyoncé’s wake, and sprinkling in who-dat yahoos (Nick Jonas! G-Eazy!) amid initially sleepy but increasingly excellent Rihanna vignettes. How did these cruise-ship clowns get a climactic time slot? How do you even steal a mattress? And why did such a bulletproof setup — this is the no. 1 song in America — become a punchline?

The VMAs can only get true A-listers to even attend anymore by lavishing them with huge awards or granting them free reign to premiere their new workout-porn videos; the tragedy of this year’s model, beyond the hostless vacuum and DOA presenters, was that the B-team didn’t step up. By some measure, among actually teenaged Americans who don’t spend their days getting paid to tweet about Beyoncé, the Chainsmokers — or Twenty One Pilots, or Flume, or [grits teeth] G-Eazy — might be legitimately more popular, and relevant, and exciting, and worthy of inclusion on an ostensibly youth-leaning television program such as this. “Closer” was tonight’s best chance for the kids to prove that they were right, or at least all right; it might’ve convinced us that the best pop music out right now wasn’t necessarily coming from the biggest names. But, no, no, that really sucked. More awkward über-celebrity bullshit it is, then. Let’s all unify around laughing at Drake instead.

Suggestion: Hire Jamie Foxx

Justin Charity [11:44 ET]: Short of Beyoncé, the most talented performances of the night have come not from Rihanna, Britney Spears, or Fifth Harmony, but rather from Jamie Foxx, who stars and sings in the Verizon ads that have aired frequently during the commercial breaks. In one commercial, he’s banging at a piano and apparently clowning his own performance in Ray. In another commercial, he’s rehashing the old “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” concept, but with a twist: Verizon is Jamie Foxx, and Sprint is a rather clerical schlub who says he’s Jamie Foxx but is most certainly not Jamie Foxx. It’s funny! It’s also the highest saturation of contemporary Jamie Foxx content that I’ve seen in the past few years, which have otherwise marked the popular ascent of Jamie Foxx’s archnemesis, Terrence Howard. Potential Jamie Foxx resurgence sponsored by Verizon, I guess; if only Viacom had thought to hire him outright to “host” instead of Key and Peele.

What Did Britney Do to Piss Off MTV?

Kate Knibbs [11:35 ET]: I have a lot of questions about this show, like: Who blackmailed Key and Peele? Is DJ Khaled going to murder Jay Pharoah? When are they presenting the annual Viggo Mortensen award?

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Getty Images

Most importantly, WHAT did Britney Spears do to the executives at MTV and Viacom to deserve her post–Beyoncé performance time slot? It’s like serving spam after caviar. Putting anyone after Beyoncé at the top of her game is incredibly rude, but putting Britney in that position was a clear act of aggression.

Why did this happen? Here are my theories:

1. This is belated payback for Britney’s notoriously lackluster 2007 VMAs performance.
2. This is belated payback for Britney’s excellent 2001 VMAs performance, because she stole the snake, and the snake was very expensive.
3. MTV is deep in the pocket of Big Federline.

Whatever the real reason for the ruthless scheduling, the biggest takeaway from this year’s VMAs is that it’s disrespectful to make anyone follow Beyoncé.

Do You Appreciate Desiigner Enough? (No.)

Micah Peters [11:27 ET]: I think we keep forgetting that Desiigner was born in 1997. Maybe that’s owing to the fact that he’s been inescapable for months now on the back of an all-hook song that went triple-platinum, or that his gravely speaking voice is at least three times his actual age.

Desiigner is a walking, breathing ad-lib. A constant stream of reaction shots.


Desiigner wore a salmon suit with no shirt on to the VMAs because he’s 19 with fuck you money. Desiigner is good. Desiigner is a gift. Desiigner is living life. We will miss Desiigner when Desiigner is gone.

Three Easy Ways To Remember Who G-Eazy Is

Micah Peters [11:13 ET]: Who is G-Eazy? He is:

G-Eazy, the Open Half-Eaten Slim Jim to the Sremmlets’ SlimJxmmi
G-Eazy, the human Saint Laurent x Uniqlo collab
G-Eazy, Buffering Mr. Porter Photo Journal Editorial

You’re welcome.

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Getty Images

I Feel Bad for Rihanna

K. Austin Collins [11:13 ET]: I should have known, from Madison Square Garden’s auspicious marquee change yesterday, that which had been touted as Rihanna’s big night — four performances! a billboard from bae! — would instead be a stop on the Formation tour. When life gives you lemonade, do what? Get out of the way. Kanye knew: He made sure to debut a new video before Beyoncé, angelic and queenly in flashes of pearly white, could deneuralyze us with her Formation Tour Redux. Alicia never-in-Keys knew: sensing Beyoncé would build us up, she stripped her act down to a lo-fi, make-up free acapella session. Calvin Harris and Drake knew: they stayed home. But did Rihanna know? The person I’d least want to be tonight is the person who had to tell Britney Spears her long-awaited comeback to the VMA stage would be following Beyoncé. But in second place — and honestly, it’s close — is Rihanna, whose performances are good, in a “Baby’s first talent show” sort of way. It’s very “Beyoncé: Hi. I’m Beyoncé. Rihanna: and I’m a PC!” How’s the song go? “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.” Or put another way: Rihanna who?

Nobody Told Nick Jonas That Nobody’s Trying This Year

Rob Harvilla [10:51 ET]: I had to Google the name of the Nick Jonas song (“Bacon”), which is his first problem and this show’s, like, 500th problem. But his awkward, forced, titanically corny late-night-diner shtick might still resonate in the morning anyway, if only because it carried the faintest whiff of actual effort.

Halfway through, the 2016 VMAs are a dead-eyed, lethally nonchalant reaction to a manic, breathtaking-for-mostly-but-not-entirely-ill year. Ariana Grande sounded winded within 10 seconds and never went anywhere; Nicki Minaj never seemed to bother breathing at all. Future strategically picked the song where he’d sound bleeped-out like 85 percent of the time; Kanye West punted at his opponent’s 40-yard line, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Even Rihanna is sleepwalking, albeit at impressive length and with a profound disinterest that she’s somehow alchemized into a singular charisma. Nobody has time for this shit this year. So for Nick to just try so desperately for five minutes, prancing about in painful-looking leather pants and mugging like crazy with bored millennials and forcing Ty Dolla $ign to perform in front a Duane Reade, you can talk yourself into him somehow stealing this thing in spite of himself. [Looks up at Beyoncé, now onscreen.] Yeah, okay, never mind. I already forgot the song title again.

Shump Keeps Winning

Sam Schube [10:49 ET]: Last year, Iman Shumpert averaged six points a game for the Cleveland Cavaliers. I once saw him miss a corner three by hitting the side of the backboard. He can’t really dribble. But hot damn if Iman Shumpert didn’t just skyrocket to the top of the fame-to-skills ratio leaderboard. That’s thanks to his last-second appearance alongside fiancée Teyana Taylor in Kanye West’s just-premiered “Fade” video. Why is Shump here? I’m not really sure! Maybe it’s because Teyana is signed to West’s G.O.O.D. Music label. Maybe it’s because Ye and Shump share Chicago roots. Or maybe it’s just because Shump is sponsored by Adidas. My choice? It’s because Iman Shumpert is on the hot streak of a goddang lifetime, this video serving as the capper on what has been a remarkable year for this mostly unremarkable basketball player. Back in December 2015, he delivered his baby daughter by using a pair of headphones as an umbilical clamp. In June, he won an NBA championship. And now, he’s taking a steamy shower with his cat-faced wife (who, again, HAD A BABY in December) in Kanye’s Flashdance cosplay. Against every last odd, Iman Shumpert keeps winning.

Kanye Doesn’t Even Have To Say Things Anymore

Micah Peters [10:48 ET]: When it was announced that he was going to be allotted a chunk of time, I started imagining all of the many, many things that could happen when Kanye West is given a live mic and four uninterrupted minutes.

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Getty Images

Maybe he’d double-down on that 2020 presidential campaign thing. Maybe he’d do a short stand-up routine about the inconvenience of water bottles, and suddenly having to be responsible for them. Maybe a screed about McDonald’s and their Devil Fry Magic, or how their early to mid-2000s “I’m lovin’ it” marketing push killed the entire neo soul genre. Maybe he’d pull out his phone and play the infamous Taylor Swift voicemail in its entirety, without saying a single word. The truth of it was, it doesn’t really matter. Kanye On Stage is pregnant energy. He has this innate ability to throw an audience into full body convulsions just by stepping into the spotlight and saying “bro.”

He walked out to “Famous,” went off-script (assuming there ever was one), namechecked Amber Rose and Taylor Swift, compared himself to Truman, Hughes — which one, I have no clue — Disney, and of course Jobs. Then he debuted the music video for “Fade,” which was just a *glistening* Teyana Taylor dancing around one of those old-time-y gyms looking other-worldly for someone who just had a baby a few months ago. He wasn’t talking about shit, but who cares? Who else do you know that can stop time like that? (Besides Beyoncé.)

Puffy Acquires a Moonman

Justin Charity [9:49 ET]: The first televised award of the night — for “Best Hip-Hop Video” — goes to Drake for “Hotline Bling.” Congratulations!

Puff Daddy introduced the award category, revealed Drake as the winner, and accepted the award in Drake’s absence, as the rapper was apparently “stuck in traffic.” During the VMAs pre-show segments, Puffy had been all over the red carpet, chatting with celebrity correspondent and nightclub brother DJ Khaled, but his on-stage participation is a bit curious on a couple levels. (1) Last week, Puffy rescheduled several Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour dates due to his recovery from shoulder surgery; and yet, here he is, shimmying and throwing elbows at Madison Square Garden on a school night. (2) Two years ago, Puffy allegedly punched Drake in the chest. And now, tonight, Puffy is holding Drake’s Moonman hostage. Drake is in Puffy’s city tonight, and Puffy’s gonna make Drake pay the tolls.

Make DJ Khaled the Actual Host This Instant

Rob Harvilla [9:40 ET]: “Talented, winsome people flailing before your very eyes” is a time-honored VMAs tradition, so say a prayer tonight for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who are dying so thoroughly during their early mean-tweet bits that there will be an all-star-studded tribute to Key and Peele a little later in the show. This year’s show is apparently hosted by 12 Different People Yelling at You Whilst Roaming the Arena and Throwing to One Another at Random; it desperately needs one person to take charge. A hero; a fall guy. Do it for the culture. Obviously last year’s host, Miley Cyrus, was destroyed by Nicki Minaj live onstage, so she’s out. But the solution is obvious: DJ Khaled, who alone seems remotely comfortable out there, imbuing the words “Make some noise for Hailee Steinfeld!” with inexplicable gravitas. Only he has the imposing physique and bottomless good cheer required to fall on a grenade this deadly; it’s either we watch him play himself or we all play ourselves.

Red Carpet Winners and Losers: A Very Brief List

Sam Donsky [9:19 ET]: 
Hard to do better than this.

Winner: Chance the Rapper
Yes, those are overalls.

Loser: Shirts
If they’re not good enough for Ty Dolla $ign, they’re not good enough for us.

Winner: Ed Sheeran
“Ed’s my guy.” — DJ Khaled, VMAs Pre-Show, 2016

Loser: Nev Schulman and Laura Perlongo
No more Nev in 2016.

Winner: Nick Jonas
Called the Weeknd “Abel” with only slight hesitation.

Loser: Joe Jonas
Wow: You stop paying attention for 10 minutes and the Jonas Wars are over. Joe Jonas looks WASHED.

Loser: Kent Jones
Dressed for winter, looked hot.

DJ Khaled, King of the Red Carpet

Sam Schube [9:12 ET]: DJ Khaled is a relentless Snapchat self-promoter, a networker of epic hustle, a professional misser-of-the-point. These are qualities that make him annoying on the radio and inescapable on Snapchat, but as it turns out, they make him unbelievable as a red-carpet host.

Witness his interview with Nick Jonas: He asked Jonas about his current projects, and when Jonas mentioned collaborating with Ed Sheeran, Khaled stopped him in his tracks. “Ed, my guy,” he enthused. “Ed, my guy. When you talk to Ed, tell him Khaled says what’s up.” Khaled dropped the pretense, making the implicit point of a red carpet — networking, self-promotion, brand advancement — extra-extra-broadcast-it-on-Snapchat explicit. Seeing his major-key catch phrases on TV commercials feels weird, stilted, demographic-chasing. But seeing other, more famous celebrities parrot them back to him during the VMAs preshow? This was watching a champion status-hound in his element. After a while, his earpiece fell out of his gigantic head, but I didn’t worry for a second. Because white-carpet host DJ Khaled? Khaled, my guy. Khaled, my guy. When you talk to Khaled, tell him Sam says what’s up.