It’s luck, really. You do what you can: You throw a ton of wildly talented, cripplingly narcissistic, all-too-human famous people in a room together, and you lavish ’em with flattery, attention, alcohol, and all the rope they can hold. A stage, a microphone, a camera crew, a platform infinite in every direction. The rest is out of your hands. The famous people deliver or they don’t; they fuck up telegenically or they don’t. It didn’t work last night. It usually does.
You knew the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards were dead four days before they aired, when you encountered these words: “A source close to production tells us MTV honchos are giving ’Ye 4 minutes to do with as he pleases.” The thirst is overpowering. Please do something. Anything. This sense of mayhem — the show’s helplessness in the face of its superstars’ whims — has long been implicit, or admitted after the fact. But it had never been conceded so explicitly, in advance. Kanye West is responsible for the single-most shocking and entertaining and content-generating moment in the show’s history: His improvised 2009 rebuke of Taylor Swift has defined every installment since, whether by his presence or his absence. The VMAs need him way, way more than he needs them. He doesn’t really need them at all.
’Twas ever thus: In any given year, the show is dependent on roughly six to 10 megacelebrities who are big enough to carry it, either by stepping up or taking a brutal dive. This year’s potential slate of the famous-enough: Kanye, Taylor, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Drake. (Adele, Miley, Britney, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry are on the bubble; Gaga’s probably off it, for now.) But never has the show’s desperation been so palpable to even get those people on board.
So Kanye got his four minutes — seven, actually, and that was just the speech. Rihanna got a Video Vanguard Award and four separate performance slots. Beyoncé got more than 15 uninterrupted minutes to do nearly half of Lemonade and torch the place. Drake and Britney … uh, we’ll get there. The rest — save Nicki, who was there in body, not mind — didn’t even show up.
The whole thing felt like a shakedown, like a bribe demanded and delivered in broad daylight, with a payoff nowhere near worth the risk. Here’s a fact for you:
The A-listers have transcended this sordid enterprise: They conduct their petty feuds and air their dirty laundry entirely on social media now. Even the still-enormous Kanye vs. Taylor reverberations themselves have outgrown this ecosystem and created their own. So the VMAs take whatever they’re given. Kanye punted with a rambling speech that head-faked in several directions (social commentary, marital devotion, Masters of the Universe self-aggrandizement, yet more Taylor shade) but truly committed to none of them; then he debuted a C-plus Kanye West video at best. (Only on Tidal!) Beyoncé broke the show in half in multiple senses, but it felt like charity, and her performance of “Freedom” at June’s BET Awards blew last night’s medley away just as surely as that medley blew away everything else that happened last night. Rihanna started out elegantly sleepwalking (her personal brand), and slowly gathered steam — her vocals on the climactic “Love on the Brain” were the show’s purely musical highlight, for what it’s worth — but you know exactly what that’s worth.
So who’s that leave us with, exactly? Poor Britney. Poor, poor, poor Britney. No one alive has walked more stations of the VMAs cross at this point: She’s been a commanding high point (the snake), a dutifully titillating striver (the Madonna kiss), and a doormat (2007’s dazed disaster). Pre-Kanye, she held the Content-Generator Crown, and she always did the job — willingingly, preferably, but we weren’t picky. But last night proved she’s in a much better place now, but a far more boring one, cruelly sent out there to mop up after Beyoncé and effortlessly upstaged by [various moaning sounds] G-Eazy. She’s safer in Vegas. I wish her well, and sincerely hope she never associates with any of these people ever again.
An even more troubling trend is the show’s lack of a bench, or a farm team, or any sort of identifiable human presence below the megastars whatsoever. No one will host this show! No one will even present! (Rita Ora and Ansel Elgort, together at last! “Ransel”! “Oragort”!) We suffered through hopeless B-listers flailing far beyond their weight class (Nick Jonas, and Ariana Grande if she ain’t careful), or Next Big Things who blew it. (The Chainsmokers and Halsey somehow turned a performance of the current no. 1 song in America into the show’s lowest moment.) This show is the New York Yankees at their worst: overpaying for superstars, with nothing remotely organic or homegrown to bolster them or charm us. The famous people deliver or they don’t; they fuck up telegenically or they don’t. And last night they didn’t. With, arguably, at the last possible moment, one very notable exception.
All night, my personal VMAs MVP was Drake’s publicist, who contrived a traffic jam — possibly with the stoplight-scrambling system Mark Wahlberg’s crew deployed in The Italian Job — to keep Drizzy from ever entering the building. But the show went on just a few minutes long, and suddenly there he was, swaddled in a tux, grinning madly, with the mannerisms of a nervous doofus about to propose, like that clown who ambushed his girlfriend with a ring during her Olympics medal ceremony. Drake received, for his trouble, the Curve of the Century, and the best you can say is that the 2016 VMAs somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by goading him into snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. His humiliation was not quite this show’s redemption. But you take what you’re given.