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The MTV VMAs May Be Dying, but We Can’t Stop Watching

With Madonna’s cringey tribute, J.Lo’s middling medley, and Logic’s earnest anthem, the once-vaunted awards show remains a reliable source of schadenfreude, confusion, and self-loathing

A collage of artists at the VMAs Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You missed the VMAs. They were Monday night. Don’t worry about it. “And then one day, a French disco sensation was looking for backup singers and dancers for his world tour.” That was Madonna. “I thought, ‘Why not?’ The worst that can happen is, I can go back to getting robbed, held at gunpoint, and being mistaken for a prostitute in my third-floor walkup that was also a crackhouse.” Madonna was delivering the show’s official tribute to Aretha Franklin.

May the lord bless and keep the MTV Video Music Awards, still a reliable source of schadenfreude, confusion, self-loathing, and the occasional dopamine burst of performative disgust. But the 2018 version—broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City and starring the likes of Nicki Minaj, Post Malone, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, and Jennifer Lopez—mostly just brought confusion, along with an uneasy sense that one day we may not have this award show to kick around anymore. Long a reliably garish late-summer, Sunday-night treat, the VMAs have shed almost 50 percent of its viewers in the past three years, and got socked in the ratings last year by the Game of Thrones season finale. Hence this year’s jump to Monday night and the less formidable competition of The Real Housewives of Orange County, which I did not watch, but that I nonetheless suspect paid a more respectful tribute to Aretha Franklin by doing her the service of not mentioning her at all.

That’s enough schadenfreude, actually. The best reason to watch the VMAs in 2018 is to psychoanalyze those pop stars who still deign to participate. Do they have an extremely new album to promote? Minaj delivered a quite rousing and imperial medley of Queen jams and also announced plans to bestow her own “Cocksucker of the Day” award while accepting the trophy for Best Hip-Hop. (Not “Best Hip-Hop Video,” just “Best Hip-Hop.” Kids these days are into abbreviations.) Do they have an extremely new album to promote and a life-affirming new romance to celebrate? Ariana Grande canoodled with Pete Davidson all night, ably providing the audience-reaction cutaway shots once dominated by glimpses of Taylor Swift dancing. Are they receiving a lavish honor in return for their attendance? J.Lo won the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, performed a career-spanning (and quite pitchy) medley, and inspired a delightful Alex Rodríguez meme. Are they Panic at the Disco? Panic at the Disco were there, and they actually sounded great.

Or do they legitimately view this show as a platform for social commentary? Logic, empowered after last year’s florid version of “1-800-273-8255,” wore a “F*ck the Wall” T-shirt while performing his new immigration-themed single “One Day,” with a staging that involved families wearing “We Are All Human Beings” T-shirts being forcibly separated and then reunited. If there’s still a reason to watch this show for two and a half hours straight, it’s to find that sweet spot of ascendent and painfully earnest pop star who still takes the VMAs seriously, or is at least willing to fake it. The good news is that this year’s Video of the Year category, presented by Madonna at the merciful conclusion of her rambling Aretha tribute, was impressively stacked: the Carters’ “Apeshit,” Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” Drake’s “God’s Plan,” Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” and the Bruno Mars–Cardi B “Finesse” remix. The bad news is only Cabello, Grande, and Cardi were in the building.

Cabello won and managed to at least look profoundly honored and overjoyed, at least in the presence of Madonna, who impressively found yet another way to antagonize everyone. The plain fact is that there is no artist in the current VMAs’ plausible orbit remotely capable of even attempting to sing an Aretha Franklin song live, and so what you got instead was a six-minute anecdote about a young Madge auditioning for that French disco sensation gig by singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” It was very, very difficult to watch this in real time, what with all the Cringing.

And then Post Malone showed up, in a smiley-face-festooned jumpsuit, and did “Dream On” and “Toys in the Attic” with Aerosmith, featuring much smoke-machine action and performative amp-trashing, and the weary viewer came to the same conclusion the weary viewer comes to every year: Sure, why not. Roll credits, over Aretha’s “Respect.” Yikes. The Miley Cyrus twerk thing is only five years old and feels like a lifetime ago. We are better off, as a culture, now that this show is much worse off. But somehow we can’t quite quit it yet.