There was a rare, substantive segment in the final half hour of Sunday night’s VMAs when the Reverend Robert Wright Lee IV, a distant nephew of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, took center stage to denounce racism as “America’s original sin.” Lee then introduced Susan Bro, mother of the late Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville earlier this month. Bro announced the formation of a nonprofit scholarship foundation, named in her daughter’s honor, then presented the VMA’s new “Best Fight Against the System” award for “reflecting the audience’s passion and activism surrounding environmental justice, immigration, LGBTQ equality, and racial justice” to all five nominees: John Legend, Big Sean, Taboo, Logic, and various artists credited on The Hamilton Mixtape.
Given the massive, legitimate angst that the Trump administration inspires on a weekly basis, you’d maybe think the first VMAs of his presidency would’ve been all protest chants and choreographed grandstanding. Instead, it was mostly jokes and then Susan Bro’s somber address at the end. Kendrick opened the show and performed a medley of songs from his latest album, Damn., and there were plenty of pyrotechnics but little deviation from the ceremony’s escapism. The host, Katy Perry, cracked a few jokes about Hillary Clinton and Russia throughout the night, but overall she was the least overwhelmingly “woke” that she’s been all year. Paris Jackson, the first presenter, went on a brief tear against “Nazi white supremacist jerks in Charlottesville and all over the country,” though, oddly enough, she only needed to look around the auditorium to find a living insult to the memory of Heather Heyer: Right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos sat as a guest. As always, the politics of the VMAs were awkward and unimportant. For once, they were deliberately so.
Only a masochist would consider the night’s relative silence about politics to be a missed opportunity. The current political climate, distressing as it is, came about as a result of a vapid and basically incompetent entertainer earning counterfeit political credibility with voters simply because the U.S. news media will vomit said credibility onto celebrities regardless whether they earn or even request it. Historically, awards shows have been primetime platforms for center-left celebrity stands against conservative and reactionary politics. This year’s VMAs were an exercise in restraint. The programmatic irrelevance and apparent resignation of the many celebrities at tonight’s ceremony is the best judgment that the VMAs, a notoriously tacky and trollish show, has ever displayed. And at the hands of Katy Perry, of all people.