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The VMAs killed the video star.
1981 proved to be a blockbuster year for pop culture. CNN celebrated one year of being on air, the first made-for-TV movie was in production, and just one month before Beyoncé Knowles made her entry into this dimension, MTV was born. The network ostensibly splashed onto the scene with a fierce dedication and appreciation for bringing music into the digital age—it was as bold an undertaking as ever. “Behold, a new concept is born. The best of TV, combined with the best of radio. Starting right now, you’ll never look at music the same way again,” the original veejays said during the first broadcast.
But now, 34 years after the iconic Buggles clip, Video Killed the Radio Star, became the “shot heard round the world” for the music channel, the 2015 awards show only served to prove Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, and other critics right. The Video Music Awards, once a cultural lightning rod, have devolved into a cheap, trashy, thirsty plea for ratings. It’s no longer about artistic excellence in the visual representation of pop music—it’s all about fun, games, and controversy for controversy’s sake.
“I know a lot of people have problems with the police, but I have a problem with police strippers.” -Rebel Wilson
— Affinity Magazine (@TheAffinityMag) August 31, 2015
Minaj couldn’t even celebrate a win for Best Hip-Hop Video without being preceded by a tasteless joke from comedian and Pitch Perfect star Rebel Wilson. While presenting the award, the Australian actress lobbed a quip that trivialized ongoing discussions about police brutality and state-sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies. “A lot of people have problems with the police,” Wilson said, clad in a police uniform costume, before stripping down to a “F*ck the Stripper Police” t-shirt. “But I really hate police strippers. … I hate this injustice, hence the shirt.”
This was no accident, rather a targeted, premeditated attempt to be edgy.
This was no accident, rather a targeted, premeditated attempt to be edgy. In an industry where mainstream awards shows rarely recognize the creative contributions of black people, it’s senseless for any comedian to use the struggles of black people as fodder for a tepid joke at their expense.
But all regard and baseline respect go out the window in the name of controversy and humor. Aside from Wilson’s antics, the entire ceremony dumped a Dead Sea full of salt into an already gaping wound for black people, many of whom have tired of the racism and cultural appropriation from white artists everyone seems to love—including Miley Cyrus.
Minaj made no mention of the joke when accepting her award win for Anaconda, a video that was snubbed for a “Video of the Year” nomination and boxed within genre-driven categories. Despite hip-hop being the most influential musical genre of the past 50 years, according to a May 2015 study, it doesn’t get the respect and recognition it deserves from awards ceremonies.
As Minaj outlined in a now-storied Twitter dispatch, “Anaconda” was a both commercial hit and a cultural phenomenon. As Daily Dot contributor Morgan Jerkins noted, the video broke a Vevo record, ignited a conversation about body image and female sexual agency, netted Minaj a wax figure at Madame Tussauds—and went double-platinum in the U.S. alone.
Take a dead, so-called “feud” and stoke the flames of controversy to generate buzz and ratings for my moment as the master of ceremonies.
Even though Taylor Swift apologized for slamming Minaj’s outcry as “pitting women against each other,” she made amends shortly after. And she even did so again on the VMAs stage with Minaj, in a surprise cameo during the “Trini Dem Girls” opening performance. Yet Miley couldn’t let it go in a pre-VMAs interview with the New York Times last week, where she basically called the rapper an “angry black woman.” We can’t be sure that the word choice was intentional, but the goal was clear: Take a dead, so-called “feud” and stoke the flames of controversy to generate buzz and ratings for my moment as the master of ceremonies.
Yet Minaj, not one to be played with, called Cyrus’s bluff during her Sunday night acceptance speech, which can be summed up in two pointed words: “What’s good?” Cyrus, shocked and clearly uncomfortable as a host, tried to redirect the conversation to how the media supposedly blows things out of proportion. She shifted the accountability away from her comments and instead unfairly scapegoated a journalist who was just doing their job—even to the point of actively challenging Cyrus during the interview.
That moment, a few days in the making, went on to become the watercooler conversation about the VMAs on Monday, in a show that was largely unremarkable when held up to years past. Save for choice performances from Pharrell, Tori Kelly, Justin Bieber, and Minaj herself, the only other notable moment was an “accidental” nip slip from Cyrus and a Video Vanguard Award speech from Kanye West. It was a stream of consciousness dialogue that came off unintelligible to some, but actually spoke volumes about the current, dismal nature of celebrity and awards shows.
Just six years ago, West became infamous for interrupting Swift’s win for “Best Female Video,” declaring “I’mma let you finish, but Beyonce had the best music video of all time.” Although one might argue that it wasn’t polite and not the right moment to make such a statement, it’s a sentiment that resonated with many onlookers considering the undeniable cultural gravitas of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).”
Yet he became villainized by the press—often in an ugly, racialized manner—when his stage-storming actually made an inconvenient point about the racial and gendered double-standards of awards shows. Swift’s “You Belong With Me” was a hit, but the video didn’t reach stratospheric levels of critical acclaim and notoriety that would’ve merited an upset win over Beyoncé, who justly went on to claim the “Video of the Year” prize—graciously offering Swift a do-over moment.
The Video Vanguard Award move was a deliberate ploy to fan the flames of yet another VMA “moment,” whereas they’d been much more organic and artist-driven in years past.
Clearly, whatever beef the two once had has been smoothed over in the years since, yet both artists couldn’t escape the nature of their old tension on the VMAs Sunday night. MTV could’ve chosen anyone to present the Video Vanguard Award—an honor that’s been bestowed upon the the likes of Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Madonna, and even Beyoncé herself in the show’s 21-year history. Out of anyone in the world they could’ve booked to do it, they went with Taylor Swift.
It was a move sure to attract attention, a deliberate ploy to fan the flames of yet another VMA “moment,” whereas they’d been much more organic and artist-driven in years past. The Madonna-Britney-Christina french kissing stunt at the 2003 ceremony may have been planned—in order to generate headlines the following day—but it was a moment engineered on a platform where many artists had a safe respite from the censorship of major networks. The 2015 VMAs—including Miley’s blonde faux dreadlocks, references to Snoop Dogg as her “mammy,” and awkward references about how much she likes weed—could have easily doubled as the American Music Awards on ABC: a fan-driven popularity contest with awards and performances based on music sales and industry connections.
The only thing organic that came from the manufactured moment between Swift and West was the latter’s acceptance speech. In it, West said, “All this sh*t they run about beef and all that, sometimes I feel like that I died for artists to be able to have an opinion after they were successful.” He continued, referencing that moment with Swift:
I’m not no politician, bruh. And look at that. You know how many times MTV ran that footage again? Because it got them more ratings. You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award. Because it got them more ratings … I still don’t understand award shows. I don’t understand how they get five people who work their entire life, won, sell records, sell concert tickets, to come, stand on a carpet and for the first time in their life, be judged on the chopping block and have the opportunity to be considered a loser. I don’t understand it, bro! I’ve been conflicted. I just wanted people to like me more. But fuck that, bro! 2015. I will die for the art—for what I believe in—and the art ain’t always gonna be polite.
And, thus, West did on stage Sunday night, as a recognized icon, what he couldn’t fully do six years ago: He took his moment on the stage to criticize the nature of the VMAs, awards shows, celebrity culture, and how success, fame, sales, and so many other arbitrary components of musical creativity get commodified, along with the artists themselves. It’s all for the sake of driving more ratings and raking in more money, instead of incorporating new, bold voices and artists into the mix.
Had it not been for Nicki Minaj and Kanye West—two black rap artists—barely anyone would be talking about this year’s VMAs.
The soul has been sucked out of awards shows for a long time, and both West and Minaj made that point clear. As Time‘s Daniel D’Addario noted, many A-list heavy-hitters were notable no-shows during the evening. Even so, both rappers used the ceremony and their celebrity platforms to fight for the cultural and artistic significance of the music—and its powerful potential to entertain audiences as much as they make them think.
Regardless of whether or not anyone agrees with how Minaj uses her platform, she’s a cultural critic in her own right, often using her platform to highlight the industry’s institutionalized racism and sexism. From her 2014 BET Awards speech—which addressed the cultural appropriation of artists like Iggy Azalea—to her scourge against the 2015 VMAs nominations, she’s made valid points, and so did West. Journalists, awards shows, and industry honchos alike are quicker to reward mediocrity from the pop music flavors of the moment, rather than herald the ingenuity of leading trendsetters and tastemakers.
That now includes the VMAs, the one-time countercultural force that’s now come to an embarrassing halt.
Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice. Follow Derrick on Twitter: @DerrickClifton.
Photo via Complex/YouTube
Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.