On Sunday afternoon, shortly after it was announced that MTV would air a 15-second PSA about the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, I watched all six of the videos nominated for what seemed to me at the time to be the show’s most laughable category, Best Video With a Social Message. Among the contenders were Avicii’s maudlin anti-war clip “Hey Brother,” David Guetta and Mikky Ekko’s typhoon-relief single “One Voice,” Kelly Rowland’s “Dirty Laundry” (a candid song about domestic abuse that’s too often been misinterpreted as a Beyoncé dis track), and J. Cole’s “Crooked Smile,” for which the video tells the story of Aiyana Jones, a 7-year-old girl from Detroit who was accidentally killed by a police officer during a drug raid in her home.
At the end of the clip, the VMA-sanctioned Social Message flashes onscreen (“Please Reconsider Your War on Drugs”), though in the time since its nomination and in light of the Ferguson protests, “Crooked Smile” has taken on a different and even more searing resonance: Quite simply, here is a music video in which a white police officer shoots an unarmed black child. J. Cole has been one of the most outspoken rappers on Ferguson, having made a highly publicized trip there in the wake of Michael Brown’s death and released a tribute song, “Be Free.” I’m not the hugest J. Cole fan, but as I watched “Crooked Smile,” I was rooting so hard for him to win this award and say something — anything — onstage about Ferguson. Perusing the rest of the nominees, though, it seemed clear who would actually take the crown: the most high-profile and politically defanged video of the bunch, Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts.” For somebody who has to make some kind of sense of the whole thing by the next morning (hi!), what a perfect, clean narrative arc that would be: the VMAs copping out of making any kind of political statement and maintaining a blissful blindness to what’s actually going on in the world.
But despite what anyone who stays up late to frantically type her thoughts about the VMAs will tell you, to look for a logical narrative arc in an awards show is always a losing game. Yes, “Pretty Hurts” ended up winning the VMA for Best Video With a Social Message, not that anyone realized or will remember that fact; MTV didn’t broadcast that award, and even hours after the show wrapped, they still hadn’t posted the results on the winners page. But the show was, refreshingly, a night of unexpected social messages. Beyoncé’s dramatic silhouette in front of the word FEMINIST has already gone viral and will likely be one of the night’s most enduring memes. Best Rock Video winner Lorde made a similar statement more implicitly, when she quietly shot down Trey Songz’s patronizing comment that “there’s even a lady in the mix” and became the first woman ever to win that award. The night’s most discussed social message, though, is the one that nobody could have predicted: last year’s queen of controversy Miley Cyrus sending a homeless runaway onstage to accept her award for Video of the Year.
Snarkier people than I have correctly noted that Marlon Brando did not post a self-congratulatory kissy-faced selfie with Sacheen Littlefeather when he sent her to accept his award for The Godfather, nor did he make sure to get in the shot during her speech so we saw how proud he was of his own political message. (He didn’t even attend that year.) But, as ever, haters gonna hate. I’d rather stand with Ayesha A. Siddiqi’s point that “the people complaining about Miley’s acceptance speech stunt are the same people who complain about celebrities not doing this sort of thing.” They’re also the same people who have been complaining about the Ice Bucket Challenge but haven’t donated a cent to that or any other charity this year. Despite what the VMAs want you to believe, Best Social Message should not be a contest — and certainly not one that needs a trophy to validate it. (I mean, the video that won the category is literally about smashing trophies.) Miley’s selfie-generation political statement did not make Common’s moment of silence for Mike Brown any less poignant. To want last night’s telecast to have some sort of clear story that made sense of what’s going on in the news right now was expecting too much — though maybe I was actually expecting too little. A lot of people have already donated money to the charity My Friend’s Place because last night Miley Cyrus told them to. The VMAs are a television show, not a political rally, but for a few brief moments last night, I remembered something about pop music’s capacity to surprise people, challenge the status quo, and provoke change. Let’s not make too big a story about it, but let’s not forget it, either.