These Were the Truman Show VMAs

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Justin Bieber. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In 2013, Kanye West gave a spirited, instant-classic interview to former BBC Radio 1 host Zane Lowe. “I’ve reached a point in my life where my Truman Show boat has hit the painting,” he said, in perhaps the most frequently quoted bit of the segment. West was referring, of course, to the moment at the end of Peter Weir’s 1998 sophisticated dorm-room stoner drama when Jim Carrey’s character sails up to the wall at the end of the closed-off television set he’s taken for the real world, realizes its artificiality, and engages in a conversation with his “creator,” a TV producer played by Ed Harris. “Was nothing real?” Truman Burbank asks an omniscient voice he can’t see. “You were real,” the producer says. “That’s what made you so good to watch.”

Oh, 2015 VMAs: Was nothing real? I am both shocked and relieved to report that I actually believe a few things were: Bieber’s tears, Nicki’s swipes at Miley, O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s palpable embarrassment when his father was speaking to young people. And, of course, every word (and every prolonged silence!) uttered by the 2020 president of the United States, Kanye West. In retrospect, it seems like he called it a few years too early: Last night, at the 2015 VMAs, was when Kanye’s Truman Show boat officially hit the painting. “I still don’t understand awards shows,” he said in the middle of the best TED Talk I’ve ever seen, a meandering, exhilaratingly freewheeling speech accepting the night’s Video Vanguard award from Taylor Swift. At first, the pairing seemed like a staged, slightly stilted act of televised public reconciliation, not unlike the one Swift and her former Twitter sparring partner Nicki Minaj participated in during the show’s opening number: Swift did a cute, rehearsed, inevitably groan-worthy “Imma let you finish” joke, and West seemed to be gearing up for a public apology. “I think if I had to do it all again,” he said, referring to the night six years ago when he swiped the award out of Swift’s hands, “What would I have done?” But then he did something so much better than answering that question: He steered the boat straight into the wall. “You know how many times MTV ran that footage again because it got them more ratings? You know how many times [tonight] they announced Taylor was presenting the award because it got more ratings?” What a thrill to hear someone speaking from the heart, to listen to an artist unafraid to let us in on the process of exactly how his thoughts come together, to watch a show that had been intermittently frustrating and boring us all night suddenly collapse in on itself.

And at that point, it seriously needed a jolt of electricity. I have to admit I was rooting for Miley. I do believe she is talented and interesting and candid in ways that most other pop stars are not, and I have expended a lot of energy in my life defending these viewpoints. But when she was onscreen last night, I felt not like I was watching a nationally televised awards show so much as Miley’s Super Sweet 16 — an elaborate and expensive party thrown by a girl who has recently discovered that her rich parents won’t actually ground her for smoking marijuana, and who was dressed in a bunch of different outfits all made by her friend who wants to try out for Project Runway in a couple years. Miley has changed a lot in the two years since her infamous Robin Thicke twerk-a-thon, and she’s recently made some very forward-thinking comments about gender, sexuality, and identity. But her presence there last night just felt like a glaring example of exactly what Kanye West was critiquing: MTV’s gross feedback loop of manufacturing controversy, stoking the outrage, and then inviting everybody back next year to reminisce about the manufactured controversies of years past. Last night’s show reminded me that the staged, polished moments of the VMAs always feel about two to three years behind the curve. From Miley’s surprise album-drop to Taylor Swift’s vague, boilerplate PR copy about “girls getting to be soldiers and boys getting to be princesses,” most of the night’s preplanned moments were so 2013. Whoever puts together the VMAs seems not to have a handle on what will actually shock, titillate, and inspire viewers, but a focus-grouped idea about what did those things a couple years ago. How can we truly understand what’s going on in youth culture right now without MTV as capitalistic middleman? Kanye had it right once again: Listen to the kids.

The hourlong preshow seemed to feature more YouTube stars than old-fashioned celebrities. Among the people I watched with in person and on Twitter, this seemed to inspire nothing so much as incredulity that Mahogany Lox is actually someone’s name, but this choice felt like a deliberate, and probably inspiring, message sent to the teen audience: Do what you do well, build a following, and maybe someday, in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be up on this stage, too. (Even if this message was sort of complicated by a palpable look in Hailee Steinfeld’s eyes that seemed to say, Uhhh, is it too late to hop off this I-want-to-be-a-pop-star-too train? Can’t I just go back to getting nominated for Oscars and stuff?)

And yet for me, the most poignant moment of the night came courtesy of pop music’s first great post-YouTube star, Justin Bieber. MTV had been hyping it up: His first televised performance in ages (since his very well-publicized legal and personal troubles), and his first VMAs performance in five years. I was expecting something spectacular, headline-grabbing, meticulous, triumphant. But instead, Bieber seemed genuinely nervous in a way that was a little uncomfortable to watch. Shaken. Wobbly. Very human. Somehow, this was more affecting than if he’d stuck the landing — how many hundreds and hundreds of thoroughly competent awards-show performances have slipped from our collective memories? I’ve forgotten so many of them, but I’ll remember Justin Bieber crying — this kid that we built up and then gleefully tore down, seeming at once spent from all the pressure we’ve put on his big comeback and genuinely relieved that the moment was now over. Maybe these were the Truman Show VMAs after all, because in their most memorable moments, I felt a little icky to be watching them, tweeting about them, and participating in the whole enterprise of watching celebrities and applauding them for going off-script — as if we actually need these moments as reminders of how the beef patties are made. We already know, and yet we keep coming back year after year. “This was Bieber’s A.I. moment,” a friend texted me after his performance, and I agreed — for the first time in a while, you remembered he was a real boy. Unfairly, that’s what made him so good to watch.