When the swimmer Kaitlin Sandeno, beach-volleyball tag team Kerri Walsh and Misty May, and gymnast Carli Patterson presented the Viewer’s Choice award at the 2004 VMAs (winner: Linkin Park, “Breaking the Habit”), it marked the beginning of something like a tradition. Last night’s VMAs were the fourth time in as many summer Olympiads that the awards show has featured freshly minted Olympic gold medalists as presenters. It’s mostly a matter of timing, since the warm-weather Games tend to wind down shortly prior to the VMAs, but there’s something more to it: Whether consciously or not, having Olympians as presenters enhances the aura of youth and excellence the VMAs strive to cultivate. It’s an assertion of power, and a particularly nationalized one at that.
These aren’t German, Brazilian, or Thai gold medalists, after all. Just as the Olympics offer Americans a chance to unite behind their finest physical specimens, the VMAs aim to be (and pretty much are) the awards show that most thoroughly consolidates contemporary American pop culture. The Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys have trouble staying abreast of the times: too prim, too venerable, too stage-managed, too institutionalized. But the VMAs, while certainly no stranger to scripted business, have the potential to manifest a chaos and excess peculiar to American culture, which is to say American youth culture: Fiona, Britney, Britney, Kanye, Miley, Kanye. Not only are our athletes the best in the world, the VMAs seemed to say quadrennially, but our musicians are the craziest. (And, of course, the most influential.)
A reputation for chaos and excess, though, isn’t necessarily incompatible with staleness. Conceived, like MTV itself, in an era when cable television was a luxury and grown prominent, like MTV, in cable TV’s heyday, the VMAs now have to stay relevant for a youth audience with no memory of a world outside of rapid-fire social media. How to hook the kids? Last year they tried inserting YouTube stars into the proceedings. This year they had Snapchat impresario DJ Khaled hosting the pre-show, Joanne the Scammer making a cameo in Nick Jonas’s performance, and Key and Peele playing a pair of social media micro-celebrities obsessed with racking up the likes by firing off burns and memes.
It didn’t really matter that social media micro-celebrities aren’t so obviously needy (it’s bad for the brand). The point was to distract from, while also maybe tacitly acknowledging, the fact that the VMAs were aiming for maximum memeability in a manner not much less grasping, though somewhat more successful. There was Desiigner, whose reactions are always good for a GIF or four. There was Kanye, who can always be counted on for a deranged speech that’s not nearly as deranged as it first seems: Gven four minutes to do whatever he wanted, West delivered a disjointed sermon very much of a piece with his recent music and public persona. We even got Amber Rose shrugging off Kanye’s bullshit with practiced ease. Surely that would go viral.
Yet the highlights of the night proved to be something else entirely. Kanye’s ramble, which touched on Chicago’s ongoing gun violence, his own audacity in orchestrating his “Famous” video, and his position as the rightful successor to a line of white men who unified art and business terminated, probably mercifully, in the premiere of the video for his Life of Pablo closer “Fade”: the video focuses on West’s GOOD Music protegée Teyana Taylor as she conducts an elaborate dance routine which shows off her impeccably well-conditioned physical form. Taylor was hardly the only black woman in peak form at the VMAs. Even prior to Taylor’s powerful display there had been Nicki Minaj (in collaboration with Ariana Grande) as well the first of three performances by Rihanna, whose winning of the Video Vanguard Award had been announced ahead of time; Naomi Campbell, Serena Williams, and Mary J. Blige served as presenters.
And there was, of course, Beyoncé, for whom the night constituted nothing short of a coronation. The finest moment of the evening was also its longest, as Bey executed an immaculate, extended, and awe-inspiring performance of five songs from Lemonade. Nominated for 11 awards, Beyoncé surpassed Madonna to become the winningest artist in VMA history by notching 8 victories, including Video of the Year. That award was presented to her by Jimmy Fallon dressed as an Olympian, but more fitting was her receiving Best Female Video from the gold medal-winning Final Five, considering how Beyoncé’s routine, which cycled through multiple costume changes and dance sequences, resembled nothing so much as a flawless gymnastic exercise unifying aesthetics and athletics. There has always been something athletic about Beyoncé’s approach to music: whether visual or vocal, her beauty always appears under the signs of power, stamina, and discipline. Judging her was about as meaningful as judging the sun at noon.
Rihanna, the night’s other star, performed at equal length, but in a more relaxed mode, working her way through four shorter performances, each one a medley in which she shifted between hits demonstrating her deep familiarity with the American pop music she adopted as well as the continued influence of her Caribbean origins. Less bound to perfection than Beyoncé, Rihanna can make mistakes without being diminished by them. Her off-key moment during her third medley merely certified her as approachable, relatable: “My girl, your girl,” in the words of Mary J. Blige. And even Drake’s girl, nearly: in a scene too perfect not to be scripted, Drake, after showering praise on Rihanna prior to presenting her Video Vanguard Award, went in for a kiss which Rihanna deftly redirected into a hug. Along with being maximally memeable, it was an apt finishing touch to a night whose most memorable images were invariably scenes in which black women seized and held the initiative.
Much like individual women’s gymnastics at the 2016 Olympics were ruled by the performances of Simone Biles, the 2016 VMAs were dominated by Beyoncé, and casually presided over by Rihanna. The show successfully entrusted its central roles to icons whose poise and dedication were, in a subtle way, no less provocative than any meltdown by Britney (who, incidentally, acquitted herself perfectly well in her first VMA performance since 2007’s disastrous outing). The VMAs are, to some degree, an opportunity for America to flaunt its cultural supremacy over the world. When, despite hailing from one of America’s (or, in the Barbados native Rihanna’s case, the world’s) most socially marginal demographics, Beyoncé and Rihanna assert their presence at the center of American culture, it’s a moment no less scandalous or monumental than any of Kanye’s antics.
Many things are not great in America: Even in 2004, when the nation’s top athletes began getting trotted out to dispense moon-man trophies, the country was already hip-deep in a greater Middle Eastern quagmire of its own creation. Domestically, the infrastructure is older and more dismally maintained than ever: The country is literally falling apart. This November will see Americans entrust the nation’s ultimate People’s Choice Award to either a man completely antithetical to black women or to a woman whose myopic crime and welfare policies in the 1990s led to the immiseration of innumerable black women. But if only for a night, what millions of VMA viewers saw was a spectacle as dazzling as it was rare: that of black women being openly celebrated, and openly celebrating themselves.