The 2017 VMAs Were Beyond Saving

Ed Sheeran. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

The fact of summer as a season won’t alter any time soon. So long as this planet orbits the sun, there will be a point in its orbit where it’s closest to the great star, and the period of time marked by the quarter-orbit following that point will be summer: That much is certain. But the meaning of summer is changing, and fast. From the entirety of the Earth down to individual lives, heat is giving way to fever. For some forms of life — pestilent ones in particular — the new climate is a blessing; the meltdown and disorientation of less hardy organisms mark only further opportunities for their own thriving. Meanwhile, the more customary shifts in what summer represents haven’t gone away. Year-round school having failed to take root, summer in America is still associated with childish leisure and with, as children age into different worries and labors, that leisure’s reduction.

Some things have stayed constant: Leisure still mostly means television. But television is changing. June to August used to be dumping grounds for the few big networks, a time for reruns and shows too ill-favored to withstand the rigor of a full-length season. Now there are dozens of networks, and hundreds, if not thousands, of shows, and some of the hottest shows run straight through the months of greatest heat: For all its talk of coming winter, the durations of seasons of Game of Thrones have edged steadily away from winter in the real world to the point where season seven — concluded last night — was first broadcast entirely in summer.

There’s never been a better time to watch TV in summer, but this too is bad news, at least for the MTV Video Music Awards. When it debuted in the ’80s, the awards were, in all likelihood, the coolest thing on summer television. Even in the ’90s and ’00s it was at once a signature viewing event of the summer and a symbol of its end. Much as the sending of white ravens on Thrones signifies winter’s arrival, the distribution of moon men marked the advent of fall. You watched the VMAs and then school started. Compared to the congenital stodginess of the Grammys, the VMAs were a breath of fresh air. They were the pop-music equivalent of Fashion Week: Any artist that was in any way interesting was all but certain to attend, just to show off, and anyone interested in them was all but certain to watch the awards: When and where else — outside of the music videos the show itself was created to celebrate — were you going to see them in such vivid, unpredictable, quite possibly scandalous action?

The VMAs were the answer then; the answer, now, is anytime and anywhere. Other TV shows have gotten flashier, more provocative, and more expensive; pop stars can interact directly with their fans through the internet. Perhaps the most defining image of last night’s VMAs didn’t come from any performance; it was a photo, shared by journalist Gerrick Kennedy over Twitter near their end, of celebrity seats not just empty, but empty for a long time. If the stars can’t be bothered to keep watch over themselves, why should the viewing audience? Why listen to stale banter from host Katy Perry about competing with the Game of Thrones finale when one could watch the Game of Thrones finale, or better yet, Twin Peaks? Why entertain dull jokes about trying to rack up likes on social media when, as everyone knows, actually racking up likes on social media is both more important and incurably unfunny?

There was a perfunctory nature to the awards last night. Everyone, from the performers to the presenters to the audience to the people not watching, seemed to acknowledge the fact that next to nothing about the show mattered: The general impression was one of obliviousness and irrelevance. Whenever something substantial occurred — a scorching Kendrick Lamar performance, followed by his multiple wins, cameos by Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott, a potent speech by the mother of recent anti-fascist martyr Heather Heyer — the contrast with the show at large was jarring. No longer able to absorb music’s timeliest figures into its own narrative, the network settled for discordant juxtapositions with less meaningful figures. Sure, Kendrick won Best Video and five other awards, but how could the dominant artist of 2017 in terms of art and commerce have lost Best Artist to Ed Sheeran, an artist daft enough to think that overwriting Uzi’s Song of the Summer winner, “XO Tour Llif3,” with his own sodden rendition would be a welcome idea? Travis Scott teleported into an edgeless glow-in-the-dark Thirty Seconds to Mars performance for roughly 30 seconds, recited a few lines from his hit “Butterfly Effect,” then vanished. Heyer’s mother’s announcement of the creation of a charitable foundation in her daughter’s name was weirdly (to put it nicely) hinged on an announcement of the winners for Best Fight Against the System.

As Thirty Seconds front man Jared Leto inadvertently acknowledged, the VMAs’ strongest moments were in the past: The best part of his memorial speech for Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington was punctuated with a recording of Bennington’s VMA performance from 2010. Likewise maintaining a backward-facing perspective, Taylor Swift premiered, without even bothering to attend in person, an expensive, pointless video for her new, bad “Look What You Made Me Do” where she brooded over past injuries. Only Pink, receiving her Video Vanguard Award with a touching speech about self-belief, and Logic, capping off a performance by taking a nerdy, moving stand against bigotry, managed to make statements that fit both the spirit of the VMAs and the spirit of the times.

Though Lorde would likely have joined them had illness not restricted her performance, it’s clear that even that wouldn’t have been nearly enough. An entertainment program lasting over three hours owes viewers more than a house salad of disconnected points of interest dressed with well-meaning sentiments. It’s fair and fine that it should take an open stand against white supremacists and try to steer troubled people toward mental-health assistance, but good intentions wither in the presence of boredom, and the show was indisputably boring. The Video Music Awards exist for no reason beyond the fact that they already exist. They’re not smart, adaptable, or virulent enough for the new summer climate. If all memory of them disappeared, no one would think to reinvent them; as shown last night, even when one does remember them properly, they still can’t be made great again.

The 2017 VMAs Were Beyond Saving