Last night’s 2020 VMAs were a bold step forward in the ever-evolving question of what large-scale TV productions look like in the age of social distancing and pandemic safety. Previous examples — productions like the national political conventions, Freeform’s messy Love in the Time of Corona, the BET Awards, and of course the Smash reunion — have taken different approaches. Sometimes they blend footage shot from peoples’ homes with an in-studio component; sometimes they do their very best to disguise that production is at all abnormal; sometimes (sigh) they fully embrace the Zoom aesthetic.
But the VMAs were not content to accept the far-flung, socially distant vibe of most of this year’s big TV productions. The VMAs wanted everyone who appeared to be in a unified space, somewhere they could all hang out together. So they took place in the only setting available to them: a disembodied, placeless nowhere.
Yes, technically, the VMAs were in New York. Sort of. There were New York City–themed backgrounds, like the ones in BTS’s performance which featured images of DUMBO that looked like a default desktop background. The host, Keke Palmer, did a bit where she was in “Times Square,” arguing with a skanky guy who was trying out bad pick-up lines on her. Palmer played both herself and the skanky guy; bright neon lights in vaguely recognizable shapes played the part of Times Square. At one point there was a commercial/VMAs segment for a Toyota Highlander that “drove around New York City” to “various NYC places” — slick CGI footage of a car with neon neighborhood names stamped onto the screen, intercut with footage of musical performances meant to represent those places.
Mostly, though, the VMAs gave the impression that they were happening in a collective imaginary place, a computer-generated nothingsville. Sometimes it looked like The Matrix, sometimes like a Star Trek holodeck, and sometimes like the inside of Janet’s mind in The Good Place. Miley Cyrus swung on a giant disco ball suspended from nothing, above nothing. Her endlessly long mic cord disappeared off into the ether somewhere. Announcers and performers strode out onto what must’ve been empty green screen soundstages, but on TV it looked like they were all standing on the same surreal, VMAs–flavored CGI balcony. It was a balcony in front of nothing, overlooking nothing (except more VMAs branding). Gaga’s several performances and acceptance speeches had the most “this is happening in a specific place” vibe of the entire show, but because that specific place was “in front of a piano sculpted to look like a brain,” it didn’t exactly feel grounded in reality.
In all, the VMAs felt like a dislocated, floating nothingness, and I’m honestly still not sure how I feel about it. It was distracting, and the New York–specific images felt off. It was like watching a show set in an airport I-heart-NYC kiosk. And yet, there was something about the cloud of nothingness that also convinced me — we’re all nowhere, but we’re all nowhere together. Or rather, we’re all pretending to be together, which is as good as it’s safe to be right now. When the show ended with a Black Eyed Peas performance of “I Gotta Feeling,” and a CGI UFO hovered over their CGI stage threatening to CGI vaporize them at any moment, it felt almost nice? At least they’re all getting imaginary vaporized in their imaginary nowhere, together.