Why the MTV VMAs Aren’t Effective in 2016
The MTV Video Music Awards have a history of notable pop culture milestones that’s unrivaled by all other pop award shows. Since debuting in 1984 with Madonna’s star-making performance of “Like A Virgin,” 32 years of VMAs have given us countless iconic red carpet appearances, shock-filled moments, and skilled musical performances. Even as MTV lost its reputation as “Music Television” in the early 00s, the VMA brand carried on as the year’s must-see television event for young fans of music.
In recent years, the award show has seen new lows, not only in ratings but buzz, quality performances, and overall originality. Sunday night’s 2016 edition of the VMAs was a particularly dismal event — and the ratings show. The 2016 VMAs broadcast pulled in a combined 6.5 million views, simultaneously broadcasted across 11 Viacom networks, down from 2015’s 9.8 million across 10 networks.
With sharp declines for the past two years, MTV has shifted their success narrative from rating statistics to online buzz — often measuring a victory by how many tweets were generated during the broadcast. Okay, so 2016's show is still the 2nd most tweeted event after the Super Bowl, but how many of those tweets were even positive? I tweeted a few remarks and spent the majority of the show scrolling through my timeline seeing overall disappointment and frustration from twenty-something-year-old pop culture lovers who lived through the show’s heyday. After a few disappointing years, the VMAs are just a shadow of what they used to be. Some of this can be attributed to poor planning by the producers, but in their defense, the music industry has changed so radically in recent years that it no longer adheres to the VMAs mold.
To expand on the idea that the classic VMA format no longer works in the present, we have to examine the audience’s expectations of what makes a “great” VMAs. The most vocal critiques come from viewers in their 20s, ranging from writers at notable media outlets to the common pop culture junkie. They remember the days when the VMAs promised multiple showstopping performances and moments all the kids would be talking about on Monday at school — and now, the office. But are they even the target audience? I’m not sure if MTV even knows that answer.
When MTV and the VMAs were at their peak, they super-served a young audience comprised of tweens, teens, and college students. Even when the show was in its prime, it’s hard to imagine that anyone over the age of 25 would understand what all the fuss was about. Featuring the top acts singing their hit songs that dominated pop radio over the twelve months prior, the VMAs have historically been produced for the youth of America. While only a few years separate us, kids between the ages of 11 and 18 years old today operate on a completely different planet than me and my peers.
They don’t even know the definition of “must-see TV” — having been raised in the post-DVR era where any content they ever need is just a few clicks away. I highly doubt the teens and tweens of today are anticipating the VMAs with the same enthusiasm as the kids of years past. Why would they? Last night’s show featured six actual awards given (two of six winners didn’t bother showing up), artists who aren’t known for their stellar performances, and a pair of tone deaf comedians in their 30s and 40s who acted as faux hosts by cracking tired jokes about memes and hashtagging in an attempt to connect with the millennial crowd. What’s “must-see” about any of that? A quick scroll through your Twitter feed will identify any highlights, Instagram and Snapchat hosts the red carpet fashion, and you can cherry pick from the performances on VEVO. In 2016, time is too precious to sit through a nearly 3 hour broadcast at the chance that something noteworthy might happen.
In any given year, the VMA line-up has looked like a who’s who in pop music — highlighting the years biggest artists and songs. Last night’s lineup included a mix of VMA staples (Kanye, Britney, Beyoncé, Rihanna), B-listers (Ariana, Nick Jonas, Future) and a pair of newcomers (The Chainsmokers and Halsey). The aforementioned staples have been in the limelight for over a decade, with West appearing 11 times in the past 13 broadcasts. They’re household names, but what can these acts possibly pull off that they haven’t already? MTV has been recycling its lineup for the past decade — when it’s not Rihanna, Beyoncé, or Kanye, it’s Taylor, Gaga, Katy etc. What does it say about the state of pop music if Beyoncé is alloted 15 minutes to perform five tracks from her album Lemonade, Rihanna opens the show with 5 year old singles, and Kanye is given airtime to do nothing but aimlessly ramble? Quite frankly, the superstar is dead.
In 2016, the music discovery and consumer habits of pop music listeners is more segmented than ever. Creators can see their music careers explode in an instant with the help of social media and streaming platforms. On the flip side, acts have a shorter shelf life — instant success guarantees a lack of artist development and less of a chance at longevity. Mediocrity has infiltrated the music sphere as artists who would have never been discovered through the traditional A&R model find themselves gaining traction more easily than before.
The Chainsmokers are a perfect example of this new system. Their current single “Closer” has been the #1 song in the country for 2 weeks. It’s a relatable earworm that stands on its own as a great pop song. The EDM production duo scored a viral hit two years ago with their track “#Selfie” and has since realized their full potential with member Drew Taggart penning stellar pop songs like “Closer,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Roses.” “Closer” is also the first track from The Chainsmokers to feature lead vocals from Drew. On record, his understated vocals fit the song’s low key vibe, but Drew’s lack of experience in the live space made their performance on Sunday night less-than-impressive. So yes, MTV did right by booking them. They check all the boxes, being relevant and up-and-coming talent, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to make watchable TV.
With such segmented audiences, it seems nearly impossible to develop and break an act that will achieve such ubiquitous fame as the last great superstars, many of whom I mentioned earlier. Radio is still prevalent but it’s not breaking acts the way it used to. Pop stars like Troye Sivan, Shawn Mendes, and Halsey are cultivating fan bases online and selling out global tours before scoring a proper radio hit. Artists like Selena Gomez, Nick Jonas, Ariana Grande, and Demi Lovato have certainly tried to establish themselves as this decade’s pop elite through a more traditional model of radio hits, but their performances and antics often appear amateur in the shadow of yesteryear’s superstars who have truly never left the A-list.
Up until a few years ago, the VMAs knew how to showcase the best of the best in pop music. The underlying problem is that it’s been years since we’ve been introduced to a proper four-quadrant pop star. With more options in the market, in terms of both content and way of discovery, the “superstar” as we know it is no longer exists. The music industry doesn’t produce pop stars like they used to, and that’s okay, there’s plenty to love in pop music in 2016 — if you know where to find it. Unfortunately for MTV, they’re forced to book Kanye year after year and continuously hype Britney’s “return to form” that we know will never come. While my twenty-something peers and I resentfully tweet about the decline of the award show we hold so dear to our heart, today’s youth are in their own consumer world — streaming music and camping out for sold-out shows by artists like Melanie Martinez and The 1975, A-listers in certain circles whose names have yet to be uttered on the VMA stage.