Rant: The VMAs are not about music

When I started writing about music for Death and Taxes, I never realized how many music videos I’d end up writing about. At first it didn’t seem so bad: A video here, a video there. But soon they were everywhere. The music video (or its mutant cousin, the lyric video) has become the ubiquitous discrete unit of music publicity for an artist. Got a new single? Release a video. New album? Release a video. Announcing a tour? Better release a video. HD is cheap, YouTube is easy, and the internet masses love a video: All the fun of hearing a new song, plus something to look at too. And musicians (and their publicists) love video too because if it’s good (or weird) enough, people will share it. Imagine that, people advertising your music to each other for free. (This is the same thinking behind today’s weird TV commercial spots. If your ad is bizarre or funny enough, people will intentionally watch it and show it to others online. Opt-in advertising!)

Inhale. Begin rant:

So if we, consumers and producers of “music journalism,” are so heavily rooted in the age of the music video, why are the MTV Video Music Awards so irrelevant to the state of music today? Why do the winners reflect only the most popular top 40 artists and rarely up-and-comers, indie acts, or the underground? Maybe you didn’t think that the VMAs are irrelevant, in which case let me explicitly posit this: The VMAs are an annual spectacle that today serves several equally pointless goals: 1) To maintain some degree of relevancy for MTV and 2) To increase the popularity of already-popular music. The cost of #2 is the exclusion of anything but what is already at the top of the charts and always serves to further cement whatever the current music popularity hierarchy is.

If you think that the VMAs are about awarding musicians for their work and their videos, why are the headlines about: a) Miley Cyrus’, twerking, racial politics, good girl gone bad, outfit, b) Taylor Swift mouthing something rude to ex-boyfriend, c) Lady Gaga’s thong, d) N*SYNC performance, or e) Will Smith’s family’s reaction to all of the above?

Admittedly, d is actually music related, but cashing in on a guaranteed nostalgia-bomb doesn’t exactly speak volumes for the currency of or need for the VMAs. And why do the musicians win awards for their videos rather than the directors? The videos are irrelevant. Can you name which albums won awards this year?

And anyone who knows the Awards knows that this isn’t the first year with some sort of “incident.” Far from it. Hell, Wikipedia lists the Awards’ “Notable Moments” since its debut in 1984. Here’s just a sampling: In 1984, Madonna rolled around on stage in a wedding dress singing “Like A Virgin.” In 1989, comedian Andrew Dice Clay got a “lifetime ban” for performing vulgar nursery rhymes. In 1991, Bret Michaels and C.C. DeVille got in a fist fight and Prince performed “Gett Off” with his butt out. In 1996, Van Halen appeared for the first time together since breakup, later admit it was to help sell a greatest hits record. In 1997, Martha Stewart co-presented an award with Busta Rhymes. In 1999, Lil’ Kim wore a revealing top, had her breast jiggled by Diana Ross. In 2002, a disoriented Michael Jackson thought he’d won the non-existent “Artist of the Millennium” award, Moby called Eminem a homophobe, and Christina Aguilera shed her good-girl image with a sexy outfit. In 2003, Madonna, Aguilera, and Britney Spears did a lesbian-themed performance of “Like A Virgin” which included the famous kiss between Madonna and Spears. In 2008, Russel Brand pleaded for the audience to vote for Obama and called Bush a “retarded cowboy.” In 2009, Kanye interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech and Beyoncé calls her back to the stage later to “have her moment” and Lady Gaga bled out. In 2010, Lady Gaga wore a dress made out of raw meat and will.i.am wore blackface. Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.

The VMAs aren’t about music and they’re not about videos, they’re about pre-planned (or simply fortuitous) publicity stunts that serve the industry of MTV (and Viacom), large record labels (and their artists), and maintaining the status quo of radio-scale popular music where the big artists just get bigger. They’re about selling ads. They’re about making money. You think of your “outrageous incident,” you wear some skimpy clothes (is this really all we can think of to turn heads these days?) or say something obnoxious or controversial, and it works perfectly. Let’s put it this way, Miley Cyrus doesn’t make it to the frontpage of CNN for releasing a new track, but she sure does for shaking her ass onstage.

If you think you’ve got a new insight onto why someone should be ashamed or proud or insert-emotion-here about their stunt, you’re not commentating from the side, you’re participating in the show and proving that doing something outrageous is all it takes to get recognition.

If you like the VMAs, watch them and enjoy them and don’t let me shame you into thinking they’re not valid entertainment. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Video Music Awards have anything more to do with music in the 21st century than Music Television does (so that’s what it stands for!). Sure, each year’s show is marked by huge-budget live performances, but how often do the costumes and dances outdo the music itself? Such is a microcosm of the VMAs as a whole.

In the meantime, those of us prone to talking about music culture: Let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about videos. Let’s not talk about this year’s VMA drama. The difference between Miley Cyrus’ PR people and me is that Cyrus isn’t paying me, so I’m gonna pass on the pro bono music press for anything but…actual music.

If you like spectacle, you’ll get it every year on schedule, but that’s about it.

Exhale. End rant.

Image: James Fraser