The entertainment world is inarguably superficial, frivolous, and cruel. For those of us who spend our professional days on the margins of this twisted, self-congratulatory industry, monitoring Kim Kardashian’s assistant’s cousin’s Instagram for gossip or frantically googling Bebe Rexha (seriously, who the hell is Bebe Rexha), it’s nice to think that pop culture might actually be good for something. After all, pop stars have the ability to reach thousands of fans, spreading political messages through ever-growing platforms. Shows and movies can evolve to showcase characters that look, act, and sound a little more like our diverse reality. At its best, this industry can make people feel seen and heard. Visibility matters, inclusion matters, and the ability to send a message to millions of people on live television is a powerful weapon (just ask Kanye West).
But while the rest of the country has been trying to work through some pretty dark shit recently (natural disasters, systemic racism, Donald Trump), it seems like our celebrities are on a totally different wavelength. Anyone who has ever criticized the entertainment world as extravagant and out of touch should feel very vindicated by Sunday night’s VMAs.
The VMAs are supposed to function as an update from the front lines of the zeitgeist. Instead, Ed Sheeran won artist of the year and nobody even said our President’s name. Clearly, the institutions that we previously trusted to keep a finger on the collective cultural pulse are now irrelevant. The greatest artists of our time don’t need award shows to grant them legitimacy, and the rest of us don’t need to waste three hours of our lives watching a glorified Pepsi commercial.
At this point, it seems clear that the VMAs aren’t designed with an audience in mind, let alone a musically literate or politically informed one. This show is an opportunity for corporate sponsors to pander to younger demographics and for big celebrities to promote their new albums or launch their comebacks. This year, the VMAs were largely dedicated to the egos of two rival pop stars: Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Swift and Perry are both in dire need of a buzzy moment—Perry because she can’t seem to get the attention she thinks she deserves, and Swift because of Snapgate.
In an effort to revamp her image, Swift released a new single last week and debuted the accompanying music video during Sunday night’s proceedings. “Look What You Made Me Do” was flashy and dramatic, with hidden allusions to Swift’s various beefs and grudges. A dedicated fan could spend hours combing through every scene, reading Swift’s different hairstyles like tea leaves and coaxing meaning out of every dance move and costume change. Clearly, Taylor thinks that she’s done something very clever here, as if by finally making a few jokes about herself she’s outwitted us all (“see, I was self-aware all along”). But Taylor Swift’s meta-commentary on Taylor Swift isn’t all that fascinating or fun to watch. By the end of the video, she’s literally talking to herself, which seems like a pretty accurate representation of the pop star’s self-absorption.
Taylor Swift’s big music video debut, which appeared to rip off a number of black artists in the service of white mediocrity, may have been bad, but it was only the beginning of the show. Katy Perry, the host of the night, quickly made it her mission to be even more out of touch than Taylor Swift. If anyone can beat Swift at that game it’s Katy Perry, a cultural appropriation queen whose political vocabulary begins and ends with Hillary Clinton.
Perry started her hosting gig with a joke about how she had spent the last few months on Mars. It became quickly apparent that this was not just a bad joke, but rather the only material that Perry had prepared for the night. The singer uncomfortably started out by asking the crowd what had happened while she was gone. While this seemed like a set up to start talking about the current administration, Perry instead proceeded to make a vague Handmaid’s Tale reference and play with a fidget spinner. From that point on, Perry’s Voldemort-style inability to utter the words Donald Trump only became more apparent. While explaining the rules of the Best New Artist category, the hard-working host noted that, “This is one election where the popular vote actually matters…But hurry up, before some random Russian pop star wins.” Later on, Perry got similarly “political,” musing, “I have this song on my album, ‘Save as Draft,’ and it’s all about when you write up that one social media post late at night and think, maybe I should sleep on this one? Some people, wink, wink, could stand to save as draft a lot more, don’t you think, guys?”
If nothing else, Perry should have done some more overt material just to keep herself from totally bombing. Sure, a Donald Trump joke might be a cheap shot, but at this point in the night—after the camera had made a point of flashing to a stone-faced Ellen DeGeneres every time Perry reached for a punch line—the singer should have just taken the laugh. Also, Donald Trump is a bully who @’s anyone he doesn’t like, including Katy Perry. Subtweeting Donald Trump, a man with absolutely no conception of subtlety, isn’t just ineffective—it’s cowardly. When Perry wasn’t being cutesy, she was just a mess, declaring herself “shooketh” at P!nk’s genuinely moving speech (that’s so cool that you read the internet, Katy!) and getting easily upstaged by DJ Khaled’s silent baby son, Asahd.
If there was any solace to take on Sunday night, it was in the obvious fact that none of the celebrities in attendance were enjoying themselves. Here are some stars who I would like to go back in time and save from suffering through Katy Perry’s stand-up material: Cardi B, who had the only good reaction to watching Ed Sheeran make his sexy face; Vanessa Hudgens, who clearly hates Katy Perry; Tiffany Haddish, who proved once again that she is always the funniest person in the room; and Chance the Rapper, who’s just too talented for this shit. It’s no surprise that Cher decided to cancel her scheduled appearance last-minute—Cher can save herself.
Additionally, credit should go to the small handful of celebrities who actually made a statement on Sunday night, and/or displayed a shred of humanity. Jared Leto gave a moving tribute to Chester Bennington (meanwhile, MTV rudely cut off a Linkin Park performance in favor of a commercial break). Paris Jackson had the balls to call out “Nazi white supremacist jerks,” urging the assembled crowd of confused-looking 14-year-old Fifth Harmony fans to resist. Cardi B similarly went out on a limb, reclaiming her time to declare that, “Colin Kaepernick, as long as you kneel with us, we’re going to be standing for you, baby. That’s right, I said it!” Kesha was, as always, a beacon of sincerity in a sea of bullshit.
Then there were the deliberately designed political moments—a performance dedicated to suicide attempt survivors, a speech by Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, against racism (“America’s original sin”), and an appearance by Heather Heyer’s mother Susan Bro, who announced the launch of the Heather Heyer Foundation. Given the flashy, highly commercialized nature of the VMAs, even the most genuinely affecting moment can’t help but feel exploitative. While I applaud MTV’s effort to address Charlottesville—albeit a full 2 hours and 40 minutes into the show—it feels strange to ask this woman to present a full category at the VMAs, even if that category is “Fight Against the System.” Additionally, this interlude was immediately followed with an inexplicable performance by Rod Stewart and DNCE. The juxtaposition was stark, to say the least.
The 2017 VMAs missed the mark by betting on flashy performances, outdated gags, and Katy Perry. The end result was a mix of C-listers no one’s ever heard of and A-listers who were just phoning it in. By the time Perry ended the show with a performance of the truly unfortunate “Swish Swish,” it was clear that the sort of theatrics that may have kept us tuned in in past years—Flying pop stars! Stupidly expensive sets! Nicki Minaj!—now just feel over the top. It just didn’t look very fun to be Katy Perry, dressed like a basketball, singing a sub par diss track for an audience of teens who were probably pissed that they had to stick around even after Shawn Mendes left, which begs the question: was this three-hour spectacular fun for anyone?