Inside the VMAs’ Douchiest Afterparty: $50,000 Bottle Service and Justin Bieber’s Sad Karaoke
VMA-nominated director Josh Forbes on his day of glitz, madness, and disappointment—and Justin Bieber’s tabletop antics at a decadent afterparty.
Somewhere in Los Angeles, someone is cleaning up Miley Cyrus’s mess.
The floor of the Microsoft Theater is covered in confetti, mylar jellyfish and body glitter after Sunday night’s Video Music Awards. Cyrus threw a good party for the cameras and now it’s time to leave.
I’m a director. I make music videos, commercials, and comedy shorts. I also directed a movie called Contracted: Phase II. (On video-on-demand September 4. It’s a wall-to-wall icky zombie body horror affair, check it out if you’re into that sort of thing.)
I recently directed a video for Walk the Moon’s song “Shut Up and Dance.” If you haven’t spent the last six months with glue in your ears, chances are you’ve heard the song. It’s huge.
Controversy arose when I found out that even though my work was nominated for Best Rock Video, I still had to pay for my own ticket to the VMAs. Those tickets cost $400 to $850 apiece. This inspired me to create a GoFundMe page and crowdsource my tickets. Friends, family, strangers, even a girl I used to date in high school chipped in. Long story short, we almost doubled our goal of $1,300. It was bonkers.
I felt a lot of pressure going into this thing. I knew it was going to be silly. I’m well aware that award shows are essentially meaningless. It’s chosen by a group of MTV producers and a bunch of kids with too much time on their hands. That said, it was still incredibly exciting.
This how that day went down:
2:00 p.m.: I’m scrambling downtown to make it in time to pick up my VMA tickets from the Marriott hotel. They stop giving out tickets a few hours before the doors open, so I have to first come downtown, then return home to get dressed, then go back downtown again for the event.
I make my way to the MTV ticket people. I mention how famous I am for my crowdfunding efforts. Nobody gives a shit. I try to get them to admit that it’s pretty ridiculous to charge me for the tickets since I directed a nominated video. The woman behind the table gives me a stare, then gives me my tickets.
3:30 p.m.: I drive back to my apartment. I shower and put on my suit, donated by the nice folks at Combatant Gentleman. I’m not sure if I look awesome or if it looks like I work catering. My wife gets fully dolled up. Pictures are taken. An Uber X is called.
4:30 p.m.: We park a few blocks away. I ask someone where the red carpet is. I’m told it’s around back and I can’t even see it without a ticket. OK, fine. We enter the Microsoft Theater. What a romantic name. So charming.
Our tickets are for the Loge, which is on the second floor. We’re quickly ushered away from the Orchestra level, which I can only assume is filled with celebrities. I have no idea what the word Loge means. It sounds unpleasant.
5:00 p.m.: Free booze and food! I order a whiskey and Diet Coke. The “food” consists primarily of nachos, candy and popcorn. For $1,300 I assumed we’d be eating nigiri off the naked body of Kate Middleton, but it looks like we’ll have to make do.
5:45 p.m.: They’re rushing people into the theater. A third of the audience is dressed for a wedding. Another third for a trip to Costco. Everyone else is dressed like second-rate Fifth Element cosplayers.
6:00 p.m.: The stage design is amazing. It’s a massive optical illusion. It’s like the windshield of the Millennium Falcon meets a neon bird’s nest. The foreshortening of the orchestra pit makes it look like the stage is a million miles away, lost in the vortex of an endless vanishing point.
I’m pretty buzzed.
6:15 p.m.: Nicki Minaj is the opening performer. Or at least I think that’s her. Everyone is so tiny. There are no TV screens. It becomes clear that this show is not for us. It’s for the viewers at home. We’re merely extras.
A tiny, long-legged figure appears. We piece together that it’s Taylor Swift. I mention to my wife that Taylor and Nicki recently had a Twitter beef. Seeing them perform together gives me chills. No joke. I’m totally sucked into this. It’s like wrestling.
6:30 p.m.: Miley shows up. She rolls out of a rainbow butthole dressed like a Sabado Gigante hoochie and pulls off a pair of multi-colored, furry sleeves, revealing the arms of an 8-year-old boy.
She commends some shirtless creep for fucking up the Moonman statue. Can we talk about this for a second? How bummed would you be to get one of these things? A peace sign? Really?
7:30 p.m.: Taylor Swift wins Best Female Video for “Bad Blood.” Her director, Joseph Kahn, takes the stage! It makes me wonder if my squabbling with MTV about showing more respect to directors played some small part in that. Who knows?
Justin Bieber performs in a black T-shirt and a black hat. He looks like he works the drive-thru at goth Arby’s. At some point, he flies into the air.
Big Sean wins for “Best Video With a Social Message.” After thanking God and bringing up Kanye he eventually gets around to thanking the director, Andy Hines. I’m bummed that Andy’s not on stage with them and I fire off some angry tweets.
8:00 p.m.: They call up Kanye West for the Vanguard Award. When he appears on stage, the crowd goes bonkers. Everyone stands up. It’s like the Second Coming. He’s dressed like he just snuck out of desert space prison but nobody seems to care.
8:30 p.m.: I text Nicholas Petricca, the singer from Walk the Moon, to see how he’s doing. He mentions that the award for Best Rock Video was already announced before the ceremony.
Is rock so dead that it’s now relegated to the “Best Technical Achievement in Pixel Pushing” category? Part of me feels like I’ve been punched in the chest. Part of me is not surprised—I’m used to things falling apart like this.
From this point on, I lose interest. Wes Craven is dead. They’re not even going to announce our category.
Ironically, they play a dance remix of “Shut Up and Dance” in between sets.
9:00 p.m.: The show ends.
I meet the legendary cinematographer Daniel Pearl. He won a VMA for The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” in 1984 and another one for Guns N Roses’ “November Rain” in 1991. I realize later that he also shot both the original Tobe Hooper Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Marcus Nispel remake. I’m kicking myself as I write this for not talking to him about those films.
Instead, we discuss Kanye. He tells me about how he once wrote several pages to the rapper describing how he was going to shoot “N*ggas in Paris.” Kanye got mad at him. He said, “I don’t read anything over 27 words.”
We hop into an Uber and head to a party.
The party is at the offices of Doomsday, a music video production company. The vibe is like a backyard barbecue. I chat up some old friends. So many of the directors here have been around the block with the VMAs. They enjoy the event but aren’t really swept away by the glitz. They have a sense of perspective, camaraderie and love of the craft. These are my people and I’m glad to know them.
11:00 p.m.: I should have just called it a night. Instead, I drop off my wife at home, hang out with my neighbors for a bit, then head out to another afterparty.
Midnight: This time the afterparty is thrown by a production company called London Alley. If the world of music video production was like Karate Kid, my production company, More Media, would be the Ralph Macchio to London Alley’s Cobra Kai.
I roll up to the club. It is everything I hate about Los Angeles. Paparazzi mill around outside, there’s a velvet rope. A bouncer checks my name and, even though I RSVPed, they can’t find it. Luckily I’m friends with a guy who’s putting on the event. He puts in a good word for me. I’m pretty sure that wearing a suit didn’t hurt.
I get inside and it’s basically the sum combination of every music video ever made. The music is so loud, there’s no possible way I can hold a conversation with anyone.
I wade through people to get to the bar and order another whiskey and Diet Coke. The bill comes to $14.
Some guy yells at me, “Hey, you’re the ‘FUCK MTV’ guy!” Yup, that’s me, I guess.
Other people approach me, seemingly excited about me taking a stand against The Man. It feels nice, even though I’m really afraid nobody is ever going to want to work with me again.
1:00 a.m.: This whole thing is a shitshow. It is so loud. Every girl is spilling out of her dress. It’s like someone poured semen on a turd, stirred it with a vape pen and gave birth to an army of terrible people.
At this point, I’m getting overwhelmed. It’s too loud. Too expensive. Too everything. I wander over to a table and see a menu. It’s for bottle service. The prices make my head spin, or maybe that’s the whiskey.
These can’t be drink prices. They must be an elaborate, subtle joke about diminishing video budgets. That puts my mind at ease for a beat, then I turn around and my $14 drink is gone.
I get into an argument with a bouncer. “Don’t put down your drink, bruh. Never put down your drink,” he tells me.
I start wondering about the kind of person who has $25,000 to spend on a single night of drinking. Honestly, most years I’m lucky to make that much money as a working director. It makes me think about all the dedicated immigrant workers who are probably cleaning up Miley Cyrus’s mylar jellyfish and body glitter right now. It makes me think of how much I want Bernie Sanders to become president, but how that will never happen because he’s not Kanye enough. It makes me miss Wes Craven.
1:30 a.m.: I start filming Periscope videos of the party. I title them things like “Douchey Hollywood Party” and “Diarrhea’s POV.” While I’m running around making my own drunken version of MTV’s The Grind (a reference you’ll only get if you’re almost 40), I hear people start to scream.
I turn around and there’s that goth Arby’s guy, standing up on a table. I yell at Bieber, “Take your hat off!” and a member of his entourage tells me, “That hat looks fresh, bruh. That’s my boy right there!”
Seeing a massive celebrity up close is pretty thrilling, but it wears off after about 15 seconds. I mean, if I saw Jackie Chan in real life and he was doing flips and beating people up, I’d probably start crying. But seeing a gangly 21-year-old kid with a fuzz-stache singing live karaoke to his own song felt sort of sad. It was like watching a trained elephant being prodded to come out and do tricks. It bummed me out.
Then I started thinking about how much money this fuzz-stache has and how people like him are the only types of people that can afford a $50,000 order of “You Only Live Once” or a $25,000 “You Can’t Sit With Us.”
2:00 a.m.: They shut down the bar.
I stumble down the road, aglow with whiskey. I summon an Uber with my phone and opt to carpool to save some money. I share the car with some 21-year-old girls. One passes out in the car. One says she’s studying to be a surgeon. She’s incredibly excited about my Bieber story. Which isn’t really a story. He’s just some rich kid that I saw.