And here everyone was saying the VMAs were irrelevant…
It’s been years since MTV has regularly played music videos—the medium it built its brand and its popularity on—and it’s been years of mockery when the network unveils its annual list of Video Music Award nominations. As the award show evolved into a trolling pop spectacle with waning cultural influence and shrinking viewership numbers, the cultural grand jury made its ruling: the VMAs don’t matter anymore.
Apparently no one told Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, and, in a gloriously pointed and arguably incoherent late entry into a zeitgeist-seizing Twitter feud, Katy Perry.
Through a series of passion-fueled Twitter exchanges that alternated between petty and profound in a way that eschewed the modern trend of sanitized and controlled celebrity communication and harkened to the days of classic MTV celeb candor, the Holy Trinity of Girl Power pop divas have suddenly made the Video Music Awards matter again.
And unlike twerking starlets with wanton tongues, meat dress-clad Mother Monsters, or douchebag rappers interrupting shock-faced country superstars, Minaj, Swift, and Perry have brought renewed relevance to the VMAs by drawing attention to the very elements the award show was founded on: music videos and what they say about our culture.
Perhaps the reason that Minaj’s (justified) Twitter tirade, her back-and-forth with Swift, and Perry’s interlocution has lit up the Internet in such blazing fashion is—aside from the sheer shock of celebrities actually voicing their opinions—these women are reflecting a pendulum swing in interest back toward what the VMAs are celebrating. We, along with them, have become invested in music videos again.
A quick primer for the people still living under rocks: The VMA nominations were announced Monday. Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” music video, which not only broke web streaming records but prompted breathless cultural debate about body image and sexual power, earned a handful of nominations but was snubbed in the race it was considered a shoo-in for: Video of the Year.
(Beyonce’s “7/11,” Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” all were nominated instead.)
Minaj took it upon herself to point out what is a very real institutional bias against the sexualization of both curvaceous and female minority bodies and the routine erasure of the influence black women have on culture.
Swift mistakenly thought Minaj was attacking her, and criticized her for not being supportive of women. Minaj clarified that she wasn’t attacking Swift specifically, but also retweeted a fan’s comment, presumably as a teachable moment for Swift: “stop using ‘support all girls’ as an excuse to not be critical of racist media that benefits and glorifies you.”
Once all the thinkpieces about this exchange and what it means culturally had been written, Perry stepped in and blew it all up again, sending out a tweet obviously directed at Swift, whose video “Bad Blood” is rumored to be an attack on Perry. She called out Swift’s hypocrisy in demanding the support of all women when Swift herself is using a popular music video to criticize a female contemporary.
And, in the end, Swift apologized for making it all about herself.
It’s all quite exhausting. And yet quite important.
Of course, the marriage of big, loud, often ridiculous art and the big, loud, often ridiculous people who make it made the VMAs the renegade event that defined several decades of pop culture—before music videos stopped being inventive, before publicists scared their celebrity clients into being uninteresting, and before what was once the most exciting night of television each year became its most shameless, predictable, and culturally pointless.
(#NeverForget the early aught years of the fan vote. Enjoying those Moonmen, Panic! at the Disco?)
That’s why this whole “controversy”—if it could be called that—is so indicative of what the VMAs used to stand for.
Artists are once again making epic, game-changing music videos that they’re proud of, and those videos are sparking the kind of conversation that progresses culture and provokes its norms. Artists are so invested in the music videos they create that they’re fighting over them in the over-impassioned, reactionary, sometimes ludicrous, and sometimes illuminating way that can make celebrity fighting so wonderful.
Because if this whole conversation shines a spotlight on anything, it’s that ambition has returned to the art of the music video and that ambition merits being taken seriously—something the award show, which has undeniably lost its way over the last 15 years, needs to do once again.
Part of this evolution may have been spurred by the Billboard Hot 100’s decision to count YouTube plays in its chart algorithm. Part of this may be owed to a decline in album sales and radio influence, and the necessity of event music videos to bring attention to singles. And part of it may simply be owed to a resurgence of visual artistry.
You look, again, to Minaj’s “Anaconda,” which set a Vevo record for most plays in a 24-hour period, a record that was broken by Swift’s “Bad Blood.” You look to Swift’s other, better music video, “Blank Space,” which shrewdly used the genre to comment on and own the artist’s branding and public image. Or you can look to recent videos by Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Sia, Pharrell, and especially Rihanna with the blockbuster “BBHMM” clip: all artists who have expertly found ways to make music videos inextricably tied to the success of the song itself.
MTV couldn’t have orchestrated a better way for pop culture to realize that music videos matter again than this Twitter dust-up that’s been characterized in the media as a “feud.”
With its snark and its passion, the Minaj-Swift-Perry saga harkens to the days when MTV not only inspired, but facilitated celebrity fighting as spectacle. An “anything can happen” environment in which unexpected things really did happen because celebrities, as Twitter now gives them the freedom to do, actually acted on their own accord, untethered from their managing “teams.”
Think Courtney Love chucking shoes at Madonna. Or the actual physical altercations reported between the likes of Brandy and Monica, or Tommy Lee and Kid Rock. Or Kurt Cobain spitting on Axl Rose’s piano. Or Fiona Apple informing us that “this world is bullshit.”
At some point between that era and now, memes started mattering more than music, and the mindlessness of it all has made the show passionless. Boring. Irrelevant. Could that finally be changing?
During this week’s big Twitter exchange, Swift’s closing argument was an invite to have Minaj join her on stage if she should win. Who knows if Minaj will actually take her up on it. But finally, the VMAs have a reason to tune in.