Another year, another Teen Choice Awards. Fox’s annual teen-tastic extravaganza has been scientifically proven to be both annoying and incomprehensible to anyone over the age of 18. This year’s edition was no exception, and featured all of the Teen Choice Awards tropes we’ve come to expect: Selena Gomez was too famous to make an appearance, Fifth Harmony won an award, and Victoria Justice wore something short and shiny. The speeches were fast, the aggressive lighting transitions were even faster, and everyone was in bed by 10. So what made this Teen Choice Awards different from all other Teen Choice Awards? Tucked in between the “digital media influencers,” “social media stars,” and other fresh-faced millennials with more followers than you, Fox snuck in something resembling a serious political statement.
The social justice-lite program kicked in about halfway through the awards, when Justin Timberlake took the stage to accept his Decade Award. JT took this opportunity to speak to all the flack he got for his mishandled social media response to Jesse Williams’s moving Black Lives Matter speech at the BET Awards. Kinda. Justin’s Teen Choice acceptance speech wasn’t a stirring apology or a new articulation of his thoughts on #BLM, so much as a thinly veiled attempt to prove that JT has black friends. Literally—Kobe Bryant introduced the singer, insisting that, “Whatever JT touches, he dominates.” Clenching his historic surfboard—Justin’s 23rd—the man responsible for bringing sexy back showed us his best backtrack.
Timberlake described his childhood, raised by parents who “taught me to respect them, they taught me to respect myself and to respect all people on the basis of their character, not where they live, not what they did for a living, or the color of their skin.” He credits this early influence as “part of the reason why, to this day, I try to live my life working most closely with, making music with, and spending so much of my time with an amazing group of people: male, female, straight, gay, every walk of life. People who help each other, and find a common ground. I was drawn to all these people not because they look like me, but because they think and feel like me. The truth is, we are all different. But that doesn’t mean we all don’t want the same thing.”
This feels like a fairly clear reference to Timberlake’s post-BET Awards Twitter snafu. When users accused him of appropriating black culture, Timberlake infamously responded, “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation.” Speaking as a “relatively new dad” and a “former teen” at Sunday night’s awards, Timberlake was clearly attempting to turn over a new leaf, adding, “To all you teens out there: I ask you to not learn from my example, but from the example of all the greats who have come before me.”
Of course, because he just can’t leave well enough alone, Timberlake proceeded to butcher some Muhammed Ali quotes and hand out some pretty paltry advice. Teens looking for solid steps towards racial justice probably shouldn’t take a page from JT’s playbook, which included such clichés as being a part of the solution (not the problem!), listening to your parents, and volunteering in the neighborhoods “where people might look a little different from you.” While Timberlake’s speech was certainly race-adjacent, it was far from a #BLM rallying cry. That’s because JT failed to actually mention black people, let alone how black people matter. It was a theme that was picked up in the Teen Choice Awards’ next attempt at political commentary: a touching assembly of American teens affected by gun violence.
Led by Jessica Alba, the poignant display included wounded victims of the Pulse shooting, Alton Sterling’s son, and other teenagers who had recently lost siblings or family members to gun violence. Alba briefly introduced each of the teens; interestingly enough, Sterling’s story was the only example of police violence, a fact that was seamlessly blotted out in Alba’s bio: “A few weeks ago, Cameron’s world was turned upside down when he learned his father, Alton Sterling, was killed while selling CDs out of a store.”
Alba’s message was simple, striking, and a complete tonal shift from a night of Vine star references and selfie competitions: “It keeps happening, and it has to stop.” She continued, “now more than ever, we need to stop, feel, and ask: what’s going on?” Cut to Ne-Yo crooning a cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic, another overly subtle reference to police brutality against a background of pictures of victims and families. As crowd members waved their iPhone backlights in the air, Ne-Yo and Alba—who appeared to be genuinely on the verge of tears—urged the crowd to “Take a picture of all of these courageous teens standing here, asking for the violence to stop. Then post with the hashtag #StopTheViolence.” In the face of a genuinely touching moment, it felt like a cheap return to social media slacktivism as usual. Still, the attempt to engage with vital issues, teen-to-teen, was certainly an admirable one. Plus, it gave us a crucial break from the trying-way-too-hard hosting antics of John Cena and Victoria Justice.
Aside from this brief foray into the real world, The Teen Choice Awards was largely bereft of great moments. Even Laverne Cox’s brief appearance to promote her upcoming Rocky Horror Picture Show remake wasn’t enough to save the day. In other semi-notable happenings, John Stamos made a Pokemon-Go joke, Empire’s Serayah genuinely rocked her performance, and a Flo Rida medley finally answered the age old question, “Does Flo Rida have enough songs for a medley?” In terms of the awards, which are BTW pretty rigged, Pretty Little Liars and Fuller House each took home a handful of surfboards, Kendall Jenner won Choice Model, Chloë Grace Moretz was awarded choice Movie Actress: Comedy, and Selena Gomez dominated her fair share of categories.
And while dedicated teen Twitter users were disappointed by the absence of a Christina Grimmie tribute, at least this year’s Teen Choice Awards wasn’t completely tone-deaf. In addition to the plea to end gun violence, Fox featured a recurring sketch of Cena and Justice as Clinton and Trump, competing for the social media votes of teens worldwide. Reassuringly enough, it was announced at the end of the show that the majority of the teenage audience was #WithHer. Teenagers: not so bad after all.