Opening the 35th MTV Video Music Awards, on Monday night, the twenty-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes seemed close to rending his cut-off muscle tee, which was rapidly becoming soaked against his skin under a dramatic torrent of stage rain. But, for all of his princely exertions, what was circulating online was a sixteen-second video of Rihanna twirling in a sundress in Cuba, where she is reportedly shooting a film. Just a few years ago, when pop’s senior statesmen still considered attending the show an obligation, her absence might have been interpreted as “shade.” She had been granted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, after all, in 2016, which was presented to her by Pepsi and a blubbering Drake. But in the two years since the next class waiting in the wings has moved to center stage, complete with face tattoos and a contagious, wide-eyed sadness. Generation Z is now established. The elders recede. Were the C.G.I. storm clouds backgrounding Mendes an omen?
Not exactly. This year’s ceremony, the first true post-millennial V.M.A.s, was so bereft of shock, sex, and offense that it seemed barely to register. There was no host, and no structural segment to coax the award winners into antic or ill-advised twerking. The proceedings were unnervingly sane. Mendes’s rain was no flagrant metaphor for night emissions; “In My Blood,” the song that he performed, is a platitudinous track about anxiety, done in unironic soft rock. Mendes, who released his third album earlier this year, is technically a mid-career artist. He became famous on the now-dead platform Vine, as a telegenic fourteen-year-old guitarist, which makes him the spiritual son of Justin Bieber, another veteran who did not attend this year’s show. At the 2015 V.M.A.s, Bieber broke down in tears delivering “What Do You Mean?,” making a ditty about failed communication dolorously communicative. He was twenty-one, singing about what Internet-produced fame sucks from the young.
Back then, and for decades prior, the V.M.A.s was one of the industry’s most torrid displays of the flippant fame, and the excess, entitlement, and ego that make the music world spin. But, even with the catnip of Beyoncé, Katy Perry, the Weeknd, Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian, the sermonizing Kanye West, and the other comparably tiered stars who’ve appeared in telecasts past, V.M.A. viewership has dwindled disastrously year by year; the forecast in 2018, when the biggest surprises were Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick introducing the Rockettes, and Brian Littrell, of the Backstreet Boys, dropping the word “shit” and avoiding the network censors, suggests that the trend will continue. Only the tableau of Ariana Grande, petting her bleached-blond beau Pete Davidson, gave off the hormonal vapors of unfiltered celebrity.
Many of this year’s presenters were not musicians at all but comedians and comedy-adjacent actors, who were willing to briefly enliven the show in exchange for plugging their upcoming movies. “Stop writing on your damn face!” scolded Tiffany Haddish, who presented early awards alongside Kevin Hart, her co-star in the upcoming “Night School.” Cameras panning to linger on the skin decoration of the twenty-three-year-old Post Malone and the twenty-one-year-old Lil Xan—who is the boyfriend of the eighteen-year-old Noah Cyrus, who is the little sister of Miley—unfortunately also captured the theatre’s many empty seats. Most major award shows are held on Sundays, a day whose Christian importance imparts a sense of pomp and custom on these broadcasts. This year, broadcasting on a Monday night, MTV seemed to concede that the V.M.A.s now resembles the Teen Choice Awards, which is held on a Wednesday, more than it does even the sham of the Grammys.
Like a creature focussed on its evolutionary fitness, MTV has, in recent years, been shedding its vestigial organ: music videos. The tired joke is that the network hasn’t aired programming based on its namesake (Music Television) for a decade. (I worked at MTV News, the news Web site, which operates separately from the network, between 2016 and 2017.) Perhaps spooked by its recent dismal “T.R.L.” reboot, the producers of the V.M.A.s avoided the word “video” as if it were the plague. Categories included “Best Pop,” “Best Hip Hop,” and, most insultingly, “Best Latin” (“Best Latin what?” the sober grammarian might inquire.) Ironically, the network’s aversion to video, fuelled by the fear that the medium seems arcane to a new generation, comes in a year when music videos have been somewhat revived. It’s arguable that not even Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” which won in the “Best Video with a Message” category, had a larger impact this year than Drake’s man-of-the-people video, “God’s Plan,” which showed him giving out a million dollars to civilians in Miami. It took home no awards. Even if it had, Drake wasn’t in attendance to collect them.
A near bright spot was the show’s belated acknowledgment of Hispanic artists. The Video Vanguard Award winner was Jennifer Lopez, who stomped onstage in glittering Timberland boots. The twenty-five-year-old Cardi B took home Best New Artist. The twenty-one-year-old Camila Cabello took home prizes for Video of the Year and Artist of the Year. Another highlight was the earnest rapper Logic. He was trailed by hundreds of young children, the sons and daughters of leaders from pro-immigrant organizations, who wore T-shirts that said “We are human beings.” Logic’s said “F*ck the Wall.” Their parade seemed like an inversion of Eminem’s 2000 V.M.A.s onslaught, in which clones of the rapper swarmed Radio City Music Hall. Righteous self-effacement that isn’t afraid of sentiment—this is the new way to flip off the powers that be.
MTV also attempted to cast itself as an A. & R. incubator, with a new segment splicing lightning-fast performances from a set of nominees for “Push Artist of the Year.” Viewers were to vote for their favorite young act. When the acts were unbearable, like a boy band called Pretty Much or the simpering Bazzi, who wants to shroud his girl in Gucci, the verse-long performance time seemed merciful; when they were interesting, like the nineteen-year-old Juice Wrld, it seemed vaguely cruel. Hayley Kiyoko, the emergent and exciting “Lesbian Jesus,” thankfully, won. The optimism of the Push Artists, however, could not obscure the ceremony’s conspicuous avoidance of the tragedy that befell multiple new-guard musicians this year. Lil Peep, Avicii, Jimmy Wopo, and XXXTentacion all died this year, horrifically young; the only acknowledgment of their passing was by Rita Ora, who, when mentioning her offscreen win for her collaboration with Avicii, said, “Let’s give it up for Avicii!”
In keeping with V.M.A. tradition, hip-hop was neutralized at this year’s show, relegated to the fringes. Nicki Minaj, one of the sole mega-stars to attend, had been expected to introduce a wild-card element, given the tumultuous rollout of her new album, “Queen”; instead, she gave a totally competent performance, which was pretaped in the Oculus, in downtown Manhattan. Travis Scott, who has the No. 1 album in the country, zipped through a medley from “Astroworld.” “Rest in peace to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin,” he said, when his time ended.
If the viewer, two and a half hours into this dying ritual, thought that she would drift to sleep without having her nerves worked, there Madonna arrived to jostle her with a Franklin tribute of her own. An icon of one musical style had been unfairly tasked with memorializing the legend of a wholly different one. (MTV’s fetishization of youth cultures past is matched by an inability to distinguish between artists over the age of fifty.) Madonna knew better than to sing any Franklin; so, instead, she made the tribute all about herself. Dressed in faux-Berber costume, the Queen of Pop told a long, bizarre tale of failing to impress French producers with her rendition of “Say a Little Prayer for You.” “Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of my life,” she said. The yarn seemed to have been written by a team who thought the Generation Z audience did not know who Aretha Franklin was. If the V.M.A.s needs qualitative proof that it’s gotten rid of its dependence on music, this tribute was overwhelming evidence. I hadn’t planned to be offended by a speech. Luckily, 21 Savage and Post Malone, who has grown on me in the manner of an invasive plant, came, assisted by Aerosmith, to lull me back into the unexceptional.