Sorry – the old MTV can’t come to the phone right now. Because it died. But there were some valuable lessons in this year’s mess of a Video Music Awards gala. Katy Perry should never try stand-up comedy again. Cardi B, Kendrick Lamar, Lorde and Rod Stewart should be required to appear at all award shows forever. Pop stars might want to give up the delusion that anyone cares about their beefs anymore. Except Fifth Harmony, who can do whatever the hell they want. The 2017 VMAs had barely begun before we got a brilliant reaction shot of Fifth Harmony in the crowd looking miserable, holding their ears in pain. It was that kind of night.
Poor Katy – she had a rough time. Her host gig began with a godawful fidget spinner joke, then got drearier as the night wore on, despite a great cameo from Billy Eichner, asking, “Isn’t it true that you’re just Lana Del Ray’s cool mom?”
But Kendrick elevated the music with a pyromaniac performance of “DNA” and “Humble,” lighting his dancers on fire for the ultimate rap-metal effect. Paris Jackson made a heartfelt speech about Charlottesville and “Nazi supremacist jerks,” including the one in the White House. Her speech ended with a perfectly bizarre segue: “We must resist! And now the nominees for Best Pop Video.”
Lorde gave the night’s most touching performance, even though she didn’t sing at all – she just hit play on a boombox and did an interpretive dance to “Homemade Dynamite.” It was emotionally direct and warm and funny, in an uncluttered way; it felt poignant even before anyone knew the official explanation – she had the flu. Lorde went low-budget without making an issue of it, like she was doing a karaoke version of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” video. She didn’t overdo the self-deprecation, either – she rocked a tinfoil tutu because she thought it looked cool, not as a joke. This was a real star, doing real star shit. It would have been enough to make the night worth watching.
Cardi B was definitely the artist who won the most new fans, from her “Bodack Yellow” performance on the red carpet to her horrified face at Ed Sheeran. Her finest moment came when she raved about Colin Kaepernick – “As long as you kneel with us, we’re gonna be standing for you! That’s right, I said it!” – while holding up her dress to avoid unleashing her left boob upon the world. Talk about a star-making moment. Pink accepted the Video Vanguard award with a speech about her six-year-old daughter and the inspiring power of “androgynous rock stars” – she was the only one all night to give a shout out to Prince (who went totally unmentioned last year, right after he’d died) or George Michael. If only Pink could go back in time to give pep talks to all our six-year-old selves.
Lil Uzi Vert crashed Ed Sheeran’s set for a fantastic romp through “XO Tour Llif3.” Uzi kept gliding in a black punk-ninja outfit that might have been inspired by Gwen Stefani in vintage “Spiderwebs” mode.
Sheeran won Artist of the Year, a moment that stood out because the roll call of nominees was the only time anyone mentioned Ariana Grande, which was surprising to say the least.
There was an all-too-brief performance by somebody named “Kyle” – he’s a real thing, right? Not just a too-good-to-be-true lost Key & Peele sketch about boy bands? Kyle did “iSpy” in a lavender denim twin-set and completely boosted the show’s energy level, so naturally MTV pulled the plug on him and cut to a sad white folk singer. More Kyle, please. They also cut off Julia Michaels in the middle of “Issues” to go to a commercial. MTV spent the VMAs advertising all their awesome new creative ideas: a reboot of TRL, an “original scripted series” reboot of Heathers, and Siesta Key, lauding it as a revival of Laguna Beach and The Hills. Yay, ideas!
Fifth Harmony did an excellent performance of “Angel” and “Down,” where they had a stand-in fifth member to represent the departed Camila Cabello, and then catapulted her right off the stage. In a night full of wink-wink shade and eyerolling subsnaps, it was refreshing to see a blast of cheap and obvious and awesome old-school diva spite. Rod Stewart joined DNCE for a kinked-out “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Rod looked like he’d beamed in from another planet, which in a way he did. He was a lesson in cool – while Joe Jonas worked hard to show it was all an ironic joke, mugging with his porn ‘stache, Rod exuded the confidence of a pro who’s been not taking shit seriously since before Joe was born, coaching him to just relax and let his young heart run free tonight.
Jared Leto might have seemed like an unlikely go-to guy for gravitas, but he gave a touching tribute to Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell. He noted that Bennington sang “the classic ‘Hallelujah’” at Cornell’s funeral – a song written by another musician we lost recently. The tribute had a snippet of Linkin Park playing the 2010 VMAs, though their most indelible VMAs moment came in 2007, when they appeared at the end – almost as an afterthought – to blast through “Bleed It Out,” their toughest and truest hit, with a DJ intro from Timbaland.
Jack Antonoff introduced Lorde by making it all about him (“Ella and I spent like two years making Melodrama”) and then accepted the Taylor/Zayn collaboration award with a speech that began, “Me and Taylor wrote this song together.” We get it, guy – you deserve half the credit for what cool women do! Consider us all teached! His best onscreen moment came early when he silently heckled Katy’s stand-up routine – just by chomping a banana and looking bored as hell. The Chainsmokers dropped by to announce they just had “the best year of our lives,” because of course they did. Miley Cyrus did a Grease-style “Younger Now.” Chance the Rapper looked serene in his fuzzy sweater, gazing at the antics onstage. Considering his well-publicized efforts to kneecap MTV News over a negative review, this looked like General Franco paying a visit to Guernica to admire the new architectural redesign. Meanwhile, Ludacris and Olivia Munn set an all-time low in the history of award-show banter, with their argument over sharing sandwiches.
Taylor Swift premiered the video for “Look What You Made Me Do” – nobody’s idea of a great Tay single. The video was every bit as polarizing as the song. But in case you’re new to Tay-watching, keep in mind this is par for the course – the first track she debuts from an album is usually a thematic statement rather than a musical one, lamenting the struggles of celebrity life, and it’s usually also one of the album’s weakest songs (cf. “Innocent” from Speak Now, “Shake It Off” from 1989). The real takeaway from the video was Tay’s Squad Shirt with her friends’ names: some curious names missing here. Whose names are hidden on the back? This shirt alone could keep Tayologists buzzing for weeks.
As for Katy, she ended on a flubbed note, with her overblown performance of “Swish Swish.” Considering that it’s a Swift diss, and considering that Taylor just served her enemies whole new arsenals of ammunition with “Look What You Made Me Do,” and considering Nicki Minaj was in the house, this should have been a lay-up. But “Swish Swish” felt as labored and witless as ever. “Your game is tired, you should retire” – this was Katy’s big climactic statement? It was the clumsy ending to a clumsy night. Swish swish, indeed. Dance us out of here, Lorde.