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Tonight’s Video Music Awards will have all the space-age glitz and laser flair of an electronic music festival — the type of large-scale production that requires, quite simply, an arena. Look no further than the 15,000-pound crane that extends 70 feet in a fraction of a second, or the neon structures adorning the Staples Center floor or the giant LED screen displaying images that could have come straight out of a Depeche Mode video.
Call it EDMTV, and as executive producer and network executive vp Dave Sirulnick explains, it’s a sign of the times. “Each VMAs, we try to come up with what we think really works for that year — from an aesthetic perspective or a narrative perspective,” says the network veteran who also oversees MTV multiplatform, production, news and music. “This year, we wanted the energy of an audience and a performer when they get together. It happens in concerts all the time, but if you go to any of the electronic dance music festivals, you see an incredible give and take between the DJ and the participants. We were inspired by that notion.”
To drive the vibe home, the VMAs will feature an open floor plan with about 1,500 eager fans ready to get the dance party started. “There should be an incredible energy,” boasts Sirulnick.
As well as plenty of politics: With the Democratic National Convention taking place concurrently, MTV made sure not to overlap with President Obama’s speech (“It’s the right thing to do,” says Sirulnick). Still, expect the presidential race — and maybe an empty chair or two — to be high on the comedy agenda.
It’s one reason MTV opted to have Kevin Hart play emcee this year, after going hostless in 2011. “It’s his year, his moment, his time,” says Sirulnick. “After working with him years ago on a series for MTV and having him do the Best New Artist segments in 2011, we asked him, and he said yes right away.”
Hart promises that no celebrity is off-limits when it comes to offending audience members (see video below), but as far as pop culture-defining moments and onstage antics are concerned, Sirulnick says the beauty of the VMAs is that one never knows who might grab some airtime for themselves.
Case in point: “Last year, Chris Brown flew, and it was obviously planned and it was pretty spectacular,” says the executive. “But then there are the unplanned moments, like Beyonce deciding to tell the world that she’s pregnant, with her husband right there and his best friend sitting next to him. You allow those moments to happen by putting the right people in the room together and creating an atmosphere that feels energized and exciting and fun. … That’s when you get Madonna kissing Britney [Spears] and Christina [Aguilera] or Kanye [West] jumping onstage or Michael [Jackson] kissing Lisa Marie [Presley]. And hopefully people at home go, ‘Wow!’ And we all feel good about it.”
But what about those who don’t feel so good about MTV benching music in favor of such reality TV fare as Jersey Shore and Teen Mom. After all, the M in MTV no longer stands for “music,” and while the VMAs still draw such top-tier acts as Rihanna, Lil Wayne, Pink, Nicki Minaj and Green Day, the show hardly is representative of the bigger musical picture, which is more diverse and inspiring than ever.
To the music video loyalists, Sirulnick defends: “Music is still the heart and soul of what we are, what we do and our legacy. There’s a reason these artists and the viewers turn out: It’s because of the 30-plus years that MTV has been on the air and what we have been able to produce — those great music moments happen because of the spirit of MTV.”
The soul of the VMAs, he adds, can be seen in the wide-eyed lads of One Direction, “a band who didn’t exist a few years ago,” says Sirulnick. “They’ve watched the VMAs growing up, so they’ve seen their predecessors on our stage, and they now say I want to prove it on that show. Alicia Keys, Taylor Swift, Green Day — there was a time when they were the new ones and there’s this wonderful continuum. Taylor said just the other day that one of the great things about the VMAs is that everybody who works on the show is — and I’m paraphrasing — ‘as passionate about the performance as I am.’ That is so true, but it’s also so everyone at home get the best possible performance.”
Last year’s ratings saw a sharp increase in viewers, pulling in the show’s biggest audience ever — 12.4 million viewers. With only hours until the double-decker red carpet kicks off, we’ll find out soon enough whether this election-year lineup has the constituency to see history repeat itself.
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