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For the past dozen years, as MTV’s once-titanic grip upon music and pop culture has dwindled, the Video Music Awards have been its ace-in-the-hole — the annual ratings and water-cooler-moment jackpot that keep it anchored in a media world that continues to evolve far beyond television networks. And while the network has continued to hit those moments — which usually involve the names Kanye West, Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus — they’re unlikely ever to reach the gold standard of 13 years ago when it was Britney Spears and Madonna.
But in a year that’s been tumultuous even by this beleaguered network’s standards (Read The Hollywood Reporter‘s exhaustive coverage of the Sumner Redstone/Phillippe Daumann drama), there’s opportunity. The medium that stole the thunder (and lunch) of MTV and the industries around it — the internet and YouTube in particular, duh — has made music videos more relevant than they’ve been since the turn of the millennium. And whether it’s luck or changes in leadership or tactics, the 2016 VMAs were the first in recent memory that actually felt different.
The show’s format was only the most obvious change. It was less rigid and predictable — for an awards show, anyway — and, in a way that reflects the changing power dynamic in the music business, large segments were basically handed over to superstar artists. Rihanna performed four separate times and was presented with the Video Vanguard award by a be-tuxed — and possibly lovelorn — Drake, occupying approximately 30 minutes of the nearly three-hour-long show. Kanye West filled around 12 minutes with a stream-of-consciousness speech and a soft-porn new music video. Alicia Keys spoke and sang a poem inspired by Martin Luther King. And Beyonce, suiting her imperial status, delivered a mind-blowing 15-minute medley that showed her peerless mastery of the live television moment. Diddy’s relentless brand-dropping (he strategically mentioned Ciroc vodka, with which he has a 50-50 profit split, in both of his on-camera appearances) felt like a throwback.
The visuals and staging were as vivid as ever but woozier and more surreal: The show opened with a barrage of pink — Rihanna’s sterile, bathroom-esque opening number was followed by Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj performing in a set seemingly modeled on a West Village Soul Cycle, and that was just the first 15 minutes.
Maybe the network was leery of making those kinds of waves — and it’s not like these are artists who can be told what to do. Maybe, in a year that’s seen more far-reaching tumult hit closer to home than any since the ‘60s, the performers figured people have had enough.
But for all the bad jokes and missed moments, and for all the inevitable post-show snark attacks on social media, at least this year’s VMAs suggest a different way forward. One speech along the lines of Jesse Williams’ Black Lives Matter broadside during the BET Awards and we’d be talking about something besides Beyonce’s flawlessness and Kanye’s Olympic narcissism.
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