Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
How MTV sucked the life out of the VMAs

How MTV sucked the life out of the VMAs

Illustration: Karl Gustafson

If you were ever a teenager in America, there’s a good chance that, at some point in your youth, you spent at least one night of your life watching in rapt attention as MTV’s Video Music Awards unspooled in front of you, from the first moment of backstage hype to the desultory closing minutes, an ending usually defined by a musical act fighting valiantly against the collective knowledge that this fucking thing is over already. You probably didn’t care who won—unless you made a few phone calls and/or texts to vote for a particular artist—so much as you were there for the spectacle. Which makes sense; that’s always been the point of the VMAs. They’re designed purely in hopes of generating water-cooler conversation moments.

Which is precisely why there are fewer and fewer such instances actually birthed each year. As any person (or corporation, just as often) that’s tried to artificially bump something to the front page of Reddit has discovered, you can’t plan in advance what people will care about. You can’t make something “go viral.” And you sure as shit can’t engineer stunts guaranteed to get people talking. All of which is bad news for MTV, which has done everything in its power over the past 35 years to breed out any potential for spontaneity or unexpected surprises during its broadcast. MTV wants stage-managed chaos, rigorously rehearsed moments of faux controversy, and spectacle-filled wackiness meticulously planned within an inch of its life. It wants the credibility and cache of free-wheeling celebrity antics without the actual presence of such behavior. And what it definitely doesn’t want is surprises. MTV hates surprises.

This isn’t a shock, obviously, any more than it would be a shock to learn that publicly traded companies only donate to nonprofits in hopes of generating publicity and consumer goodwill. MTV is a business, and like any business, it wants to be in control of as much of its practices as possible. True, its earliest employees may have received memos instructing them to stop using their key cards to cut their cocaine, as it was interfering with the electronic security system, but the ’80s were a long time ago, and even then, the channel’s corporate heads were all about management and brand control. Like a lot of businesses, MTV would rather run smoothly than be a bit more successful, because people in boardrooms don’t like to worry about their jobs. (They prefer to leave that to the rest of us.) Launched in 1981 because American Express bought Warner Cable as a way to sell more credit cards via TV, by 1985—one year after the first VMA ceremony aired—MTV had gone public as a stand-alone entity, and its business practices soon looked a lot less like the raucous clash of money-meets-art that had so long defined the music industry, and more like standard operating procedure for any Fortune 500 company.

While much of this transformation played out behind the scenes at the company (some of it detailed in the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story Of The Music Video Revolution), you can see a longer, more drawn-out version of the channel’s increasing commodification and corporatization play out on screen by watching the VMAs over the years, from its rough and ramshackle first iteration to its hollowed-out, gimcrack recent years. It’s important to note this isn’t about the transformation of popular music from largely white-guy-dominated rock to the hip-hop- and R&B-derived pop that now drives the mainstream music industry—MTV’s institutional racism and prejudice against black artists in the ’80s was certainly an issue, but glossy pop artists were just as often the leading insurrectionaries back in the day, and image-conscious rock bands were conversely extremely willing to take orders about their look, behavior, and even musical endeavors.

No, what it’s about is the difference between surprise and stunt, between disruption and deliverables, between the playful spirit of combative performers and the stringent guidelines of producers intent on smoothing out any televised hiccups. It’s about the efforts of MTV to run a tight, well-orchestrated ship of performances against the efforts of the people who actually make the music people tune in to see pushing back against such straitjacketing. This is perhaps best symbolized by the moment in 1992 when Nirvana, angry that MTV had threatened retaliation if the band refused to play one of its hits instead of a new song (the channel suggested it would fire band friend and MTV employee Amy Finnerty were they not to fall in line), began a performance of “Lithium” with Cobain strumming a few bars of “Rape Me” instead. Then-MTV President Judy McGrath reportedly let out a shriek and ran into the production booth, ready to cut to commercial. Yes, MTV would rather torpedo arguably the biggest act of the night and generate a ton of bad press for itself than allow a song that wasn’t pre-approved from going out over the airwaves. Control over all else.

But the channel has never seemed to understand that letting the seams show was one of the most endearing (maybe the only endearing) things about MTV, generating a sense of relatability that was more valuable with a deeply profitable youth demographic than all the polished “Check it out, young people!” ads they could produce. And the very first Video Music Awards, hosted by Bette Midler and Dan Ackroyd (which was as weird as it sounds), saw the final presentation of the night hijacked by Eddie Murphy, who impulsively decided to bring out the guy responsible for blowing “festive” amounts of confetti into the crowd and promising him an ass-whooping. It was a glimpse behind the scenes, and a moment that showed an awards show that could deviate from the playbook in honest and hilarious ways.

Cut to one year later, with Murphy even more famous than he already was, and MTV asked him to host the entire endeavor. The comedian said yes, and brought his freewheeling, improvisational attitude with him. This is maybe best demonstrated in a lengthy and random bit where Murphy decides to nab presenter Morris Day and Best Concept Video award winner Glenn Frey—both of whom were obviously unprepared for Murphy’s impetuous grab—and ropes them into an impromptu live trip downstairs to the press lounge. What follows is extended periods of silence and/or just-out-of-mic-range comments from the two guests, as they wend their way through the audience, downstairs, and eventually reaching their destination, before Murphy detours into the women’s lounge area outside the bathroom, surprising at least a couple women heading back upstairs. Watching the cameras scramble to keep up with the host as he follows his muse is almost as good as the strange slice-of-celebrity-life study contained in the unrehearsed segment.

These scenes of unexpected and awkward moments are what gave the awards show its reputation as the anything-goes hot ticket of live televised ceremonies, a cutting edge element of unpredictability hotwired into one of the most bland and stolid of TV traditions. Naturally, the channel took the exact wrong lesson from this: MTV started thinking that over-the-top was what got people talking, as opposed to the unexpected. One is obviously preplanned and can be seen coming a mile away, and the other is that dangerous sense of frisson generated by seeing something you know hasn’t been set up ahead of time, a feeling of danger that stems from the possibility for anything to happen.

This is likely one of the main reasons you don’t see stand-up sets like the one Sam Kinison performed in 1988 any more. MTV begrudgingly allowed the controversial comedian to take the stage after Guns N’ Roses insisted on having Kinison introduce them if they were to perform, and unexpectedly—or rather, wholly to be expected, if you knew anything about Kinison—the comic seized control of the show and preceded to perform nearly five minutes of stand-up, including lambasting the G-rated nature of the live TV event, scorning the restrictions MTV tried to impose upon him, and (best of all) mocking some of the evening’s biggest names, including MTV faves Huey Lewis And The News. (It also allowed Kinison to very publicly deliver the best Lewis burn ever conceived: “‘It’s Hip To Be Square’? Must be the same town where it’s hip to be called ‘Huey.’”)

From then on, MTV started progressively exercising more and more control over every facet of the awards show. It still wanted to be the topic of conversation the next day, of course, but was operating under the mistaken impression it could generate such moments from a team of producers and an office whiteboard. That’s not to suggest that stunts can’t be attention-getting hits—far from it, in fact. Elements of cultural zeitgeist were certainly captured by Madonna’s tongue-kissing Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears back to back in 2003, or Lady Gaga wearing a dress made of meat in 2010, or (shudder) Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley staging a painfully clumsy kiss to try and prove their love to the world. MTV would love nothing more than for its own pre-approved stunts to be the water-cooler discussion throughout America—and it gets really pissed off when, as I recall from 1994, the Beastie Boys use their pre-show interview time to reveal that MTV stuck them in a “punk rock ghetto” with Green Day backstage to lower the odds of any mischief-making from either band. (I have searched the internet for this clip to no avail, so here’s Green Day’s performance of “Armatage Shanks” from that year.)

But there’s a reason such stage-managed moments are rare when it comes to memorable VMA situations. Instead, scroll through any collection of wild VMA moments, and it’s inevitably largely made up of unscripted, unplanned scenes of spontaneity that MTV could never, and will never, control. All the effort the network put into arranging for Katy Perry to sing “Roar” from a boxing ring under the Brooklyn Bridge, and it can’t generate one-tenth the attention garnered by Courtney Love stumbling her way into an interview with Madonna. The amount of planning and money it must have taken to coordinate a single extended tracking shot of Nick Jonas wending his way through multiple choreographed sets en route to the VMAs stage in 2016, and it couldn’t muster an iota of the interest created in 2002 simply by having Triumph The Insult Comic Dog unintentionally give Eminem the opportunity to be an asshole.

Hell, even back in ’92 when MTV was still getting a handle on how to efficiently minimize the potential for unapproved interruptions, more people were talking about Krist Novoselic accidentally smacking himself in the face with his bass than nearly any other live performance from that decade’s worth of VMAs. (Hell, more people probably talked about the Red Hot Chili Peppers miming fellatio during their Breakthrough Video acceptance speech that same year than any performance.) Honestly, watch Beastie Boy Adam Yauch bum-rush the stage after R.E.M.’s video win in ’94 and declaim the proceedings while in character as “Nathaniel Hornblower,” and just try to imagine anyone at MTV actually managing to come up with something more worth talking about than that. It’s nigh-impossible:

These moments become fewer and further apart as the years go by. But the ne plus ultra of VMA moments not only demonstrates the undeniable value of the very thing MTV wants to quash, but that doing its best to limit such moments means there’s been almost nothing worth discussing from the ceremony in the decade since. The 2009 Video Music Awards featured Taylor Swift performing in the New York City subway system—but you almost certainly don’t remember that, or any of MTV’s other exhaustively plotted sequences, because that was the year Kanye West decided to interrupt Swift’s acceptance speech with an impromptu testament to Beyoncé. Nothing as noteworthy has happened in the ensuing 10 years. A more interesting channel might take note of that fact.

It’s bizarre that the difference between stunt and subversion never seems to be acknowledged. There’s a plethora of “Greatest VMA moments” lists on the internet, and not one distinguishes between the two. “32 Most Outrageous MTV VMAs Moments of All Time” thus lists Miley Cyrus twerking alongside Rage Against The Machine bassist Tim Commerford climbing a pylon in disgust at the predetermined, manufactured nature of the “awards,” as though the two were one and the same. (And as though MTV didn’t do everything in its power during the actual broadcast to pretend the disruption wasn’t happening: Even in the channel’s subsequent news recaps of the event, it tellingly omits the impetus for Commerford’s actions—namely, that he saw winners Limp Bizkit approaching the stage, cameras in tow, before the band’s name had even been announced, triggering his anger at the complete farce viewers are led to believe is genuinely uncertain beforehand.) By sacrificing the latter on the alter on the former, MTV has unsurprisingly chosen obsolescence over opportunity, and stamped out the very fires that once drew curious viewers to its spectacle.

People used to know the tightly harnessed reins of live TV production might be upended by the Video Music Awards, and they would get a glimpse of the absurdity behind the splash. It wasn’t just part of the appeal; it was most of the draw. The smartest thing MTV could do would be to recapture a bit of that old freestyling Eddie Murphy spirit by opening up the possibility for disruption. The old ad slogan “I want my MTV” always meant something a little more than the channel realized: What people were really saying was, I want my MTV, despite the channel’s best efforts to keep it from them.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.