MTV can’t decide who the VMAs are for, but Taylor Swift knows

The awards insist on engineering a viral moment that just won't be for an audience they don't understand. Swift has a different strategy.

MTV can’t decide who the VMAs are for, but Taylor Swift knows
Taylor Swift at the 2022 VMAs Photo: Arturo Holmes

The truth about awards shows in this thoroughly modern age? They’re not really about awards. The fanfare of nominations and the weight of an Oscar still stand, but one Slap, one misread Best Picture winner, is worth one thousand cinematography awards in social capital. With the early Wild West of the Internet in the rearview mirror, getting online attention is now down to a science with little to no serendipity involved.

The MTV Video Music Awards, which were held last night at New Jersey’s Prudential Center, are often considered one of the worst offenders when it comes to pandering. Even back in 2019, the method to the madness was clear: bloodthirsty for the virality of a Kanye West-Taylor Swift confrontation, the VMAs veered towards a model that favors, more than music or videos, forcefully creating moments that trend on social media. But as the pipe dream of TikTok glory keeps the VMAs chugging along like a social media Sisyphus, it begs the question: who are these awards for anymore?

Historically, that subset was clear: the VMAs were for young people who cared about showbiz, the thin and thick of it, the high-brow to the low-brow. The VMAs may not have been your mom’s definition of a Big Night, but you knew all your friends were going to be talking about Britney and Justin’s matching denim outfits. The cultural moments that stand out from the VMAs are showmanship made manifest: think Madonna and Britney sharing a sweaty, sultry kiss onstage (a moment that saw a smoothly updated homage from Latin pop innovator and Artist of the Year winner Bad Bunny); it’s Miley Cyrus grinding on a foam finger while performing “We Can’t Stop;” it’s Pink cartwheeling furiously while suspended midair; it’s Lady Gaga’s bloody performance of “Paparazzi,” which spawned a million Chromatica Ball looks.

Though the excitement of debut performances from rising global acts like Anitta or BLACKPINK still sparks, these days even the big-name artists aren’t immune from desperation, which certainly isn’t alleviated by the VMAs’ identity crisis between nostalgia and vanguard. Although Ms. Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson’s link-up with Jack Harlow for “First Class” was an event highlight, it’s telling that the show probably would’ve gained more traction if she had just performed “Glamorous” instead of contributing to Harlow’s middling interpolation of her hit, a snippet of which went viral all the way back in April. An especially “who is this for?” segment was Snoop Dogg and Eminem’s certainly far-too-expensive performance that relied on their even-more-too-expensive NFT Bored Ape characters. Just take one look at the online sendup of Seth Green and it’s clear: teens aren’t buying into NFTs. So what’s the point?

The desperation for traction hit an especially low point with an absolutely bizarre appearance by a holographic Johnny Depp dressed as a Moon Man (although the accepted term is now Moon Person, believe you me: this was a Moon Man if ever one has existed.) Given Depp’s current allegations, the trite moment took on a disgusting political undertone; essentially, MTV threw shit from TikTok at a wall to see what sticks, even if it’s a domestic-abuse-case-turned-fan-cam.

Ironically enough, the true conversation starter at this year’s VMAs was the very same person it was in 2009: Taylor Swift. Back then, Swift was a brand-new country crossover artist who hadn’t even hit her third decade of life. In a sparkling silver gown, clutching the Moon Person for “You Belong With Me” to her heart, Swift set out to give the first of what would become countless breathlessly shocked and humbled acceptance speeches—that is until she was interrupted by a belligerent Kanye West, who insisted Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)“ was “ one of the best videos of all time.” The crowd booed (at who, though, was initially unclear) and the moment swiftly (no pun intended) entered the canon of American pop history.

When Swift was the talk of the VMAs that year, she had very little to say: in an interview following the confrontation she was asked if she was a Kanye fan to which she responds in a painful mumble: “Yeah.” But this year, in the all-grown-up version of that silver gown, Swift made the VMAs hers, refusing to be fodder for virality on anyone’s terms but her own—and lifting up other female stars in the process. She strutted the red carpet in a TikTok to BLACKPINK’s hit “Pink Venom,” then urged the crowd to their feet during the K-Pop group’s performance. Swift was spotted doing the same at the conclusion of Nicki Minaj’s career-spanning medley, in an old-school pan-to-the-crowd clip that blew that entire “celebrities having fun together” airplane segment out of the water.

But Swift’s most telling moment as a pop star came when she stepped onstage to accept the Video of the Year award for her “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)“ short film. While accepting the award that made her the most decorated Video of the Year winner of all time, she caused two good old-fashioned water-cooler moments MTV could only dream of. First, she thanked the video’s young muse, Stranger Things star Sadie Sink— a passing of the torch and a wink between two of Gen Z’s most pervasive stan-doms. And second, she interrupted her own acceptance speech to announce a new album, Midnights, out October 21, immediately setting her fanbase ablaze.

At the end of the day, it’s simple: while the VMAs desperately try to chase the waxing preferences of whatever stan-dom they can find, Swift knows how to cater to (and wield) her own. Whether it’s Swifties, the Bey Hive, or even the notoriously vicious Barbz: a mobilized fanbase is the closest guarantee to longevity a pop star can find in this lifetime. The VMAs may be holding to their last thread of relevance, but Swift’s buoyant multi-generational stan army and her command of social media prove the merit of an old-school celebrity with a streamlined publicity plan and media training. The VMAs can play the TikTok game all day long—one can’t compete where they can’t compare.

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