At the VMAs, ‘this is fame, bruh!’ And not much else.

Sunday night's VMAs felt no-stakes. A smattering of pop's biggest names gathered inside Madison Squa
Beyonce at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards
Beyonce at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards

Before “disruption” became an abused Silicon Valley buzzword, it was something you might encounter on MTV’s annual Video Music Awards show. Sometimes, the disruptions are low-stakes: Madonna smooching Britney Spears in 2003. And sometimes they’re lower-stakes: Howard Stern dressed up as a flatulent superhero in 1992.

Sunday night’s VMAs felt no-stakes. A smattering of pop’s biggest names gathered inside Madison Square Garden for an evening of on-message performances and mutual congratulations. That meant no feuds, no stunts, no sabotage and just about zip-zero drama – because who needs Viacom’s megaphone to make mischief in the social media age? Today’s pop stars are free to disrupt on their own time.

Beyoncé and Rihanna dominated the evening, as they are wont to do. Both singers launched massive and magnificent concert tours earlier this year, and on Sunday night, they each did their best to squeeze those shows into the context of an awards-show telecast. Rihanna, who was receiving MTV’s shiny Video Vanguard Award, gave four separate performances throughout the evening — some stronger than others — while Beyoncé blasted her way through an extended medley of songs from her remarkable new album, “Lemonade.”

In the context of MTV’s history, the extra screen time felt meaningful. Back in January, shortly after the death of David Bowie, an early-1980s interview with the rock icon began circulating. In it, he chastised MTV for its failure to air music videos from black artists. More than three decades later, despite the fact that MTV no longer airs music videos, the network appeared to be staging a tacit celebration of black women and the power of their music.

As for the rest of the show, it told us things we already knew. We were reminded that Spears has spent nearly three years in Las Vegas. (Her performance felt unstylish and far away.) We were reminded that Diddy is still about his Benjamins. (He managed to drop a sponsor’s slogan into his presentation prattle.) And we were reminded that Drake is still corny. (He fawned over Rihanna while presenting her with the Video Vanguard Award — and for a moment, it looked as if he might get down on one knee in what would have been the most ill-advised stunt marriage proposal in history.)

But here’s something we didn’t know: Earlier this month, when Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps famously scrunched up his face before the men’s 200-meter butterfly semifinal, he was listening to Future’s “Stick Talk” — a detail that Phelps revealed before bringing the innovative Atlanta rapper to the stage. This obviously didn’t generate the kind of titillation that once was synonymous with the VMAs, but it was a satisfying little surprise. It’s also cool that Phelps digs an artist who often raps as though he is drowning.

Aside from Future, only two other rappers performed. The great Nicki Minaj gave a not-great duet with Ariana Grande, while leather-and-pomade-enthusiast G-Eazy said some rhyming words alongside Spears. Chance the Rapper, Desiigner and others sat in the audience and watched. What a waste. This has been an astonishing year for rap music, but Sunday’s VMAs seemed to be suffering the same kind of hip-hop allergies we see every winter at the Grammy Awards.

In the middle of all of this, Kanye West materialized to introduce his new music video, and he managed to sum up the entire night with one bull’s eye phrase in an otherwise wayward speech: “This is fame, bruh!” Exactly. In total, this year’s VMAs were not honoring mischief, or excellence, or the intersection of the two — just fame.

Categories: Entertainment, News

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