VMA night already? Indeed, and if nothing else the VMAs tell the tale of American “young mainstream” culture. In a more subtle way though, the VMAs have dictated the direction of this country as a whole — or at least the mediated portrayal. Much like modern MTV as a whole, Britney Spears is central to the tale. So, a look back, and a look forward at the illustrious Video Music Awards — where they went wrong, how they’re trying to get it right again, and how it reflects on how the country is trying to do the same.
2007 was a train wreck beyond words. We as a country were in a bad place, with no leadership, fragmented, and at the helm of escapism via hyperobsession with celebrity culture. The VMAs reflected that mentality by holding the show in Sin City, with no host, multiple stages in various hotel rooms, and oh yeah — it was in a Vegas hotel… classy. Much like the “young mainstream” American culture, the 2007 VMAs needed an adderrall — or twelve — first and foremost. In the midst of an environment of created chaos, there was Britney Spears. In the midst of the chaotic country, there was the American public — or at least the American pop culture. Boy did it go pop.
Yes this was America’s obsession for the year, and so indicative of America itself that year: “She’s the perfect celebrity for America in decline: Like President Bush, she just doesn’t give a fxxk, but at least we won’t have to clean up after her mess for the rest of our lives.” So, we crashed and burned. Britney is as much an iconography of America as President Obama — but while he plays to the angels of our better nature, she plays to the shadows of our human nature; he is our vision, but she is our vice. Britney’s debacle was the empress being called out on her nudity. For all of the smoke, mirrors, money, and makeup, there was nothing beneath the shell — in 2007 we didn’t even have a wizard behind the curtain ( he was busy flipping houses and refinancing mortgages) the VMAs didn’t even have a host, and Britney was dancing on a prayer.
Alas, there is a light at the end of the tunnel; 2008 saw a new day: LA, may not be NY and it may not have been home, but it was a step in the right direction. It’s flashy – but not cheesy. The VMAs had a foreign host – Russell Brand – but he talked straight and he was charismatic, in a junkie sex-addict kind of way. Either way, the show wasn’t perfect, but it picked up the pieces and was trying to restructure itself. The story of the night was, yet again, Britney. She won Video of the Year, Female Video of the Year, and Pop Video of the Year. Her return wasn’t overdone, it wasn’t made out to be a spectacle – if anything it was hated on for being too boring. Her return wasn’t the explosive comeback that 2007 was touted as being, 2008 was the calm after the storm. Which for Britney, was a victory in its own right; being alive in 2008 at all was a victory for Britney. That said, the Video of the Year was completely fan-chosen and, as such, struck an even deeper chord with relation to the American public. From Shut Up and Let Me Go, Forever, When I Grow Up, Burnin’ Up, and Piece of Me, the public chose Britney’s “Piece of Me.” Had the Ting Tings won, it would’ve reflected a focus on the award at hand and the technical/conceptual aspects of a video – which the Ting Tings had heads and shoulders over the competition. Had PCD won, it would’ve reflected a regressive “greed is great” 2007 vibe of celebrity as the alpha and omega of existence and life meaning. Had Chris Brown won – no need to stress about if, because it wouldn’t have happened. If Breezy had won though, maybe he wouldn’t be forced to serve our communities doing highway and graffiti removal duty to keep VA beautiful. Had the Jonas Brothers won, it would reflect the Disney stranglehold on America – and an idealized celebrity/young culture of bubblegum pop (moreover the recycling and rebirth of the Britney/Backstreet popstar, and said resulting train wreck). But they chose Britney. Britney’s win reflected a sense of hope that even after near-death (her last RS cover prior was the first obituary I’d read for a living person), even after a whole country profits off of your perils, you can still come back – somehow. Britney was the underdog, but not really. Had she not won, it would’ve been per usual – a bit disappointing, but nothing to tweet about – the fact that she did win though was a nice surprise and an “about time” situation.
2009: This year the VMAs are back in New York. The show is being hosted by Mr. Brand again. The show has Britney up for Video of the Year – again. It should be a decent show, not brilliant, but decent. What is noteworthy is the presentation and theme for this year’s program. There is not the neon pizazz and wow of recent shows, there isn’t the nonsense over the top ADHD sensationalism like there was before, there isn’t the “hot city du jour” vibe. It’s toning it down and getting back to basics. The show reflects a Roc Nation state of mind. Yes, it is commercial; yes, it is promotion; but there is a renewed focus on the artistry and the merger of music and video to create a complete art form of the music video in and of itself. MTV can’t avoid the JoBros, Twilight, or the marketing fantasy that is the Tween Machine; however, with the red and black motif, the basic shapes and mood of the adverts, it hearkens back to a more authentic period. With Janet opening the show with a Michael tribute, Hov performing, Kanye up for Video of the Year – for “Love Lockdown” off of the anti-mainstream 808s and Heartbreak – this could be a move in the right direction. This is also the first time since 9/11 that MTV is holding their ceremony in New York, in September. MTV could just be trying to instate change we can believe in… well, as soon as Kristin and Speidi get off the payroll.
Watch this space: if only for nostalgia’s sake