Nostalgia and scandal: A breakdown of the VMAs formula
Some of the most iconic pop culture moments in history have occurred on the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards. Even during a Twitter-less era, Britney Spears was already making hashtag-worthy appearances. This is why MTV created commotion around the fact that the Video Music Awards (VMAs)’ own veteran was making a comeback to the awards show after a nine-year absence. How can anyone ever forget the memorable (for all the wrong reasons) performance of her single “Gimme More” in 2007?
It only makes sense that MTV would make a big deal out of Spears’ comeback to the VMAs. As of late, the network seems to be relying heavily on the nostalgia factor that has successfully crept into our current youth culture and brought back ‘90s fashion, vinyl and Polaroid cameras. In fact, Britney Spears represents the ideal model for a noteworthy VMAs show: she appeals to the nostalgic crowd that still remembers her rendition of “I’m a Slave 4 U” with a snake around her neck; she creates controversy, the kind that she caused when she shared a kiss with Madonna in 2003.
Spears’ comeback to the VMA stage was timely. Presently, MTV is at odds with the interests of the millennial generation and the newer post-millennial generation. On the one hand, the millennial generation expects to see the same type of VMAs they grew up watching. On the other hand, the post-millennials expect to watch a show worth tweeting about and with content that appeals to their taste. This is exactly what this year’s VMAs set to accomplish.
In addition to creating buzz around Spears’ performance, MTV also advertised that the show would give Kanye West four minutes to do whatever he wanted. This was a very deliberate move that deserves a stand-alone analysis in itself. That the network slotted a specific time in the show’s schedule for West provides evidence that they actively seek controversy that would potentially make headlines the following day (even if it’s at the expense of supporting harmful stereotypes). After all, controversy is tightly weaved into the fabric of VMAs. I, myself, am guilty of this type of expectation. When I tuned to MTV Sunday night, I was hoping for an explosive pop culture moment that would spring up numerous think pieces the same way that Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s performance did three years ago. Unfortunately for MTV, West’s monologue was not contentious.
Instead, the awards show’s focus was on talent, which usually tends to be a plus in the expected craziness of the evening. Some would say that this year’s VMAs were lackluster because there were no scandalous moments—a deviant from previous editions of the show. Rihanna’s series of performances aimed at highlighting her greatest qualities, including her monumental presence onstage and her ability to wear outfits that no one else in the entire world could ever pull off. Beyonce’s mini-concert was the greatest thing that’s ever happened since Beyonce. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s duet was expectedly dazzling. Meanwhile, performances by Nick Jonas and the Chainsmokers were aimed at appealing to the younger generation of post-millennials. And yes, Britney Spears was great (despite an obnoxious appearance by G-Eazy, whose existence I learned about just now).
Ultimately, the VMAs operate on a formula of controversy and nostalgia that attempts to stay relevant within the same pop culture conversation that it was once a crucial part of. Yet this year’s formula was too heavy-handed and obviously fabricated to desperately become the center of attention for the following days. Perhaps it is time for the VMAs to stop seeking to duplicate the same iconic popularity that it once possessed. MTV should build upon its reputation of trendsetting rather than rely on its old tactics. As much as we want there to be, there will never be another iconic seven-foot Burmese python gracing the VMA stage, and you know what, that’s OK.