VMAs descend into mediocrity

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Caragh McErlean/Senior Staff

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The MTV Video Music Awards have never been about subtlety.

Since its inception in the 1980s, the MTV’s trademark summer entertainment has been notorious for throwing prestige to the sidelines and letting spectacle takes the stage. The show has cultivated numerous iconic and scandalous pop culture moments, from Britney Spears’ performance with a python, to Lady Gaga’s meat dress to #Kanye2020.

But Sunday, the 2017 VMAs fell short in scandal, entertainment and viewership; the few meaningful moments — Jared Leto’s tribute to the late Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, Kendrick Lamar’s flaming medley performance, and P!nk’s Video Vanguard acceptance speech — were obscured by a show that was frustratingly lackluster and, on multiple instances, inadvertently tone-deaf.

Change was the major narrative of the show, represented through the trophy name switch from the iconic “Moonman” to the gender neutral “Moon Person,” and the removal of the gendered “Best Male/Female Video” in favor of the distinguished “Artist of the Year.” Politics took center stage, and with good reason — following the white supremacist rally on August 12th in Charlottesville, Susan Bro, the mother of slain counter-protester Heather Heyer, gave an impassioned plea for social action, before introducing the nominees for “Best Fight Against the System” — all of which won, by the way. But touching moments like this were undermined when host Katy Perry spent most of the show rotating between snide political commentary and jokes about fidget spinners.

The most startling feature to come out of the VMAs was Taylor Swift’s music video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” the critically polarizing, record-breaking single from her upcoming album Reputation. Yet Swift, who has a long history with the awards program, wasn’t even there to introduce the video.

Perhaps she had good reason. In a year of political instability and recent national crises, it’s only reasonable that a major pop-culture staple would change, for better or for worse, to reflect the atmosphere. But one thing’s for sure — like the old Swift, the old VMAs too, are dead.

— Anagha Komaragiri

Video of the Year

Ultimately, the Video of the Year category proved no contest. Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” — directed by Dave Meyers and the Little Homies — was by far the most visually and narratively striking nominee in the category. Upon its release, “HUMBLE.” shocked fans with its departure from the subtly woven themes of 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly — bringing instead a brash, confident artist calling out both himself and others to “sit down” and “be humble.”

Where all the other nominations for best video this year — featuring the likes of Bruno Mars, DJ Khaled and The Weeknd — trended toward standard music video productions with colorful visuals, girls dancing seductively, private jets and fancy cars, “HUMBLE.” exhibited a litany of inventive and unique filming techniques alongside juxtapositions of traditional rap and religious iconography. In some shots, Lamar is filmed through a 360 degree fisheye in a “tiny world” effect; in others, he stands with his head aflame. Meyers also experiments with a jerking stutter camera motion and angle-changing slides — all of which heighten the discordant, abrasive nature of the track. The closest runner up was “Wild Thoughts,” and that’s just because, well, Rihanna. The standard fare just couldn’t compete.

Imad Pasha

Artist of the Year

Kendrick Lamar dominated the VMAs. Not only did he have the boldest, most exhilarating performance of the evening, but his music video for “HUMBLE.” garnered numerous awards, including Video of the Year.

And yet, despite Lamar’s critical acclaim, industry admiration and album success with 2017’s DAMN., MTV failed to recognize him as “Artist of the Year.” Instead, Ed Sheeran, whose album topped numerous global charts when it released in January, snatched the title.

Sheeran’s music was culturally pervasive this year, with an ongoing world tour and hits such as “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill” receiving extensive radio airplay. But it’s frustrating to see “HUMBLE.” gain so many accolades, only for the artist behind it to be eclipsed. It’s alarmingly reminiscent of the dynamic of the 2017 Grammys: when champions of Black musicianship consistently have the performances that make award programs worth watching, but rarely receive recognition for their preeminent cultural impact.

— Anagha Komaragiri

Song of the Summer

So … “Despacito” didn’t win? The Justin Bieber remix of the Spanish-language hit by Puerto Rican artists Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee received endless radio airplay and record-breaking YouTube views, before quickly — and controversially — becoming a global musical phenomenon.

But on Sunday, “Despacito,” which was not submitted for consideration in any other category, lost “Song of the Summer” to Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3.” The category wasn’t broadcasted in the regular program, but was quickly glossed over at the VMA pre-show, where the emerging rapper casually accepted his silver statue. One can imagine what the atmosphere would have been like in the audience had the announcement been broadcasted traditionally — not so much shock as pure confusion. If “Song of the Summer” is representative of the definitive seasonal anthem, how did the upbeat, annoyingly omnipresent international chartbuster “Despacito” not take top prize?

“Despacito” wasn’t the only song to lose out. “XO Tour Llif3” also triumphed over Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” a song that’s remained radio-friendly since its release at the beginning of the year, and DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts,” the Santana-sampling, Rihanna-featuring club hit that exemplifies the traditional summer pop sound.

— Anagha Komaragiri

Best New Artist

Khalid, the up-and-coming R&B singer from El Paso, Texas, ended up taking home the award for Best New Artist. Considering the strength of singles such as “Location” and that he was the most commercially successful artist from the group of six nominees, the choice makes sense.

However, it would have been nice to see fellow TDE labelmate SZA take home the trophy, after her self-assured and confident debut album, Ctrl. Kodak Black is the closest to Khalid in terms of commercially successful singles, but has yet to find similar popularity after releasing several projects in 2017. Young M.A is another rap upstart, but is second to Kodak Black in the hip hop genre.

Julia Michaels and Noah Cyrus are pop artists with one or two marketable tunes, but who aren’t yet household names.

Derek Fang

Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award

P!nk’s acceptance speech for the Video Vanguard was a definite highlight at this year’s VMAs. The pop-rock artist, whose songs have been anthems for the excluded and whose image intentionally contradicts normative representations of femininity, was awarded the unique honor by Ellen DeGeneres. Her speech focused on a conversation P!nk had with her six-year-old daughter who was struggling with self-image and insecurities about appearing too “masculine” — to which P!nk responded with a Powerpoint presentation featuring legendary androgynous artists. The Video Vanguard award is reserved for major game-changers in the music industry, and P!nk is certainly that — her politicizing approach to pop music is at once both empowering and accessible. Her phenomenal speech was merely an extension of her inspiring dedication to self-love and inclusivity.

Shannon O’Hara and Sophie-Marie Prime

Best Collaboration

The “Best Collaboration” category played host to a tightly packed list of competitive nominees. Ultimately, the infectiously sexy duet from Zayn Malik and Taylor Swift, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker),” won out over party-weary club hits such as “Broccoli” or “Closer.” The key to a successful collaboration is in fostering an engaging dynamic, something that Malik and Swift achieve masterfully, gently toying with control of the melody, only to collide in an impassioned, climactic chorus — with Malik rising into a falsetto while Swift simultaneously grounds the harmony and provides a breathless intensity. Fellow nominees “Feels” and “Wild Thoughts” are undeniably strong tracks in their own right, but they ultimately lack the artistic chemistry a collaboration should entail. “Fifty Shades Darker” may not have been the most laudable cinematic effort, but it at least delivered musically, and the creators behind “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)” can leave the VMAs knowing their award was well-deserved.

— Shannon O’Hara

Best Fight Against the System

With six winners, the “Best Fight Against the System” category aptly reflects the year’s most evocative “fights,” ranging from racial violence to the #NoDAPL movement. The category’s title begs the question, “which system?” and the winning videos make clear that these musicians are fighting against our country’s systems of intolerance.

In “Scars to Your Beautiful,” Alessia Cara splices interviews emphasizing the importance of self-love together with her radio-regular track in a direct challenge to social intolerances against weight, race, gender, sexuality and disease. John Legend’s “Surefire” tells the story of an interracial couple fighting for acceptance within their respective communities, and Logic’s “Black SpiderMan” pushes for tolerance so progressive that it abandons identity politics altogether – “I just wanna be free / Not a slave to the stereotype.”

Light” portrays Big Sean helplessly watching innocent victims of racial violence as he delivers the lines “Even if you take away my life, you can’t take the light.” “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” off The Hamilton Mixtape serves a powerful visual and lyrical reminder of the fight for immigrant rights, as well as of the innumerable unjust battles that immigrants push through every day.

These artists compellingly combined great tracks with powerful imagery to produce videos that encourage viewers to push back against the injustices that surround us.

— Claralyse Palmer

Best Pop

The perfect pop video must include a mix of unique storytelling, difficult choreography and a connection to the song itself. For this reason, Fifth Harmony’s video for “Down” ended up triumphing over the likes of Shawn Mendes’ “Treat You Better,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Harry Styles’s “Sign of the Times,” Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm” and Miley Cyrus’ “Malibu.”

Compared to the other videos, Fifth Harmony’s piece not only broke new ground but highlighted the girls’ talents as a group — a much more difficult task compared to displaying individual skill, as is the case for many of the other nominees’ videos. The girls’ choreography was both challenging and well-timed. “Down” matched perfectly with the aesthetics of modern pop culture and was faithful to the bouncing rhythm common in Fifth Harmony songs.

While the other groups took new strides and demonstrated growth as artists — particularly Harry Styles in his first solo music video and Miley Cyrus with her first release since her twerking phase — Fifth Harmony’s music video deserved the win based on the members’ collective talent and the video’s bright color scheme, beautiful costumes and interesting motel setting.

Samantha Banchik

Best Hip Hop

Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” won best hip hop video, duh. Lamar dominated 2017 with the release of DAMN. and speculation surrounding the drop of another unrealized companion album days later. His “HUMBLE.” video, the first many visually arresting DAMN. videos, was the obvious and correct choice for the best hip hop category.

Other contenders for the award include Chance the Rapper’s muppet-inspired “Same Drugs” and Big Sean’s “Bounce Back.” Both feature intriguing visuals, with giant puppets and distorted colors respectively, but failed to match the hype surrounding Kendrick Lamar’s new album.

D.R.A.M’s “Broccoli,” Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” were viral sensations, but lacked the critical acclaim of “HUMBLE.” DJ Khaled’s “I’m the One” is worth watching only to see Justin Bieber look lost in a hip-hop video in between product placement — except when Chance the Rapper’s designer belt is ironically blurred out.

Derek Fang

Best Rock

Heavydirtysoul” is not a rock song. In a category populated by the likes of Green Day and Foo Fighters, whose songs “Bang Bang” and “Run,” respectively, are hallmarks of classic rock ‘n’ roll, the singles from twenty one pilots, Fall Out Boy and Coldplay are significantly misplaced. The lines delineating genres are always a little bit fuzzy — it isn’t easy to say with abject certainty that any particular song fits perfectly into any particular musical category. But the heavy rap elements and pop-ish melodies in “Heavydirtysoul” are evidence that it should not be listed under the VMA rock category, fitting better under pop, despite the mismatch it would engender (the contenders in that category feature a level of quietude). This is perhaps indicative of a shift in what we perceive as rock music, or at least what the VMAs want us to perceive as rock. The VMAs may not actually have the substantive cultural sway to transform the musical markers within a genre, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. And by all accounts, “Heavydirtysoul” is a great song, whatever box they want to squeeze it into.

— Olivia Jerram

Best Cinematography

None of the nominees for “Best Cinematography” were undeserving — each video brought wondrous, sensual visuals to the hit tracks — but Kendrick Lamar’s victory with “HUMBLE.” was definitely justified. Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on a Hill” featured beautiful shots of the European countryside and a nostalgic, almost home-video lighting, but there was nothing particularly innovative to see.

Halsey’s “Now or Never” was similarly forgettable, despite the colorful blending of fantastical, medieval elements with punkier city shots. “HUMBLE.” faced greater competition from DJ Shadow’s “Nobody Speak” — which pitted two lip-synching politicians against each other in a violent duel rife with potent political imagery — as well as from Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder,” which featured a mixture of bizarre sci-fi style and a fascinating choreographed series of shots in which each of the bandmates appeared sequentially, with every swing of lead vocalist Dan Reynolds’ fist.

But ultimately, “HUMBLE.” is in a category all its own — capturing, shot after shot, the power of cinematography’s impact. Suffused with religious imagery, the video is potent without being heavy-handed; its striking camera angles and compelling composition are works of art all on their own.

Shannon O’Hara

Best Choreography

There were two standouts in this year’s nominees for best choreography: Kanye West’s “Fade” featuring Teyana Taylor and Sia’s “The Greatest” featuring Maddie Ziegler. “Fade,” choreographed by Jae Blaze of “Pon de Replay” fame, showcases one woman’s syncopated precision and strong sensuality — whereas “The Greatest,” choreographed by Ryan Heffington of “Chandelier” fame, showcases a collective of dancers synchronized in hard-hitting and energetic unison. Ultimately, “Fade” wins out over “The Greatest” because the latter feels a little like a rehash of previous category winner “Chandelier,” also choreographed by Heffington and danced by Ziegler.

“Fade” was a worthy category winner, with choreography that combines the athleticism of hip hop and krump styles with eroticism that illustrates not only Taylor’s articulate control of her body, but a transformation in her character as well.

The synchronized cycle-spinning in “Side to Side” can hardly compare — not just because its choreography is more simplistic, but because it includes a series of cuts that undermine our ability to see much of the choreography at all. The same is true of “Down.” Part of what makes the choreography of “Fade” and “The Greatest” exceptional is that the cinematography and direction work in tandem with the goal of highlighting performers’ movement, enhancing the story told in the songs themselves.

HUMBLE.,” by comparison, uses space and movement in original ways — playing into disorientation and linear perspective — thus giving both “Fade” and “The Greatest” a run for their money in terms of dynamic movement, but not in choreography.

— Sophie-Marie Prime

Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].