At some point, we've all rolled our eyes and declared our aggressive lack of interest in the MTV Video Music Awards. "After all," we've stated dramatically, "it's ironic that a relatively music-free network like MTV still has the authority to determine who's best in music." Then, we retire to whatever drawing room there may be and begin sipping brandy before complaining about the lack of "real music" these days.
Or, we keep it simple: MTV doesn't really play music videos any more, so – we say – the VMAs are irrelevant.
Which is half-true. MTV The Network has evolved from the music-video showcase it started out as in 1981 into a conveyer belt of digestible TV programming. Just like Canada's own Much, MTV now houses some music-based content, but its bread and butter is found less in Top 40 than it is in reality series such as Teen Mom and Catfish, or the scripted Teen Wolf.
Its website, however, tells a different story. Rich in music news, video premieres and interviews, the network's online counterpart is arguably the vehicle for new music that MTV (the station) once was – only better. Now, you don't have to wait to watch your favourite music video, you can type in the title and it's there. (Because that's how the Internet works and the future is now.) It's an adaptable vehicle that's compatible with varying tastes and houses an array of genres, and therefore upholds MTV's original mandate. (Real music television, naturally.)
This is why MTV is still an authority on music, and it's also why the MTV Video Music Awards – the latest version of which airs on Sunday – are an even more important awards show than the Grammys or Oscars or any other century-long telecast that dictates awards-show season. That's because unlike the aforementioned, the VMAs are not polished, or faux-proper, or glued together with stage banter between two strangers who will (and should) never speak to each other again. Instead, they go fearlessly into that dark, cold, unscripted night, usually inciting controversy and hot takes in the process, but effectively helping to burn down and regrow the current pop-culture landscape with whatever dance moves that be.
After all, it was at the 2009 VMAs where Kanye West rushed the stage and reminded us all that Beyoncé's album was better than Taylor Swift's. (He wasn't wrong.) It was at the 2013 VMAs where we saw Robin Thicke dance with this year's host, Miley Cyrus. And it was at the 2014 VMAs where Beyoncé, winner of that year's Vanguard Award, stood in front of the word "FEMINIST" and proudly declared herself as such. Ultimately, this award show fuels the best, worst and most controversial moments of the year – and they end up spawning everything from online outcry (or praise) to a complete shift in the way we see and consume culture.
On the flip side, when thinking about the most recent Grammys broadcast, few of us can recall a specific moment aside from LL Cool J referring to Taylor Swift as his friend. (Or if we can, we definitely had to think about it for a while – Sam Smith sweep aside.)
However, VMA credibility doesn't lie solely in its flair for making headlines. In addition to honouring well-deserved artists such as Beyoncé, Beastie Boys, Hype Williams and Kanye West (who's taking the Vanguard Award this year), the show has also been the backdrop to political and social statements. In 1997, Fiona Apple declared that "the world is bullshit … you shouldn't model your life on what we think is cool." In 2000, Rage Against the Machine's Tim Commerford was arrested after climbing the stage scaffolding to protest Limp Bizkit's win for best rock video (which is a cause we can all get behind). And in 2007, Britney Spears returned for what was supposed to be her big comeback – only for us (and everyone watching) to realize we'd pushed her to the brink of mental and physical sickness.
So while the VMAs may seem like a revolving door of publicity stunts meant to rile crowds to the point of drowning out speeches, we can't forget its enormous pop-culture clout. For one night, artists act (and act out) accordingly, which delights, shocks and emotionally scars everybody in the process. And after that? We keep talking about what we saw, effectively proving the VMAs matter not just to the MTV reality-show crowd, but to the cynics who've written off a network (and even an entire subculture) for adapting to changing times.
Unless, of course, you really do remember the Grammys.
The 2015 MTV Video Music Awards air Aug. 30 at 9 p.m. ET on MTV Canada.