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Will the VMAs Ever Be What They Once Were?

The Video Music Awards have been called the Super Bowl of youth. An annual event that highlights the pulse of the culture, the VMAs have long been one of the most talked-about moments of the year. But has it grown stale? Does the awards show still provide the significance and variety that it once did? And does it have the chance to come back bigger than ever?

The Birth of the VMAs

The first Video Music Awards aired on MTV in 1984. You might have heard of the show, it’s the one where Madonna rolled around on the stage in a suggestive wedding gown. To say the performance caused a stir is an understatement, it launched the Material Girl into the stratosphere and forced viewers and critics to take notice of the budding music video network.

Since then, the VMAs have included numerous moments (Nirvana performing with bassist Krist Novoselic tossing his guitar into the air and nearly taking his head off, Snoop Dogg performing while wanted by the LAPD for murder, Britney Spears wearing a skin-tight, nearly see-through body suit) and have celebrated countless videos. The ceremony has made many careers and changed the cultural landscape repeatedly.

Madonna the Video Music Awards
Madonna taking the stage at the first Video Music Awards

The Present

Yet, now the VMAs are a watered down version of themselves. The show is more about the performances and outrageous moments that happen, not about the music itself. The last few years have been remembered because of celebrity feuds, cringe-worthy interactions and, of course, Miley Cyrus twerking. It’s not like the VMAs were every high art but they have definitely sunk lower and lower.

The main reason for the degradation? MTV’s lack of music videos. It’s been said so many times but the network’s move away from music videos has fundamentally changed the network – mostly for the worse. It makes sense from a financial standpoint: MTV makes more money on ads during Jersey Shore and Teen Mom than it can during hours of music videos. But it’s really hard to make the Video Music Awards without the channel celebrating videos yearlong. Sure, they playing during the show but when else do you see them on air? Music videos still exist, they just don’t exist on MTV.

A Return to Form?

But maybe they’ll return. Like most things in pop culture, the popularity of music videos might be cyclical. They came onto the scene in the 1980s, dominated the 80s-90s and began to fade in the late 90s. But people still watch them in droves online and there have been some impressive and creative videos in recent years. Perhaps they will come back home to Music Television.

Nirvana at the Video Music Awards
Nirvana brought much-needed rock to the 90s VMAs

It seems more and more likely as retro shows become popular again. Nickelodeon recently began playing old Nick Toons like Rugrats and Hey Arnold! The response was overwhelming, proving the audience is out there and ready. Nostalgia acts often do well so perhaps MTV will also try their hand at playing something retro. Maybe a weekend of old videos from the vault. If that goes well, maybe they’ll do it more than once. And if it keeps going well, perhaps the network will find room for new videos, the ones garnering millions of views on YouTube. It’s easy to see how music videos will return to their rightful place in the MTV line-up. Is it likely? No. Is it possible? Yes.

The Future

If and when music videos take prominence on MTV again, the VMAs will be only better because of it. Music videos are creative, artistic expressions unlike anything else in pop culture. Notable directors like Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, and others got their start creating what were essentially short films for musical acts. A return of this art form would be good for MTV and, frankly, good for our culture.

The Video Music Awards Moonman

A strong VMAs would also provide variety for young music fans, something too many are missing. The VMAs of the past were a great equalizer that allowed the most disparate artists to mix together. Where else would you see acts like Mudvayne, The White Stripes, Britney Spears and Eminem under one roof? As varied as they were, their music videos could win them all awards. They were silly, outrageous and often obnoxious but the VMAs really were a celebration of wildly different artists.

While the VMAs were never very deep (remember, Howard Stern appeared as Fartman once) the modern iteration feels like a hollowed-out version of itself. It’s like a loud child screaming for attention, doing anything ridiculous to catch your eye. Even with the blog-worthy moments of the last few years, the show doesn’t have the energy or heft it once did. The importance and cultural relevance could come back but it’ll take a complete reworking of MTV and a return of music videos. Perhaps the future of the VMAs lies in its past.


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