The Secretly Conservative MTV VMAs

Even Miley Cyrus's twerking felt part of a paean to pop's one-percenters.


In what felt like Justin Timberlake’s hundredth minute on stage at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, he accepted the video-of-the-year prize (for “Mirrors”) with a thank-you that kind of summed up the evening: “This one is for you, Granny.”

To be fair, the ceremony wasn’t quite family entertainment. It didn’t lack for former Disney starlets simulating sex with giant foam fingers, or for Amber Alert jokes about young female pop stars, or for rappers having nearly entire verses muted out for profanity. Will Smith’s clan, at least, looked traumatized.

But that doesn’t mean the show had edge—only that it wanted to seem like it did. Arguably even more than in previous years, these VMAs were a celebration of legacies, establishment, and the safe. It was a fitting—if only occasionally fun—show for a music industry that ever-increasingly depends on known, bankable franchises.

The idea that pop stars rule pop may sound too obvious to even dwell on. But recently, some smart commentary has highlighted why and how and extent to which the music business is dominated by a select few. In June, White House economist Alan Krueger spoke at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about the “superstar economy” mirroring the wider economy, with the top 1% of earners—the superstars—getting a bigger and bigger share of revenues each year. In the forthcoming book Blockbusters, Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse draws a line across entertainment industries, connecting Hollywood’s penchant for hugely profitable, duplicable, and sequel-ready properties with pop’s long-standing but still-increasing obsession with big, famous names.

In this context, Miley Cyrus’s much-discussed “filthy” performance of “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” seems less like a let-loose dare than a carefully thought-through iteration on the brand-name that is “Miley Cyrus.” It’s the sequel where the kids’ franchise turns unexpectedly dark, or the sexier reboot of an old storyline. An actual up-and-comer wouldn’t make as much news as Miley did for stripping down and grinding on Robin Thicke—after all, the names of those models in the “Blurred Lines” video aren’t yet household knowledge.

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. (Gif via Buzzfeed)

In fact, an up-and-comer might not have been allowed to attempt a performance like Cyrus's at all. In previous shows, the VMAs have given a decent amount of space to a year’s breakout stars alongside its established celebs, but this time out—as makes sense for ceremony that Popdust said “might be the most star-studded yet”—only one bona fide newcomer played: Macklemore, with the gay-rights anthem “Same Love.” Significantly, that moment—for however cloying some find the song’s straight-ally testimony—will go down in pop history as an important moment for music that has what MTV calls “a social message.”

Gaga once was one of those message-slinging up-and-comers, startling 2009 VMAs viewers with a bloody twist at the end of her performance of “Paparazzi.” She’s been adept at keeping the provocations going in the years since, showing up in that infamous meat dress in 2010 and then as an overly committed drag king to play “Yoü and I” in 2011. So expectations for some sort of WTF moment were high ahead of her show-opening performance of her new single “Applause.” But it, like the song and its video, underwhelmed by mashing together old Gaga tropes for a surprisingly sloppy-looking commentary on performance itself. Her first moments on stage, when the camera zoomed uncomfortably close to her face framed by a white-mortarboard headpiece, felt like a tacked-on prologue meant to up the weirdness factor. The overall impression: a once-innovative pop franchise starting to recycle itself.

But the biggest sign of the last night’s staid priorities came when Justin Timberlake showed up. *NSYNC’s very brief reunion with him grabbed the headlines, but to me the more-shocking thing was how Timberlake—there to accept a lifetime achievement award—got a full 15 minutes to run through his greatest hits. Actually, scratch “greatest.” He ran through all of his hits. I like the guy, but this marathon performance felt interminable, and even Timberlake seemed embarrassed by it afterwards when accepting his trophy from a cartoonishly fawning Jimmy Fallon.

The franchise-y, rehash-y implications here are easy to see. Of course Timberlake, having proved himself to be one of the most reliable hitmakers this millennium, crowds out everyone else. Yawning through his concert, though, I was met with a strange feeling: affection for the Grammys. Year after year, that award show proves to be a ridiculous, hyper-speed hodgepodge of old and new artists across genres. Sometimes, its viewers encounter music they haven't heard before. There, Timberlake might have gotten five minutes on stage and been forced to perform with a dubstep DJ and a country singer. But MTV’s a more market-savvy entity than the Academy of Recording Arts. The network understands that entertainment’s a winner-take-all game these days. Just don’t expect it to be very entertaining.