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MTV Plots A Comeback As The VMAs Bring A Moment Of Relevance

The MTV Video Music Award — renamed this year from the "moon man" to the "moon person."
Ian Gavan
Getty Images
The MTV Video Music Award — renamed this year from the "moon man" to the "moon person."

Let's get one issue out of the way up front: MTV is never again going to build its programming around music videos. For that, viewers have YouTube — as well as MTV's lower-stakes spinoff channels — and besides, if you're old enough to remember when MTV's programming revolved around videos, then you're almost certainly too old for MTV to care what you think.

But it's also fair to say that MTV has been experiencing an identity crisis — magnified in recent years by a ratings decline, as well as the laying off of most of its online editorial team this past June — for as long as its desired demographic has been alive. On Sunday at 8 p.m., when the 36-year-old network hosts its annual Video Music Awards, MTV will enjoy a day of outsize cultural relevance, which suggests a greater challenge for a business based on attention. That is, to extend the network's cultural reach beyond the thin slice of late summer in which we currently reside.

To that end, MTV — which the network's press materials describe not as Music Television, but as "a global youth culture brand inspired by music" — is in the midst of a radical overhaul, overseen by network president Chris McCarthy. It's McCarthy who dumped MTV's diverse and highly respected online staff (in an interview, he later expressed bewilderment at the group's interest in long-form writing), and it's McCarthy who recently announced MTV's plans to relaunch its Total Request Live franchise, once the Times Square home of hitmaking artists and the throngs of screaming fans who loved them. TRL will return with new hosts and a greatly expanded studio space on Oct. 2, in the hope of making the network more of a destination for fans and stars alike. And, of course, it'll give MTV a treasure trove of unique performances that can help magnify its online footprint via every viable social-media funnel.

As for the VMAs themselves, it's easy to write off the awards as a petri dish in which memes and other viral moments are almost destined to emerge. The VMAs, after all, are what gave the world Kanye West bursting onstage and interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech with the immortal words, "I'ma let you finish." Other similarly hyped beefs — from Nicki Minaj vs. Miley Cyrus to Kid Rock vs. Tommy Lee, on back through the years — have helped cement the VMAs' place as a boozy rock-and-roll family reunion in which old grudges are renewed and rehashed. It's not unfair to view the night as silly, forgettable spectacle. (This year, Katy Perry hosts a telecast likely to tie in with the release of a new... something... by rival Taylor Swift. Stay tuned!)

But the VMAs also offer a fascinating window into what MTV thinks viewers want, with few other obligations to weigh it down. The Grammys, by comparison, need to function as an infomercial for the music industry, with awards doled out by that industry's veterans — music professionals across dozens of genres, spanning several generations — with an eye toward anointing musical ambassadors. The VMAs are programmed only to please the vastest possible audience at all times, which means award wins engineered to 1) make the audience happy; 2) reward songs and videos that are still fresh in people's minds; and 3) cement MTV's place as an arbiter of who's best and who's next. Watch the VMAs and you'll get a decent snapshot of the state of mainstream music — minus Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito," with its 3 billion-plus YouTube views, which was left off the list of nominations for reasons that remain disputed.

So what can you expect?

"Despacito" aside, you can expect a decent cross-section of summer 2017's biggest hits and hitmakers. Kendrick Lamar leads the field with eight nominations, including Artist of the Year and Video of the Year (for the gorgeously shot "HUMBLE." video), and he'll give what promises to be an electrifying solo performance. Pink, this year's "Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award" winner, has been known to blow lesser lights off awards-show stages. Miley Cyrus has given the VMAs some of their most infamous and social-media-friendly moments, and she'll return this year; other major players include Katy Perry, Logic with Khalid, Lorde, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Fifth Harmony with Gucci Mane, The Weeknd, Julia Michaels, Post Malone and Ed Sheeran — a guy not exactly prone to onstage outrageousness, but who's been positively inescapable on the radio this year. Who knows? He and/or Jared Leto's Thirty Seconds to Mars may even trot out that rarest of modern-day VMA sightings: a guitar.

Which leaves only a few questions left unanswered: Will Taylor Swift perform, premiere a video, or sit out entirely? (The smart money's on Option No. 2.) With Kanye West nowhere to be found, who will give the VMAs the moments of bonkers meme-making they so desperately crave? (Miley, what's good?) And who will win the actual awards? "Despacito," having been left out of the nominations, may well get its revenge by winning the "Best Song of Summer" prize, which is chosen entirely via social media. Otherwise, if you're looking for big winners, the likeliest bets ought to involve someone in the Lamar/Mars/Sheeran axis.

But let's face it: The VMAs aren't about winners so much as a-meme-is-born moments. There's no sense in aspiring to be the Grammys — in the world of MTV, the greatest gift of all is to be remembered in the morning.

The 2017 Nominees:

Video Of The Year

Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE."
Bruno Mars, "24K Magic"
Alessia Cara, "Scars To Your Beautiful"
DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller, "Wild Thoughts"
The Weeknd, "Reminder"

Artist Of The Year

Bruno Mars
Kendrick Lamar
Ed Sheeran
Ariana Grande
The Weeknd

Best New Artist

Kodak Black
Young M.A
Julia Michaels
Noah Cyrus

Best Hip-Hop

Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE."
Big Sean, "Bounce Back"
Chance the Rapper, "Same Drugs"
D.R.A.M. feat. Lil Yachty, "Broccoli"
Migos feat. Lil Uzi Vert, "Bad & Boujee"
DJ Khaled feat. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper & Lil Wayne, "I'm The One"

Best Collaboration

Charlie Puth feat. Selena Gomez, "We Don't Talk Anymore"
DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller, "Wild Thoughts"
D.R.A.M. feat. Lil Yachty, "Broccoli"
The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey, "Closer"
Calvin Harris feat. Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry & Big Sean, "Feels"
Zayn & Taylor Swift, "I Don't Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)"

Best Dance

Zedd & Alessia Cara, "Stay"
Kygo & Selena Gomez, "It Ain't Me"
Calvin Harris, "My Way"
Major Lazer feat. Justin Bieber & MØ, "Cold Water"
Afrojack feat. Ty Dolla $ign, "Gone"

Best Rock

Coldplay, "A Head Full of Dreams"
Fall Out Boy, "Young and Menace"
Twenty One Pilots, "Heavydirtysoul"
Green Day, "Bang Bang"
Foo Fighters, "Run"

Best Pop

Shawn Mendes, "Treat You Better"
Ed Sheeran, "Shape of You"
Harry Styles, "Sign of the Times"
Fifth Harmony feat. Gucci Mane, "Down"
Katy Perry feat. Skip Marley, "Chained to the Rhythm"
Miley Cyrus, "Malibu"

Best Fight Against The System

Logic feat. Damian Lemar Hudson, "Black SpiderMan"
The Hamilton Mixtape, "Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)"
Big Sean, "Light"
Alessia Cara, "Scars to Your Beautiful"
Taboo feat. Shailene Woodley, "Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL"
John Legend, "Surefire"

Best Cinematography

Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE." (Scott Cunningham)
Imagine Dragons, "Thunder" (Matthew Wise)
Ed Sheeran, "Castle on the Hill" (Steve Annis)
DJ Shadow feat. Run The Jewels, "Nobody Speak" (David Proctor)
Halsey, "Now or Never" (Kristof Brandl)

Best Direction

Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE." (Spencer Graves)
Bruno Mars, "24K Magic" (Alex Delgado)
Katy Perry feat. Migos, "Bon Appetit" (Natalie Groce)
DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller, "Wild Thoughts" (Damian Fyffe)
The Weeknd, "Reminder" (Creative Director: Lamar C Taylor; Co-Creative Director: Christo Anesti)

Best Visual Effects

Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE." (Company: Timber; Lead: Jonah Hall)
A Tribe Called Quest, "Dis Generation" (Company: Bemo; Lead: Brandon Hirzel)
KYLE feat. Lil Yachty, "iSpy" (Company: Gloria FX; Leads: Max Colt & Tomash Kuzmytskyi)
Katy Perry feat. Skip Marley, "Chained to the Rhythm" (Company: MIRADA)
Harry Styles, "Sign of the Times" (Company: ONE MORE; Lead: Cédric Nivoliez)

Best Choreography

Kanye West, "Fade" (Teyana Taylor, Guapo, Jae Blaze & Derek "Bentley" Watkins)
Ariana Grande feat. Nicki Minaj, "Side to Side" (Brian & Scott Nicholson)
Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE." (Dave Meyers)
Sia, "The Greatest" (Ryan Heffington)
Fifth Harmony feat. Gucci Mane, "Down" (Sean Bankhead)

Best Editing

Future, "Mask Off" (Vinnie Hobbs of VHPost)
Young Thug, "Wyclef Jean" (Ryan Staake & Eric Degliomini)
Lorde, "Green Light" (Nate Gross of Exile Edit)
The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey, "Closer" (Jennifer Kennedy)
The Weeknd, "Reminder" (Red Barbaza)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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