Selfies, Screams and Sad Monsters: One Fucked Up Night at the MTV Europe Music Awards
Welcome to a world where reality is left at the door.
November 6th, 2016. Wijnstraat, Rotterdam. 4.12pm.
I'm sat on a bus full of journalists and "influencers" in a back street in Rotterdam and it is pissing down. Not rain like drops, but rain like box nails, thudding against the roof. The driver is calling out our publications one by one to check we are here before we depart for the red carpet. The Daily Mail are on board, so are The Sun and The Daily Sport. I'm in good company. Lad Bible are here too. Plus Glamour Russia, Blooper Spain, Cool FM Africa. There's even an important looking woman with a camera wandering up and down the aisle in a YouPorn t-shirt. For now though, the bus isn't moving because one person is missing: Bibi's Beauty Palace. "Bibi's Beauty Palace? Has anyone seen Bibi's Beauty Palace?" Silence. I Google it: she's a 23-year-old vlogger from Cologne, Germany, who posts mainly about cosmetics. She has three times more YouTube subscribers than Noisey dot com. We're all here to cover the MTV European Music Awards and the circus has only just begun.
Why am I here? I'm not sure. Someone asked and I said yes. It felt like a good opportunity. The MTV Europe Music Awards bring the brand of colossal American absurdness that is lacking from our own ceremonies (huge budgets, huge pyrotechnics, huge names), and packages it in a way that is supposedly about European pop music, but is actually about showcasing American exports to a vast European TV audience (2014 had record European viewing figures). With a line up that boasts Martin Garrix, Shawn Mendes, The Weeknd, Kings of Leon, One Republic, Zara Larsson, Green Day, Afrojack, DNCE (not pronounced "dunce" as I was soon informed) and Bebe Rexha – plus guests that include Idris Elba, Jaden Smith, Jourdan Dunn, Charli XCX, Tinie Tempah and Gaz from Geordie Shore – you could say it's probably the closest I will ever come to the beating heart of mainstream pop culture besides those dreams I have where I'm Ellen DeGeneres' trouser stylist.
The bus sets off for Ahoy Rotterdam, and the journey is short but colourful. When journalists are all reluctantly herded into one place, everyone reverts to being slightly bitter and cantankerous about the very thing they are here to report, and also exchange ludicrous rumours and tales that could never be honestly reported. I'm told one about Robbie Williams taking mushrooms at Bono's house. Apparently, Bono found Robbie in the corridor staring intensely. "This is the most beautiful painting I have ever seen!" said Robbie, allegedly. "That's a window" Bono replied, allegedly.
We arrive at what looks to be a red carpet. Perhaps naively, I always assumed red carpets were a legitimate walkway, traversed for reasons of getting from one place to another, a means of entering the night's event. If you also believe this, you are wrong. Because this red carpet does not lead to tonight's MTV EMAs venue. In fact it has been constructed in a large outhouse about 900 yards from it. It is a manmade corridor to nowhere; and I don't wish to begin critiquing the carpet itself, but honestly, it was more like a huge red blanket. Celebrities are dropped off at one end, they wander up the red-clothed road and past 700 screaming fans rampantly taking Snapchats and 100 journalists waving dictaphones, then they're out the backdoor and back into a car to be taken to the real venue.
I'm given a place to stand – on it is written "Noisy". I notice quickly that there is no beer and I will think about that a lot for the next 3 hours.
There are two hours and fifty minutes until the actual show starts. Lacking a real journalist's killer instinct, I'm quickly jostled out of my allocated position at the barrier by the Daily Sport and a tall man with a tripod. I search for somewhere else to stand… the only free spot is Bibi's Beauty Palace. Where are you Bibi? Anyway, I take it. I become Bibi. Thank you, Bibi.
The fans, and the screams, and the fans, and the screams. Not screams of joy, but tired and painful screams. The screams of someone who has been tortured for days and is getting quite bored of it. Screams that are consistent and dreary, like I imagine bad spells of tinnitus might sound. For the benefit of the TV crews intermittently filming their packages, a voice in the speakers overhead repeatedly teases more screams out of them in a way that borders on manipulation."Who's excited for MARTIN GARRIX?" Blood curdling screams. Then they play 30 seconds of a Jack & Jack song (two tween stars who apparently make hip-hop but look more like scrapped characters from Hey Arnold) and the screams become so overwhelming that there is no longer I, no longer they, no longer four walls or a ground beneath me – only screams. A grand and fucking interminable chamber of pain and adulation.
I survey the audience a little closer. The European mainstream pop music fan is an interesting species of music fan. They are around 85% female, most seem to be around the age of 16 to 17-years-old, and all are dressed like you'd dress for a nice meal out with your parents. There is also something distinctly Hogwarts about them; kinda clean, polished, innocent, and overly enthusiastic in a deeply unsettling way. There is a girl in a choker holding a sign shrouded in battery powered fairy lights; it reads: "Thank you Justin, for being yourself". A young boy with short dark hair looks possessed by mania when celebrities pass; he screams for them to make Snapchat content with him, they wander over and appease him with a selfie, but once the photo is taken he loses all interest, and his attention switches to successfully uploading his content with an adequate caption and illustrative garnishes. Part of me respects him for such a ruthless power switch. Part of me feels bad for critiquing a child.
"I can't believe how many mechanisms are at play here," I say to a photographer near me. "The contrived-ness of it all, the way the producers telepathically control the way the crowd behaves when the cameras are rolling, the way celebrities are paraded and passed around, the way the carpet leads nowhere. It's so contrived, but also so impressive! I'm in awe of this spectacle. I am in awe." The photographer gives me a look, adjusts his lens, takes a photo of someone from Green Day climbing the rigging next to us, and says "I guess" and then walks off. The rain lashes violently against the roof. I overhear Ryan Tedder from OneRepublic telling a group of journalists he quite likes Honey G from X-Factor.
Fireworks. Dancers. Opening gags. Cheers. Vigorous lighting. More cheers. Beer, finally beer. I am sat in the main arena, and we are under way. The first fifteen minutes are probably the most intense 15 minutes of my entire life, and I've been in two car crashes (one with a lorry on the A1 North, one when looking for a chicken shop in Gateshead). The host Bebe Rexha stands atop a throne, 70 feet in the air - and as if to set the tone of the pyrotechnic indulgence to come, her throne is pissing sparks.
Bruno Mars and his gang of dancing cronies swagger out like a very Hollywood teen movie gang of high school rebels to perform that song that sounds like "King Kunta", then suddenly Joe Jonas and his band DNCE are on a levitating stage, swaying precariously over an entire generation of Dutch teenagers. Fireworks start going the fuck off absolutely everywhere. Some seem to be firing straight into the crowd. Is this dangerous? I see a young fan crowdsurfing on a pizza slice lilo; a firework goes off near them, they fall from the pizza and disappear into a sea of bodies. Reader, I never saw that child resurface. The EMAs are dangerous shit.
To add to the chaos, the Swiss guy sat next to me has whipped out a large box of tomatoes and is offering me one. Nice mixture actually: red, green and some of those lovely yellow ones. I take a tomato. When I turn back to the stage, everything has changed again and now Martin Garrix is playing bass on one of his songs in that yeah-I'm-only-playing-bass-but-I-wrote-the-whole-song-it's-just-not-very-easy-to-accurately-manifest-as-a-live-experience-so-fuck-you kinda Mark Ronson kinda way.
Say what you want about pop music, but it knows how to throw a party. Every single performance tonight has some mad, obscene and incredible gimmick. Zara Larsson has a flawless 10 girl dance routine; Lukas Graham have a full orchestra in the scaffolding; The Weeknd comes out of a huge dome; OneRepublic have about 2,000 litres of water poured upon them while performing; Bebe Rexha serenades and then humps an eleven foot furry monster with huge melancholic eyes, and Afrojack's whole performance feels like the world's greatest zumba class. A cynic could draw comparisons to Bieber's performance at the AMAs last year, and Kanye's original incarnation of the levitating stage, but, regardless, this still all makes the Brits look like the Aldi Christmas party, and I'm starting to think the MTV EMAs is the greatest thing I've ever attended.
Rock music plays a surprisingly large role in the live performances. Kings of Leon play and so do Green Day (twice), but both sound decidedly flat. It's not like Green Day aren't delivering an energetic performance, but we've spent two hours watching pop performers do music that doesn't just have a hook in the chorus but also in the first six seconds, the pre-chorus, the bridge, and the outro. Even through a dense fog of cynicism, something deep inside, something primal, is saying "Yes, I'm very into this, this pop music". So when that is all followed by Green Day or Kings of Leon playing proper instruments and traditional song structures, it just sounds, well, bland. It's like ordering a salad at McDonalds.
It soon becomes clear the awards themselves are quite tedious and irrelevant at the MTV EMAs. The producers of the show know this, and manage to rattle through about ten of them in a video montage, without any pomp or ceremony. In fact, as the show goes on it feels like an almost unspoken rule that as little of the real world should enter these four walls as possible. Nobody dedicates an award to anything remotely charitable or humbling or political, nobody mentions the fact the world could be about to change in 24 hours via the US election. At one point, Billie Joe Armstrong tries to talk about the election, but his mumbles kinda just amount to "There is an election happening BTW" and nobody gives a toss. They just want him to get on with "American Idiot", which he does. Then a load of fireworks blast off in a million directions and it's over. It's all over. The end is here.
This is where my iPhone notes stop and my memory has blacked out. I am sorry that I cannot bring you more coverage from the aftershow party. I feel I may not have served you well as a journalist. I can tell you this though: it took place in a club called Paradise City which was like a super club and contained a hairdressers, temporary tattoo parlour, hot dog stand and a small dark room that said "XXX" on it. I think Afrojack was DJing, and I remember seeing someone from Kings of Leon eating potato wedges at a wooden table. I also have a recollection of Jayden Smith losing his shit to TLC. After that, all I remember is doing shots of vodka with an 'influencer' from Austria. I am told I later vomited down myself. Thank you for reading.
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