And why it could help Macklemore to cede the mic once and a while.
As an institution, the VMAs are pointless. No one cares who wins, and despite the fact that they ostensibly honor music videos, the awards are not given to directors and are instead to the artists. The event is pure spectacle, a vestigial half-spleen of a telecast meant to remind us of a bygone era when MTV actually aired music videos. The VMAs are an extended Super Bowl halftime show, a glorified celebrity pro wrestling event for those of us too good, or too poor, to pay the $40 or whatever for a WrestleMania Pay-Per-View. The VMAs are decadent and depraved, and like everything else on MTV, are actively bad for humanity.
Anyways. The VMAs happened last night, and in case you didn’t watch (or read our liveblog), they made for the sort of compelling television that only a series of potential trainwrecks can. Some moments were great, some moments were horrific, and others still were complete letdowns. Katy Perry, I am looking at you.
More interesting than the performances were the unintentional moments of interstitial, Kuleshov Effect-fostered gold. Drake looking perpetually grim throughout the telecast, Rihanna looking unapologetically disinterested, One Direction being visually called out as pretenders to *NSYNC’s throne during their performance, and the shot of Taylor Swift mouthing, “Shut the fuck up!” to Selena Gomez during One Direction’s stage time were all much more memorable than anything pre-planned. Not to mention Swift’s dancing, which was pretty astounding. Or anyone’s dancing who wasn’t Miley Cyrus’s, really.
(GIF via BuzzFeed)
Perhaps the most anticipated moment of the evening came early, when Miley Cyrus performed “We Can’t Stop,” which bled into her performing “Blurred Lines” with Robin Thicke, which somehow bled into her pretending to fuck a foam finger and twerk against Thicke while he held on for dear life. The moment was meant to be controversial, but cut through the foam-finger delirium and we were left with a performance that wasn’t that great, or even that shocking. It was not Miley’s twerking that got the true rise from America, it was the juxtaposition of her youth with Thicke’s decrepitude (he’s 36, which in pop music terms means he is basically dead), subtle pot belly, and wardrobe, which could charitably be described as Beetlejuice-esque. Blurred lines, sure, but only for their lack of edge.
Noticeably absent from the evening’s proceedings was Justin Bieber, who could have used a VMAs performance to announce a transformation similar to Cyrus’s. Instead, his manager Scooter Braun was palling around with Austin Mahone, who, under his dumb-looking sleeveless leather hoodie, revealed that Braun has an insurance policy if the Biebs ends up overdosing on marijuana and dying.
Justin Timberlake used his seemingly endless performance as an opportunity to retcon himself into the thread of today’s popular music, becoming the progenitor of every trend and style that is in vogue today, culminating in an afterthought of an *NSYNC reunion that was less substantial than the Destiny’s Child reunion at the Super Bowl earlier this year. No matter, for Joey Fatone probably ended up dying from exertion, and if not, Chris Kirkpatrick showed that he is definitely dead inside.
The (relative) big winner of the night was Macklemore, who along with his producer Ryan Lewis, won two VMAs and performed his gay rights anthem “Same Love,” featuring a hook from Mary Lambert, an openly queer singer. Lambert’s hook, soulful and considered, is easily the best part of the song, and when the duo won the VMA for Best Video with a Social Message, she accompanied them onstage to accept the award. Despite her contributions to the track, both symbolic and sonic, Lambert was not given an opportunity to speak when accepting the award. Instead, Macklemore patted himself on the back, calling “Same Love” the most important song he’d ever written and explaining that gay rights were human rights. While his message is an admirable one, consider how meaningful the moment would have been if Lambert herself had been able to give a speech, or if Macklemore had ceded the moment to her completely. But he did not.
In pop, there remains infinite room for infinite voices—the fact that a straight white dude has a platform to campaign for social equality does not necessarily rob someone who is inherently less privileged of their opportunity to speak. However, Lambert not getting an opportunity to speak despite being onstage illustrates what is inherently frustrating about Macklemore’s existence: he seems to strive to be a voice for those who did not ask him to be their voice. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the White Knight archetype, riding in on his noble steed (as played by Ryan Lewis) to save a day that was doing fine on its own.
Consider the opening lines of “Same Love,” when Macklemore raps, “When I was in third grade / I thought I was gay,” and then goes on to explain that he himself is not gay. It’s a tacit utterance of one of hip-hop’s favorite tropes, the “No Homo,” but twisted to serve the purpose of social justice. It doesn’t make you wrong for liking the song or Macklemore wrong for making it, but it does illustrate a certain line of thinking on Macklemore’s part: he can stand up for gay rights, but only after conforming to hip-hop’s greater culture by establishing that he himself is not gay. It’s more than a little disingenuous, and says much, much less than if Macklemore had invited a gay rapper to guest on the song and elaborate upon their own struggles. It is easy to make a song defending LBGTQ rights and discuss homophobia in hip-hop when one’s straightness has excused them from the intense strife that someone faces, both overt and implicit, that is thrust upon a person once they publicly declare themselves anything other than 100% straight.
It’s important to remember that before he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, had three number-one hits, and was arguably the biggest rapper in the country by appealing to those who don’t particularly like rap, Macklemore was just another goofy, harmless rapper from Seattle who flowed like a photocopy of a photocopy of Slug from Atmosphere and rapped about “real shit,” whatever that might actually mean. The first track from his album The Language of My World was titled “White Privilege.” He raps, “And we don't want to admit that this is existing / So scared to acknowledge the benefits of our white privilege.” Perhaps Macklemore should revisit the song and consider the benefits of his privilege from every angle. Actions speak louder than words, and Macklemore using his position of influence to allow others to speak instead of simply speaking for them would be a sign that he truly believes in the messages he champions.
Though he is indeed an easy target, Macklemore is merely a symptom of the 2013 VMAs' odd conservative bent, rather than the cause of it. It is significant that only three performers of color—Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae, and Erykah Badu—won VMAs, a fact that becomes even more striking when you consider that this year served as VMAs' 30th anniversary. Consider that more VMAs were awarded to performers of color at the first VMAs than this year. Because actual music programming is increasingly rare on MTV, the VMAs are in many ways their yearly State of the Union Address to their viewers. Given this, it is important that MTV as an institution considers the implications of their programming choices.
While there were rare streaks of creativity—Drake recreating his upcoming Nothing Was the Same cover for "Hold On, We're Going Home" was a particular highlight—and defiance—Kanye West performing "Blood on the Leaves" couldn't have not been electric—the most telling moment of the evening occurred when, while introducing Macklemore and Ryan Lews' performance of "Same Love" with the openly gay basketball player Jason Collins, A$AP Rocky took an opportunity to plug A$AP Ferg's new record Trap Lord. It proved the unfortunate truth that no matter how forward or backwards the VMAs might trend, it's all in the name of making a buck.
Drew Millard is an Assistant Editor at Noisey. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard