MTV Video Music Awards, a Playground for the Next Generation

ince MTV revived its highest honor — the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award — at the network’s annual Video Music Awards in 2011, it has gone to Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé and Kanye West, a lineup of artists who, from the beginning of their careers, understood the power of a well-executed music video.

That’s partly because of their ages: Like MTV, Ms. Spears, Mr. Timberlake and Beyoncé were born in 1981, and Mr. West was born in 1977. They’re old enough to have lived through the era in which MTV dominance was integral to a pop star’s ascendance. Even if the channel’s relationship with music was in decline during the peak of their own careers, they understood its legacy, and executed top-notch videos accordingly.

On Sunday night, at the 33rd installment of the V.M.A.s, the prize was given to Rihanna, who was born in 1988, which means that by the time she was a teenager, MTV was well into its post-“Real World” transformation. She is an icon of a later generation, aware of how pop stars once were made, but also of how they’re made now, which is by social media and, in her case especially, the successful public transmission of attitude

That Rihanna has already reached Vanguard level underscores an impending problem for the V.M.A.s. For members of that next wave — Taylor Swift, Drake, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus — MTV is not a gatekeeper; it’s a playground. That doesn’t mean the end of the music videos — if anything, the form is experiencing a creative revival — but of the last generation of stars who owe MTV any measure of their success.

That’s why, at this stage, the awards themselves are relatively meaningless. Beyoncé won video of the year for her startling political statement, “Formation,” but kept her speech to formalities. It was her least relevant moment of the night: On the red carpet, she was joined by the mothers of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant III and Trayvon Martin. And she performed for a fiery 16 minutes during the show, condensing several songs from her album “Lemonade” into a rumbling medley that was the ceremony’s high point.

That came midway through the three-hour event, and felt like time well allotted. Letting Beyoncé be Beyoncé on television, for an audience of millions, is perhaps the best use of the V.M.A. platform, now that it has essentially abdicated all the responsibilities of a traditional awards show. It’s better as a showcase of superstars — in this year’s edition, those who owe a great deal to MTV.

Rihanna performed four times over the course of the night, in four different modes — her reggae set was a block party, and her ballads were surprisingly strong. At one point during her tough trap-influenced set, she mangled some notes, badly enough to distract from everything happening around her. All of it, Rihanna being Rihanna.

During his slot, Mr. West was petty, walking onstage to the controversial Taylor Swift mention in his song “Famous”; then thoughtful, speaking extemporaneously about fame, violence and the difficulty of dreaming; then provocative, debuting an erotic video for his song “Fade,” inspired by “Flashdance” and starring the singer and dancer Teyana Taylor. All of it, Mr. West being Mr. West. (Along with Beyoncé, Rihanna and Ms. Minaj, who performed with Ariana Grande, the video was part of the night’s consistent theme of celebrating the power of black female bodies.)

If the awards were just this, a blank slate for others to paint, it would be enough. There was the business of prizes — Beyoncé won eight, making her the most decorated V.M.A. winner, with 24; other winners included Calvin Harris, Drake and Fifth Harmony — but these were footnotes at best.

This, in and of itself, isn’t new: Other awards shows, like the Grammys and the Country Music Association Awards, shoehorn a slim number of prize presentations in between ever more performances.

But the challenge MTV faces, moving forward, was clear in the night’s other performances. The gap between the veterans and the younger class was vast. Nick Jonas and Ty Dolla Sign did a tepid “Bacon,” and Ms. Minaj looked bored assisting Ms. Grande on “Side to Side.” Worst were the Chainsmokers and Halsey, giving an embarrassingly listless performance of “Closer,” currently the No. 1 song in the country, not that anyone onstage seemed to believe it. (The less said about Ms. Spears’s flailing performance alongside G-Eazy, the better.)

Instead, the nonveteran moments that stood out the most didn’t have much to do with music: Desiigner’s rowdy red carpet excitement, Jaden Smith’s reliably intense reaction shots, the surprise appearance of the internet sensation Joanne the Scammer during Mr. Jonas’s performance.

Before long, a generation of pop stars won’t have much of a relationship to MTV at all, which is inevitable. But the most surprising part of this year’s show was the degree to which MTV abandoned its own relationship to music. The show was without a traditional host, and instead relied on a recurring sketch starring Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as a pair of social-media-obsessed observers, part extreme enthusiast and part extreme troll. It was intermittently clever, and overwhelmingly baffling, like recruiting strangers to crash a house party and take over the stereo. And worse, it felt tonally misguided. This wasn’t celebration, but distanced commentary — a rejection of the sort of fanaticism MTV used to breed and feed on.

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