The 2016 VMAs: Leftovers and Nick Jonas
MTV’s Video Music Awards revel in representing the zeitgeist, a snapshot of popular culture circa late August or early September every year for the past 32 years. But like any annual awards show, there’s a delicate balance between capturing the moment and giving an overview of the past year. It’s a question of whether a performer should showcase their next single or play the big nominated hit that everyone had their fill of months ago.
More than usual, the 2016 VMA’s felt like a rerun of other recent VMAs. Beyonce’s 15-minute medley of several songs from Lemonade was amazing, but it wasn’t necessarily more amazing than the 15-minute medley of songs from her self-titled album two years ago. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj performed a less popular collaboration than the one they performed at the 2014 show. Even Future’s performance, one of the highlights of the night, felt oddly dated given that he’s had several hits since “Commas,” which had already peaked on the charts by this time last year. The show was hosted by comedy duo Key & Peele, whose eponymous Comedy Central show wrapped up its 5th and final season about a year ago. Their tiresome segments, in character as snarky commentators with wacky names, felt like the kind of bit they’d run into the ground by their third season.
Last year the VMAs indulged in some self-referential nostalgia by revisiting and, supposedly, resolving one of the show’s most famous feuds by having Taylor Swift present the Video Vanguard Award to Kanye West. But then, of course, L’Affaire Swift et West took several new twists this year with the release of his song “Famous” and later its obnoxious, controversy-baiting video. MTV, drunk on its own mythology, was powerless to resist nominating “Famous” for Video of the Year. But the big award went to Beyonce’s “Formation,” which was both the deserving winner and another meta wrinkle – West losing to the only person who he thinks deserves Moonmen more than him.
A few days ago, the buzz was that MTV had promised Kanye West four minutes of live airtime to do “whatever he wants” during the VMAs. Last year, his rambling “listen to the kids, bruh” Video Vanguard speech ran over 12 minutes, so it seemed merciful to promise a shorter Yeezy sermon this time around. In the end, he got 11 minutes – 7 minutes to speak, congratulating himself for the “audacity” of “Famous,” and then 4 minutes to premiere a video for “Fade,” one of the least popular songs from The Life Of Pablo. In a way, it was another callback, to 2008, to get people googling Teyana Taylor again.
There were a few moments that timestamped the show well enough. The Chainsmokers and Halsey performed “Closer,” which has been the #1 song in the country for less than a week and was released just a month ago. The performance by Britney Spears, again built up into an event with references to the highs and lows of her previous VMA performances, wound up being more of a coming out party for her “Make Me” collaborator G-Eazy, who also got to perform his breakthrough hit “Me, Myself & I.” Whether Halsey or Gerald Eazy have careers far beyond 2016 will determine whether those moments are forgotten, or used to further burnish VMA mythology.
Nobody epitomized the weird hangover feeling of this year’s VMAs quite like Nick Jonas. He previously performed on the VMA’s in 2008 with the Jonas Brothers, but it wasn’t his teen idol past haunting him so much as the sense that his grown up solo career has already peaked a couple years ago with its sole top 10 hit, “Jealous.” In fact, his brother Joe started nipping at his heels this year with his group DNCE’s own top 10 hit, “Cake By The Ocean,” and not long after Nick’s performance last night, DNCE accepted the award for Best New Artist.
Last year, Nick Jonas appeared on the VMAs undercard, performing one of his forgettable singles that isn’t “Jealous” on the red carpet pre-show. This year, he got kicked up to the main show with lavish production values for a performance of a moronic new song called “Bacon.” To paraphrase Norm Macdonald, Nick Jonas has not gotten better or more famous since 2015, which means that logically speaking, the VMAs have simply gotten worse in the past year.