Investigating the Video Music Awards’ Steep Plunge Into Irrelevancy

Harley Marks, Opinions Section Co-Editor

1984: the first ever airing of The MTV Video Music Awards, honoring artists (nay, icons) such as Madonna, David Bowie and Tina Turner. 

Following the cultural rebellion of the 1970s, the ’80s introduced another layer of musical excitement by establishing the music video. For the first time, artists were able to add creative visual elements to their work, and music lovers alike could rejoice in watching their favorite musicians’ aesthetic come to life. 

The MTV channel launched on cable in 1981 with the Buggles’ music video of “Video Killed the Radio Star”, and eventually became one of the most popular music video destinations in the country. Because music videos were so novel at the time (and far fewer artists reached such extreme levels of fame the way they do today), the VMAs were one of the most exciting events for consumers of music, and developed into one of the most important platforms for emerging artists. 

With other awards shows like the Academy Awards and the Grammys, viewers who are not experts in the respected fields can feel isolated and detached from the process of finding nominees and winners. These awards shows are always present with an air of elitism, whereas the VMAs have continuously targeted the masses. This distinction has been critical in the rise of the VMAs’ popularity; and by popularity, I mean the “Super Bowl for the youth.” 

Until a few years ago, the VMA was a highly coveted award and drew in millions of teen and 20-something viewers each year. However, multiple noteworthy newspapers and media outlets have suggested that the ceremony has been experiencing a steady collapse in popularity in recent years. I think the decline of the VMAs has been apparent to viewers prior to claims made by journalists.

There is much debate as to when exactly the VMAs’ downfall began. The Huffpost claims that in 2019, viewership hit an all-time low for the third year in a row due to a “…lack of musical diversity, lack of celebrity, and lack of credibility…”, and The Washington Post accredits the viewership decline to Drake’s absence in 2014. 

In my humble opinion, the beginning of the end for the VMAs was in 2013 after Miley Cyrus’s controversial “Wrecking Ball” performance. While this performance brought in record viewership, it is undeniable that disputes stemming from this performance changed the VMAs’ reputation… for the worse. 

I have nothing against Miley Cyrus — in fact, I consider myself a fan — but “Wrecking Ball” definitely took the VMAs from flashy to trashy. Flash forward to the 2022 VMAs and the guest list leaves little to be desired. *warning: the following opinions may be controversial* Thank god L.L. Cool J was in attendance! 

I almost forgot it’s the year 1990! Mod Sun? Might as well have been a tattooed Cody Ko. Taylor Swift won an award? That’s never happened before! And how is it possible that Addison Rae’s mom and Yung Gravy were the most interesting headlines to come out from the night? Maybe I am simply too far removed from the popular culture of today, but if a 21 year old can’t recognize the VMAs guest list, what hope does anyone else have? I’m not saying the VMAs are dead. 

I’m saying that all awards shows are dead. When people can watch music videos, movies, television and more all from streaming platforms, the demand for network awards shows really is nonexistent. My advice to MTV: don’t invite emerging artists if highly established artists will remain the priority. I know that the awards are in the hands of the people, but there must be a way to properly honor your “New Artists” Baby Keem, GAYLE, Latto and Maneskin. Harry Styles and Taylor Swift have better things to do than to sit around writing the 100th acceptance speech of their careers.

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