Then-upstart cable channel MTV threw its first Video Music Awards, a splashy celebration of the network's reinvention of pop music featuring a career-making performance by a wedding-dress-clad Madonna, 35 years ago at Radio City Music Hall. This Monday, the channel, now notorious for no longer showing music videos, hosts its latest iteration of that music video-celebrating awards show; it's taking place at a hockey arena in New Jersey and hosted by a 46-year-old comedian whose schtick is that he doesn't have a clue about any of the nominated artists.
Are the VMAs — which air from Newark's Prudential Center at 8 p.m. ET on Monday — in a midlife crisis? That existential question has plagued the channel's centerpiece award show for much of this decade, when it's been plagued by uninspired booking, strained attempts to bring together the old and new generations of pop (British lad-turned-dad rocker Rod Stewart, who was on the first show's bill, teamed up with the Jonas Brothers in 2017, while hip-hop legends Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Kaz joined Macklemore in 2015) and cursory nods toward internet-borne trends (Best Lyric Video and Most Share-Worthy Video, we hardly knew ye).
In a way, these problems are because of the completely arbitrary nature of the awards, and the completely promotional nature of early MTV itself. The channel, after all, began as a 24-hour feed of advertisements that just happened to be advertising the soundtracks for the sometimes-corny, sometimes-sexy, sometimes impressive videos. Likewise, the awards started out as a way for a channel to point out the artistic achievements of its own programming — awards for direction, cinematography, art direction and editing have been part of the nominations slate since the beginning.
But MTV has, in the name of ratings, slowly drifted away from the business of promoting record companies' audio-visual wares, with tech companies picking up the slack via their own streaming platforms. Which makes one wonder if, like its flagship reality show, the channel's signature award ceremony wouldn't be more appropriate for broadcast on some outlet like YouTube.
Early press for this year's VMAs hasn't been great. Ponytailed belter Ariana Grande, who's tied with the pop commander Taylor Swift for the most nominations (with 12), has said she won't be at the show because of scheduling conflicts, while consternation over keeping its lifetime-achievement honor the Video Vanguard Award (which, this year, goes to hip-hop alchemist Missy Elliott) named in honor of Michael Jackson has popped up on Twitter. Billie Eilish, the teenage weirdo whose "bad guy" currently holds the top spot on the Hot 100 and has been the preferred bumper music for MTV's incessant ads for the show, is also not on the bill as of press time.
Plus, it's in New Jersey.
Wipe aside those concerns — and it wouldn't be out of character for the show to at the last minute turn the reported Grande and Eilish no-shows into a fake-out — and what emerges is a roster of performers who reflect the chaotic nature of pop's 2019 landscape better than most awards shows, aided by Elliott, who, during her two-plus decades in making records, blazed a trail for oddballs with glitchy, future-minded music and eye-popping videos.
To start, there are a couple of megastars on the bill. Taylor Swift, whose heart-eyed seventh album "Lover" came out Friday, tops the bill and will open the show with a performance that'll undoubtedly be splashy and full of Easter eggs for her fans to decode. The recently reunited Jonas Brothers, who hail from the Garden State and who had one of this year's most commercially well-received comebacks, will be broadcast from Asbury Park rock mecca The Stone Pony and on the city's boardwalk, which filmed on Sunday.
This year's VMAs are also nodding toward the megapopularity of Latin pop, which ruled last year's YouTube Music charts while being held at a distance — usually with an Anglophone singer or MC in tow — by American radio. Puerto Rican trap-popper Bad Bunny and reggaetón singer Ozuna are on the main show's bill, while Colombian urbano artist J Balvin will perform with Spain's flamenco revivalist Rosalia. CNCO, a boy band assembled on Univision's singing competition "La Banda," will be on the pre-show.
Other artists have clear pop appeal that might fully flower in the coming years. Canadian singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes has come a long way since his earliest days on the now-defunct video-sharing app Vine, making knotty songs that borrow from drony rock and sophistipop. Lil Nas X, who broke records as "Old Town Road" hung on to the Hot 100's No. 1 for 19 weeks this year, came up on the Vine successor TikTok and has shown charm as well as a knack for writing endlessly loopable hooks. And Lizzo, whose Elliott collab "Tempo" sizzles with swagger, has one of the best live shows going, and deserves to make the leap from 2016 pre-show performer to featured artist.
Will the VMAs be uneven? It's a live show, so... probably. But while writing them off seemed like the thing to do on first glance, a closer look at the diverse, unpredictable lineup shows a lot of potential for starmaking and hitmaking performances — just like the show did three and a half decades ago.