Miley Cyrus has spent a lot of time trying to shed her Disney past, but she has never seemed younger than she did hosting the VMAs on Sunday night.
In interviews, Cyrus has come across as not insightful, exactly, but interesting -- someone trying to figure out her art and her sexuality. (Her unfailingly terrible handling of race is another matter.) But all of that was lost at the VMAs. There is nothing so tame and boring as someone hungrily shoving their edginess in our faces, and Cyrus, with her loud, repeated mentions of her drug use, her ever-wispier costumes, and her repeated, clanking use of the word "mammy," seemed desperate to shock. How MTV's target audience of 16-year-olds responded to it is not something I can hope to know, but it wasn't a good look.
Really, though, Cyrus' flailing was in keeping with the entire night. The whole affair had never felt so pre-packaged, so much like an executive's idea of what a scandalous evening should look like. (Tellingly, nearly every portion of the program appeared to have been auctioned off to one advertiser or another; nary a second was allowed to elapse without a corporate shoutout.)
Very little of it worked. The VMAs are always supposed to be something of a mess, but you're also supposed to feel like the mess was created by people with their finger somewhat on the pulse of the culture. Not this time. Whose bright idea, for instance, was it to let Rebel Wilson come on as a cop and joke about police brutality? The sheer oddity of it nearly overwhelmed the offensiveness. Why would you do that in 2015? It was just so strange, as if everyone involved in the show had missed out on the last year of history.
The musical performances seemed, whatever your opinion of them, almost wholly irrelevant to the proceedings. Past VMA flashpoints, from the writhings of Madonna to the writhings of Miley, usually happened during a song. This year, we got Justin Bieber crying and Macklemore rising from the cultural crypt to terrorize us once again. Even Nicki Minaj's hyped-up intro to the show was a damp squib, rendered toothless by the utter predictability of her rapprochement with Taylor Swift.
All of this begs the question: What are we doing still watching this thing? The answer is that, though they feel so out of step, the VMAs are perfect for our current media age. Our culture is so fragmented that we pounce on any unifying event. In a world where teenagers become mega-famous on Vine without so much as piercing the broader consciousness, the knowledge that the VMAs are still there is almost comforting. Websites hungry for easily consumed bits of content know that they will be able to dine out for days on the slideshows, gif lists and thinkpieces (guilty as charged!) any big thing seems to generate these days.
The downside of all of this is that everything gets ground up into the same, ultra-cynical feedback loop. It's not an accident that the performances at this year's VMAs were greeted with such indifference. We've all become accustomed to "moments," quick bursts of drama that we can toss into the endlessly churning machinery of content creation. Someone singing does not, by itself, a moment make. Networks like MTV know this, and plan accordingly -- but that planning has the effect of hollowing our culture out, scooping the soul away and leaving us to livetweet the remains until something else catches our fancy. It is a mark of our jadedness that, when Minaj defiantly took Cyrus to task for her misguided comments about Minaj's feud with Swift—got all that?—the first thing everyone wondered was whether or not the "moment" had been staged.
Thank god, then, that it wasn't, that Minaj and especially Kanye West seemed intent on piercing the artifice of the night. (West's presidential stump speech was such a spectacular bit of theater that it cannot possibly be summed up here.) The best moments of the evening came in little flashes, like the look on Swift's face when she realized that West was going to make an extended, uncomfortable point about their infamous encounter in 2009, or Cyrus' panicked demeanor when Minaj called her out. Three cheers to both of them for their refusal to do what they were told. Note to Miley: That's how it's done.