Miley Cyrus had promised an MTV VMAs that would be “psychedelic” and “raw”: Well, she got it half-right. Her multi-colored multiple costumes, her Fillmore West-era light-shows, her proclamations for peace ‘n’ weed — yup, psychedelic was both the mindset and the color palette against which Cyrus presented her throaty introductions, her terrible taped sketches (don’t get me started on that Snoop Dog “mammy” moment), and her shocking displays of something approaching sincerity.
Yes, although the tongue and the twerk have definitely not been consigned to the dustbin of history, Cyrus has clearly moved on to a new phase: The Artist as her own Art Project. Every utterance, every piece of clothing, every note delivered in song, bespoke a performer who has decided that the most surprising thing she could do at this point would be to express admiration for other artists (from Nicki Minaj, who wasn’t in an accepting mood, to the Flaming Lips’s Wayne Coyne, who reveled in it) and to play along with venerable TV structures.
I mean, good Lord, Miley did an opening monologue! She introduced everyone by reading off cue cards. She didn’t bum-rush the stage to cut off Kayne West, even though she knew that every second he remained onstage was lengthening the show and challenging viewers to stay tuned to MTV for her closing number and the announcement of her new (and free) album, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz.
Playing nice was the theme of the night. This, of course, is right up Taylor Swift’s alley, which is why she came off the most regal queen of the evening in a show joyously redolent with queens of all sorts. Watching Swift rise from her seat again and again to accept awards, it occurred to me that she’s currently the Hugh Hefner of Pop, surrounding herself with a bevy of models and female hangers-on (hello, Mariska Hargitay!) as signs of power-allure presented as friendship.
Playing nice was also a new pose Justin Bieber tried out. After singing and dancing in a nicely straightforward manner, then ascending to the heavens or the theater roof in a Christ-like pose, he came back down to the stage and collapsed in (crocodile?) tears, implicitly imploring the audience to join in accepting him as an earnest fellow.
Playing nice comes more easily to Kanye West, when he wants it to. His 10 minute-plus speech accepting the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award demonstrated his mastery of something Miley courts with her new, repeated references to the 1960s: The Happening, those spontaneous art-events pioneered by Allan Kaprow. West turned his speech into a Happening, and came ever so close to an apology to Taylor Swift for his interruption of Swift’s VMA speech six years ago (a moment that now seems to matter more to West and Swift than to anyone else in the country), chiding MTV for being ratings-chasers (!), proclaiming that he just wants to be liked, bellowing, “I still don’t understand awards shows!” and announcing a 2020 Presidential run. This willful naiveté had the desired effect: It was disarming.
What came across most clearly during the VMAs, and particularly from Cyrus and West, is the idea that music, and creativity in general, must reach out to as many people as possible, that it must be voluminous and constant. “We are the millennials, bro, this is the new mentality!” Kanye proclaimed. Apparently part of what that means is having a very strong work ethic. My goodness, so much effort to get across so much music and imagery! Think back to the “hippie” era of the music industry Cyrus sneered at in her closing song — entire careers in the 1960s and early ‘70s were built around one or two albums. Now performers must release a constant torrent of product, while also promoting themselves on social media, which is why Miley’s Instagram sketch was both a not-too-funny joke and a dead-serious reality.
Over-produced and earnest, the VMAs certainly proved one thing decisively: Now more than ever, it’s a long, tough slog, a never-ending commitment, to make it look easy. Tough for the consumer, too: Who knew yesterday we were going to have to spend the beginning of the work week plowing through a new Miley Cyrus album?