The 2020 VMAs Prove The Traditional Awards Show Model Is Dead

The 2020 MTV VMAs had many firsts, but while it was unorthodox in several ways, nothing can bring the show back to what it used to be.


Chelsea Li

MTV’s Video Music Awards ran on August 30th without an audience. Though a year of many firsts, the 37th VMAs viewership continues to drop despite an increased effort in attempting to make the show interesting and engaging. (Staff Illustration by Chelsea Li)

By Samaa Khullar, Contributing Writer

MTV held the 37th annual Video Music Awards on Aug. 30, the first show in the history of the program to be held without an in-person audience due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. More positively, actress and musician Keke Palmer made history as the first solo black woman to host the show throughout its near four decades on the air. With performers like Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande donning masks during their performances, and several winners such as Megan Thee Stallion and Taylor Swift video conferencing in to accept their awards, the night was far from normal. While I would love to applaud MTV for trying to keep the show exciting during a global pandemic, it’s time to face a depressing truth: awards shows have become boring.

One would think that due to the extraordinary circumstances, this year’s VMAs would stand out, but apart from the aforementioned “firsts” of the evening, it was uninteresting and poorly paced. This disorganization is perfectly exemplified even just when looking at the theme: what exactly was it? COVID-19? Social justice? Aliens? According to MTV the official theme was “New York City,” which makes no sense since many of the performances were pre-recorded in Los Angeles.  Every performance and speech seemed to yank the audience in a polar opposite direction, leaving a sense of confusion as to what theme exactly tied the show together.

I also can’t decide what was more uncomfortable about this year’s show: the awkward green screen award presentations, pre-filmed acceptances by celebrities who weren’t at all dressed for the occasion, the blatant lip syncing during most of the performances or the quiet clapping from a mostly empty audience. Clearly, the 2020 VMAs will also go down as the most uncomfortable show in its history, as every attempt to make the night seem “normal” only made it feel more strained.

Even if I could dismiss these unfortunate circumstances as an inescapable result of COVID-19, the VMAs are still unable to learn from mistakes made long before the virus disrupted the show. In recent years, almost every award show has followed a trend of only awarding one or two artists and snubbing every other nominee. We’ve seen it happen repeatedly: Taylor Swift at the 2019 AMAs (six wins including “Artist of the Decade”), Drake at the 2019 BBMAs (12 wins, most of any nominee that night), Billie Eilish at the Grammys early this year (five wins in all major categories) and Lady Gaga at this year’s VMAs as she walked away with 5 wins and as the first recipient of the “Tricon” award.

This is not to say that these wins aren’t deserved, but how frequently does a game-changing album, song or video truly come along? I can name maybe one or two pieces of music that redefined a genre, or raised the bar so high that it deserved every accolade of the night, but these shows have tried to fool us into thinking that any artist with decent radio play needs to walk away with every award they can offer, and that it somehow elevates the quality of said artist’s work. I’m not the only one sick of the so-called “fan-voted” award sweeps; over 383,000 Twitter accounts agreed with user @JustAbtNothing when he tweeted, “I have never heard this song [Rain on Me] in my life” despite it winning Song of the Year. The VMAs clearly value celebrity over artistry and I’m not surprised that viewership drops with each passing year.

This bias is also transparent with the performers the VMAs chose to highlight. In my opinion, the standout performance of the latest show was Chloe x Halle’s “Ungodly Hour.” Beautifully harmonized and elegantly styled, it was a refreshing reminder that less is more and that you don’t need a heavily choreographed set to put on a great show. Unfortunately, their act was only used during the pre-show.I’d like a word with the producer that made that call. Instead we got main-show performances by Doja Cat and The Weeknd, which looked and sounded identical to every late night show performance they both gave during their press runs.

Award shows have become glorified press tours. Do I have to bring up every tired performance of “Señorita” that we were forced to watch on almost every award show in 2019? It seems that in the past five years, these awards have meant less to artists, as many have realized they don’t need the validation of a board of business executives, and they shouldn’t have to sit through a night of being snubbed next to their mainstream (often white and male) counterparts. This has resulted in a decline of A-listers in the audience and a lack of notable performances. While it would have been an honor to be asked to perform at the VMAs in the 90s, today, it feels like a hollow achievement.

Maybe that’s why the VMAs have tried to do everything in their power to grasp onto relevancy, circulating the same pictures of snake-laden Britney Spears during her 2001 “I’m a Slave 4 U” performance or Lady Gaga’s meat dress on the 2010 red carpet: because as difficult as it may be to admit, the VMAs are dead, and they have been for a while now. The latest show just felt like the final nail in the coffin.

A version of this article appeared in the Sept. 7, 2020 e-print edition. Email Samaa Khullar at [email protected]