If there was a pop-culture-specific dictionary, and you looked up the word infamous, the entry would say, “See MTV Video Music Awards.”
For a couple of decades now, the cable channel formerly known as Music Television has excelled at putting on an annual award show that’s become less about the musicians being honored and more about the outrageous behavior of its participants and hosts.
Over the years, the VMA broadcast has been home to plenty of risqué moments, such as Madonna, Britney and Christina kissing. Last year, Kanye West traded risqué for rude when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video to let everyone know he thought Beyoncé should have won instead.
This year’s show offered yet another double-barrel barrage of bawdy material. Much of it came courtesy of host Chelsea Handler. The E! late-night comedienne’s opening monologue arguably treated Swift even worse than Kanye did last year. “I want to encourage everyone to be on their worst behavior. And I’m not just talking about like some predictable award show girl-on-girl kiss. We’ve all seen that. OK. I’m over that,” Handler quipped. “Get your tongues ready, because I want one shoved someplace it’s not supposed to be. I’m talking to you, Taylor Swift.” Then she added, “And if anybody wants to whip out a boobie and give a nipple wing to the crowd, go for it. Once again, I’m talking to you, Taylor Swift.”
Taylor, to her credit, met crass with class when it was time for her to perform a new song, “Innocent,” an invitation to Kanye West to let go of last year’s self-centered moment. “Who you are is not what you did/You’re still an innocent,” Swift sang. “Every one of us has messed up too/Lives change like the weather/I hope you remember/Today is never too late to/Be brand new.” While Taylor never actually used the word forgiveness, that’s what she seemed to be offering.
Whether Kanye can appropriate that message remains to be seen. He closed the show with a profane “confessional” of sorts. His new song, “Runaway,” pointed a sarcastic, accusatory finger back at himself when he sang, “You’ve been putting up with my s— for too long/Let’s have a toast for the douche bags. Let’s have a toast for the a–holes/Let’s have a toast for the scumbags/Let’s have toast for the jerk-offs.” Whatever else you may say about the singer’s outsized ego and profane way with words, he seems haunted by last year’s choices. If his lyrics are sincere (and not just a well-positioned publicity stunt), they reflect the soul of a guilty, shame-filled man in need of exactly the kind of forgiveness Taylor Swift is offering.
Guilt. Shame. Forgiveness. These are not the kind of words I generally find myself thinking about after watching an MTV Video Music Award broadcast.
As Kanye concluded this unexpected expression of musical penance, I found myself trying to fit together the broadcast’s asymmetrical puzzle pieces. On one hand, Taylor and Kanye were pondering a moment from a year ago that, at worst, could be described as self-centered and impolite. No permanent damage was done (save, perhaps, to Kanye’s ego). The incident was just a massive, narcissistic faux pas. But there they were, trying to work it out.
And on the other hand, you had Chelsea Handler jokingly encouraging Swift to take her shirt off and elsewhere suggesting that 16-year-old Justin Bieber’s songwriting ability will be even better after he has sex. (I’ll spare you the graphic details of what she actually said.) If anyone should have been issuing apologies for bad behavior, it was Handler.
Unfortunately, Handler’s utterly inappropriate comments are what ultimately encapsulated the spirit of the VMA’s this year (and most other years, for that matter). As for Kanye’s shame? Well, that’s an aberration, a hangover from an age in which people still had a conscience.
For everyone else, though, shameless seems to work just fine.