Beyoncé, social media, and the ghosts of 2009

By Darren Franich
August 29, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Larry Busacca/MTV1617/Getty Images

Beyoncé happened, finally. More than halfway through MTV’s VMAs on Sunday, the lights came up and she was onstage, dressed in all-white, her outfit suggesting “wedding dress” and “Eliza Doolittle at Ascot” and “Noble warrior witchqueen from a puritancore YA dystopia trilogy.” Flames projected onto her, and she became a movie screen. Was the fire inside of her, or all around her? Was she impervious, untouched by the flames – or consumed by them? Her face offered nothing obvious. Beyoncé doesn’t overshare, which is why we like her so much more than we like ourselves.

She started with “Pray You Catch Me,” flanked all around by women in white, angelic dancers who barely danced. A percussive shot sounded on the soundtrack; the woman standing on Beyoncé’s right crumpled to the floor, her spotlight suddenly blood red. Another percussive shot, and two more women fell. And again, and again: By the time Beyoncé stepped forward, the stage was all crimson-lit bodies, red dead. Was this a reference to our endless year, the violence in our streets, the videos that won’t stop appearing on your feeds? Was this the emotional violence at the core of Lemonade, apocalyptic heartbreak made manifest? Political, or personal?

Beyoncé walked through a fog, fell backward, rose again. She narrated, the part about “menses.” The lights went down and the lights went up. She was in black now. “Hello, MTV!” she said, prologue complete at the four-minute mark, just getting started. “Y’all havin’ a good time?” We were, finally.

The release of Lemonade, and its debut on HBO, was an event – let’s think of something better than “visual album” – which gracefully and artfully slipped from personal to political, from microscopic to macrocosmic. It was a stunning achievement, and at the 2016 Video Music Awards, Lemonade was rewarded with the award for “Breakthrough Long Form Video.” Sure, whatever: The pointlessness of the VMAs is the point of the VMAs. (Nobody really thinks the awards matter, except one-hit wonders and Kanye West.)

Answering the call of duty, Beyoncé transposed Lemonade into a lengthy medley when she took the stage. It lasted 15 minutes, and it is impossible to pick just one perfect moment. I loved when “Countdown” suddenly started blasting midway through “Hold Up,” with Beyoncé not so much dancing as exploding. I loved right after that, when Beyoncé stepped to the edge of the stage and grabbed a baseball bat, and I loved when she swung that bat right into the camera. The camera splintered, and fell; Beyoncé dropped the bat right in front of the camera and walked away. (That last shot was framed so perfectly; did she practice that move a dozen times, a hundred times?)

via GIPHY

But the moment from Beyoncé’s performance that I’ve rewatched the most, in awe and fascination, comes late in “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” She’s alone onstage, dancing amidst fireworks and smoke, the camera circling her. She doesn’t break eye contact with the camera as it moves. It doesn’t feel like we are watching her; it feels like we are helpless to escape her. She bobs up and down, her long hair and her Ghost-the-Direwolf pelt swirling in waveforms around her, and I swear to god, at about 11:52 in the video of the performance, she appears to be moving in slow motion.

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The VMAs have never not been a mess, but something has changed in the last few years. Blame social media, or blame executives who think you won’t tweet unless someone tells you to tweet. Somehow, the VMAs have become relentlessly self-aware, navel-gazing. In lieu of a single host, the 2016 VMAs opted for a cacophony of in-world commentary. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele played “Lizard Sheeple” and “The Shamester,” influencer grotesqueries desperate for a likable gag. Cut to Jay Pharoah, reheating every impression that was funny the first 50 times. Cut to Nicole Byer, backstage at the VMAs, yelling things like “I’m backstage at the VMAs!” Cut to DJ Khaled, one of Earth’s finest people, a man who supports things like New York and wearing two shoes as a necklace.

On some deep and strange level, it has been decided that the VMAs must be a propagation and a culmination of several running cultural storylines, a season finale for the year’s trending topics. Drake and Rihanna, question mark? Kanye and Taylor, exclamation point! Jimmy Fallon impersonated Ryan Lochte, and the camera cut to Michael Phelps, desperate for a reaction. Phelps was there to introduce Future; when he was onstage, he helpfully reminded us of one of his big Olympics moments, “that face that ended up all over the internet.” (As he awkwardly stammered through his introduction, he also helpfully reminded us why we never care about Michael Phelps outside of the Olympics.) At one point, DJ Khaled and Jay Pharoah had a deeply strange moment, less a “conversation” than a playacted conversation between living memes. Pharaoh asked Khaled just what the hell he actually does, which is all anyone wants to ask Khaled. Khaled said the words “Saturday Night Live,” which is all anyone wants to say to Jay Pharaoh. Their conversation eclipsed into vapor, a “moment” without an actual moment.

There were people who transcended, but only because they barely seemed to be participating. Early in the show, the camera cut to Nick Jonas, who looked like somebody plotting an escape from Alcatraz. He got to sing on top of a fire truck, the Empire State Building shining behind him, a moment about which you could only say “that was great” and therefore not the kind of moment the VMAs seek to create. Alicia Keys went onstage, sans makeup, and spoke-sang a poem in honor of Martin Luther King. “One day, our nation is gonna rise up and finally be completely about the true meaning of this creed,” she said, “that all women and men are created equal. The nominees for Best Male Video are!”

RELATED: MTV VMAs 2016: 9 of the Craziest Moments

Jordan Peele had all the best lines. He declared that he was there to help make the VMAs “more revenant again,” and in the middle of a helplessly unfunny bit about “memes,” he suddenly blurted out the phrase “The Last Memes-y,” which has to be the first time anyone anywhere has referenced The Last Mimsy. At another point, at the tail end of an unfunny bit about Instagram, Peele interjected, “We live in a misogynist society and I’m not helping!” After Beyoncé’s performance was finished, Key and Peele were suddenly onscreen, speechless. “Why would you cut to us while she’s still onstage?” Peele asked, no longer even trying to play whatever his character was.

But @LizardSheeple and @TheShamester were a weird filter over this year’s VMAs. No one involved seemed to know what was being satirized. Social media? Millennials? MTV itself? At one point, Peele said, “I live with my mother,” a rimshot computer-nerd joke that went out with the Zune. Later, Key declared that he was “trying to knock down famous people because I’m empty inside!”

What does it mean, though, to be “famous” at the VMAs? The show likes to suggest that everyone involved is one big family, onstage and in the audience, in front of and behind the camera, everyone in on the joke, everyone chill. Serena Williams introduced “my friend, Beyoncé.” Tracee Ellis Ross introduced “my friend, Rihanna.” Troye Sivan and Alessia Cara introduced “our friends, the Chainsmokers, with special guest Halsey.” That last sentence is a veritable Yahtzee of Things I Didn’t Know Were Things, but I’m too old to complain that I’m too old for MTV. The network should appeal to people half my age.

Really, the biggest problem with this year’s VMAs was that it wasn’t shamelessly hip enough. It was backward-thinking, not forward-looking. Long-gone storylines were reheated, like cast members returning for a pointless final-season farewell. This gets back to What Changed with the VMAs, the accidental but ultimately unavoidable evolution of the show from “anything-can-happen ego frenzy” into a desperate meme factory. The change started in 2007, when Britney Spears stumbled through a performance of “Gimme More.” It was the cherry on top of one of the worst years any celebrity has ever had; four months later, she was in the psych ward.

Then Kanye interrupted Taylor. The rest isn’t even history, because we have not yet moved on yet. We are in that moment forever; at least, the VMAs hope we are. Kanye West took the stage, backdropped by controversy; Taylor Swift wasn’t in attendance, but her nude duplicate appeared onscreen a few times, fake privates tastefully censored. West basked in the self-awareness; he said he wouldn’t mind losing Video of the Year, because “I’m always wishing for Beyoncé to win!” He gave a shoutout to Amber Rose, who was one of Kanye’s two dates at the 2009 VMAs. (The other date was a bottle of Hennessy, gradually emptying while Kanye walked the red carpet.)

The show gave Kanye West the floor for several minutes; it was endlessly fascinating, but also endless. He declared that his controversial “Famous” video was about “our fame right now, us on the inside of the TV,” and then he said, “This is fame, bro!” He seemed to be making some kind of point about us people and our priorities – “Last week, there was 22 people murdered in Chicago” – and then he talked about Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, and Henry Ford. “We are the thought leaders!” he announced, right before debuting a music video where a catwoman has dance-sex with a Bowflex; also, sheep.

Kanye didn’t perform anything live, which is a bummer. Along with Beyoncé, he’s one of the few people capable of turning a VMA performance into a fully cinematic experience. I am one of the most strident Kanye defenders – I’m already working on a dissertation about his random reference to The Truman Show – but this pointless meandering was the worst pointless meandering of Kanye’s career. “Like, fame, y’know?” isn’t an idea – but, crucially, that seems to be the only idea the VMAs really have. Unlike Kanye, poor Britney actually did perform, and that was far worse: A “comeback” that was more like a leave-again. Britney played second fiddle to the featured rapper G-Eazy; the camera kept cutting wide, as if embarrassed.

Being cruel to be kind here: Every year, when you watch the VMAs, there is a moment when you suddenly consider the very real possibility that you are watching the worst thing that has ever happened. This is simply a side effect of the show’s scattershot nature, like how every episode of SNL has one terrible sketch, or every episode of Friends has Ross. The Britney moment was that, for me. So was Ansel Elgort, dressed like Jared Leto dressed like Edward Scissorhands, introducing Nick Jonas with Rita Ora. (“They say New York is the city that never sleeps.” “Thank god for 24-hour diners!”)

But the problem with the modern VMAs isn’t that they’re a hastily-assembled monstrous mess. The problem is how overly architected that mess has become. The network feels torn, desperate for SnapChat relevance but also anxious enough to make jokes about SnapChat. The VMAs want to have their cake and tweet it, too.

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The night belonged to Beyoncé. I wonder what Rihanna thinks about that. Probably nothing? The winner of this year’s Video Vanguard award, Rihanna performed four times, her energy level steadily building over the course of the night from “unconscious” to “physically present.” Rihanna has perfected a performing style that would have been unthinkable a decade ago; she seems to sing one out of every three words, letting her own lip-sync carry most of the song, while she drowsily half-dances haphazard singing-in-the-shower choreography. I’ve seen this live and kind of love it; her just-rolled-out-of-bed charisma is unique in the diva landscape. There are pop stars who try too hard to look like they aren’t trying hard. I mean it as a huge compliment when I say that “trying too hard” is not a problem Rihanna has.

via GIPHY

If you go back and watch that Britney “Gimme More” performance, you notice, early on, a quick reaction shot in the crowd. It’s Rihanna: Young and kind of smiling. I also mean this as a huge compliment: Half of Rihanna’s performances at the VMAs felt like on-purpose recreations of the Britney “Gimme More,” gleefully shambling medleys skipping at random across Rihanna’s back catalogue, the star cavorting around background dancers, not worrying too much about hitting any marks.

I wish the VMAs were like Beyoncé: Glorious, ecstatic, a celebration of all the wild possibilities of pop music. I don’t mind when the VMAs are like Rihanna: Messy, colorful, sometimes engaging, sometimes just going through the motions. But this year’s VMAs felt a bit too much like Britney and Kanye: Celebrity set adrift, overthought and underperformed, drifting on the fumes of past glories, all dressed up with no song to sing. I worry for the VMAs, truthfully. If this keeps up, the show will never be revenant again.

Beyoncé: A

Everything Else: C

Average: B

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