The winners of MTV’s Video Music Awards have rarely been as exciting as what unfolds at the ceremony itself. Since their 1984 debut, the awards have become known for their spectacle, building a reputation as the home of some of modern music’s most memorable performances, shocking moments, and splashiest feuds.
The most-nominated artists going into the 2017 VMAs were Kendrick Lamar (eight), followed by the Weeknd and VMA host Katy Perry (five each). But here, let’s test exactly how much attention is paid to the awards themselves in the years after they’re given out: Did you remember that 2001’s Video of the Year trophy went to “Lady Marmalade”? No? How about Britney Spears’s 2001 performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U” featuring a giant albino python?
Now, not every VMAs can boast a moment that unforgettable — but unfortunately, the 2017 edition didn’t even come close to making a lasting impression.
Most of the ceremony committed the ultimate awards show sin: It was boring. Outside of Lamar’s literally fiery opening performance and Pink’s medley before accepting the Video Vanguard award, no amount of confetti could hide the fact that this show generally lacked the kind of electric unpredictable spark that’s made VMAs of years past so interesting.
But since I watched more than three hours of it anyway, I’ll save you a whole lot of time by breaking down the winners and losers of the night.
Winner: Taylor Swift
Despite her rumored surprise appearance, Taylor Swift didn’t show up to the VMAs, but, yes, she still managed to win the night.
Hell, it didn’t even matter that Swift was only nominated for a single award (Best Collaboration, for “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)” with Zayn Malik, which she ended up winning); she still managed to dominate the conversation surrounding them.
All week leading up to the show, the most highly anticipated event wasn’t anything to do with how Katy Perry would do as host, or the confirmed slate of performances featuring stars like Kendrick Lamar and Miley Cyrus. Instead, It was the mere possibility that Swift would show her face after staying out of the public eye for so long, whether to perform her new single “Look What You Made Me Do” or make some kind of self-aware nod toward her longstanding feud (or lack thereof) with Perry.
Swift did none of those things. But she did premiere the video for “Look What You Made Me Do” during the show, and proved she didn’t even have to be present to have the most talked-about performance of the night. For someone who constantly talks about how much she hates playing the publicity game, she sure is good at it.
Loser: Katy Perry
Honestly, Perry was fighting an uphill battle the second Swift fired up her “I’ve got a new single and a new album coming out” publicity machine. Even the fact that Swift released “Look What You Made Me Do” on the same day that Perry released her baffling video for “Swish Swish” — the revenge fantasy song Perry has not-so-slyly referenced as being about her and Swift — proved that Swift is playing chess while Perry’s playing Boggle.
But Perry could’ve pulled it together for an overall win if she had crushed her VMAs hosting gig. Instead, she came off like an enthusiastic mom trying to spice up a school talent show and constantly prove her #woke bona fides with winking references to how messed up a certain president is (and when I say “winking,” I mean she literally said, “wink wink”).
Her opening bit about taking a detour to space and missing out on fidget spinners and the political chaos of 2017 was clunky and strange, and the ones that followed weren’t any better. Every cut to Perry was progressively more cringeworthy. By the time she followed up Pink’s moving acceptance speech for the Video Vanguard award with a litany of gay slang like “iconic!” and “my wig is snatched!” it was clear she was trying to make fun of herself for being out of step. But all she did was prove how out of step she truly is.
In a final blow, Perry’s basketball-themed finale performance of “Swish Swish” reminded everyone in the VMAs audience that the best part of Perry’s song by a long shot is Nicki Minaj — who didn’t even have to move to steal the VMAs spotlight with her rap verse. As the credits rolled, Perry stood atop a basketball hoop and seemingly tried to pass the time by limply attempting to dab — a sad but completely fitting end.
Better luck next time, Mom.
Winner: Fifth Harmony
Yes, Fifth Harmony won a VMA (Best Pop). But the real reason they won is that when they kicked off their performance by sending a shadowy fifth woman careening backward into space — a clear reference to ex-Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello ditching the group — they won my heart.
It’s hard to out-petty the likes of Swift and Perry, but Fifth Harmony did it in three seconds flat — and, bless them, without any equivocation whatsoever.
Loser: Julia Michaels
Not only did Michaels lose Best New Artist to Khalid, but her performance of “Issues” — backed by a bopping line of what appeared to be a lost sorority mixer — was almost immediately cut off by a tease for the impending premiere of Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” video. Anyone interested in seeing the “extended” performance was then encouraged to watch it online.
Somewhere, Swift is kicking back in her sweatpants, unfurling a wicked smirk at just how handily she won the night without even showing up.
Winner: Kendrick Lamar
Someone who didn’t and could never be played off is Kendrick Lamar, who opened the VMAs with such intensity that the entire stage was set ablaze. And I do mean that literally: As the wall behind him lit up, a stunt performer engulfed in flames careened in front of him.
It was as electric and passionate as we’ve come to expect from Lamar no matter where he’s performing. He was so good, in fact, that he set a completely dissonant tone for the mess to come — but that’s not his problem, is it? Also, he eventually won six of the eight awards he was nominated for, so as far as Kendrick was concerned, it was a great night.
Loser: Lorde’s immune system
Lorde is one of our most precious musical wood nymphs, but her performance ended up being one of the weirder ones of the night, and not in the usual Lorde way that’s made her such a fascinating performer over the years. The culprit for her confusing energy, Lorde tweeted before the show, was the flu.
Her illness explains why she didn’t sing at all, opting instead to flail and writhe around the stage to her new song “Homemade Dynamite” like a kid trying to walk after spinning themselves around too fast. Like, it was cute, but would you go out of your way to see it? Nah.
So a valiant effort, but in the end maybe not worth the trouble.
Winner: Jack Antonoff and his many, many writing credits
In contrast, Jack Antonoff — producer of Lorde’s new album and Bleachers frontman — had a great night as the omnipresent ghost of VMA present. He performed in the pre-show, introduced Lorde, and accepted the award for Best Collaboration on behalf of Zayn and Taylor Swift since he co-wrote their winning song. He even got one of the better camera cutaways of the night, as he chilled in the audience and contentedly ate a banana. (Like I said: It was a lackluster show.)
Winner/Loser: aggressively #woke politics
This year’s VMAs took a purposeful, political stand long before they aired. They brought back the “Best Video with a Social Message” award, rebranded as “Best Fight Against the System Award.” They made all the categories gender neutral, nixing Best Male Artist and Best Female Artist to create an all-encompassing Best Artist of the Year category. They even made the traditional “Moonman” trophy gender neutral by renaming it “Moon Person” in a classic case of “points for trying, but this just seems awkward now.”
The ceremony then tried to carry that torch, to varying degrees of success. Perry yukking her way through “the world’s on fire!” jokes didn’t do much for anyone. Paris Jackson spitting acid in the direction of “these Nazi white supremacist jerks” before presenting “the nominees for Best Pop Video!” with a cringe earned applause from the audience and a laugh from me at home at the dissonance of it all. An emphasis on suicide prevention coursed throughout the evening, between Jared Leto paying tribute to Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell and rapper Logic sharing the stage with suicide survivors and a suicide prevention hotline.
All of these moments meant well but felt more like lip service than anything else — that is, until it was time to hand out the “Best Fight Against the System” award, and a descendent of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Heather Heyer’s mother stood together to denounce the vicious racism that led to the tragedy in Charlottesville.
It’s always a little jarring when a moment like this happens during a show that also takes time to congratulate Demi Lovato “on an epic performance!” on behalf of Pepsi. But it was also undeniably moving when Robert Wright Lee IV, a pastor, spoke about his “moral duty to speak out against racism, America's original sin,” and when Susan Bro spoke about creating a foundation in her daughter’s name to keep fighting hate. It was, in other words, the kind of moment that made even the show’s clumsier efforts to be more inclusive and thoughtful worth it.
Loser: the VMAs’ reputation as a one-of-a-kind spectacle
If I didn’t know I was watching the VMAs, I might’ve guessed I was watching something more akin to the Teen Choice Awards. A few bright spots just couldn’t make up for a night full of confusing bits, flat jokes, desperate attempts to create viral hashtags, and the vast majority of performances coming and going so forgettably that they almost immediately floated away into the ether of blandness past.
If the VMAs don’t want to suffer the same fate again next year, they’ll have to take a good hard look at that final note of Perry attempting to dab from the ceiling and figure out how to bring back the spectacle and spark.