It has been re-established: the MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video is not the same thing as crowning someone Best Artist.
The surprises came early for some watching the VMAs Sunday night. How dare MTV not give Beyoncé awards for Best Female Video (Katy Perry won for “Dark Horse”), or Video of the Year (Miley Cyrus won for “Wrecking Ball”)?
She’s clearly dominating, and she’s not just the best, but the best with an ever-widening berth between herself and her contemporaries. Still, MTV couldn’t very well give Beyoncé every award she was nominated for, the same way you don’t want a great pitcher to only throw strikes — as “Bull Durham’s” Crash Davis would say: it’s fascist, and truth be told, a bit boring. No one wants to see the same star go on stage and make the same speech five times at an awards show that doesn’t carry the prestige of say, the Grammys.
This was exactly this sort of dissonance that prompted Kanye West’s infamous 2009 “Imma let you finish” speech, which was a knightly, if ill-advised protest on behalf of Beyoncé for what was plainly obvious to everyone: Beyoncé had one of the greatest videos of all time! Of all time! That year, the VMA for Best Female Video went to Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé won Video of the Year for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).”
MTV kicked the small potatoes to lesser artists early in the evening, and hit Beyoncé with the big kahuna at the end of the show because nothing else really seems appropriate to capture her contributions. Even her husband, Jay Z, called her “the greatest living entertainer,” a term he previously to reserved for himself. To some, suggesting that Perry’s video for “Dark Horse” was better than “Partition” borders on lunacy, but Beyoncé is in a league of her own. It’s not really a fair fight.
So MTV did its best to create the pop music equivalent of playing in an everybody gets a trophy league. You can still keep score yourself, and at the end of the night, everyone knows who really won, especially since Beyoncé was given three other awards, just not during the telecast: Best Video With a Social Message (“Pretty Hurts”), Best Collaboration (“Drunk in Love”) and Best Cinematography (“Pretty Hurts”).
To wit, MTV gave Beyoncé the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, a lifetime achievement award. Last year they gave it to Justin Timberlake, but the buzz and the attendant performance suggested it was really an award for ‘N Sync, a long disbanded group that hasn’t had a hit record since “Girlfriend” was released in 2002. This year, it was given to an artist squarely in her prime, because what else could MTV do? One imagines that when she finally retires — a moment when female pop stars the world over will breathe a sigh of relief — that MTV will probably create a Moon Man award named after King Bey herself.
Sunday’s performance, a run-through of nearly every song on “BEYONCÉ” spoke to her versatility and her continued ability to innovate. When Beyoncé released her self-titled album last December, she also released short videos explaining why she made the choices she did. The first was an explanation of why she decided to initially make the album available only as a complete body of work, with videos for each song, rather than a traditional release with a lead single acting as an amuse-bouche to the whole project.
“I feel like right now, people experience music differently,” Beyoncé said in “Self -Titled, Part 1.” “I remember seeing ‘Thriller’ on my TV with my family. It was an event. We all sat around the TV and now, looking back, I’m so lucky I was born around that time. I miss that immersive experience. Now, people only listen to a few seconds of a song on their iPods. They don’t really invest in a whole album. It’s all about the single and the hype. It’s so much that gets between the music and the artist and the fans.”
MTV realizes it’s part of the machine that drives the way music is consumed — just as much as Apple is. It crowns stars, it tells teens who’s important, like Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Iggy Azealea, and 5 Seconds of Summer, and who’s “old” but still relevant: Snoop Dogg and Gwen Stefani. It has good reason to do this; as much as the Beyhive might want it, it’s neither realistic nor wise for MTV to center its entire business model around Beyoncé’s continued preeminence.
Beyoncé is very clearly an adult driven by adult motivations. This is why she can loudly and proudly proclaim herself an all-caps FEMINIST while other younger, less established pop stars still waffle and nervously regurgitate statements fed to them by their publicists. (Usually it’s some sort of remix on the I don’t hate men, but I think everyone should be equal refrain.)
And that’s what makes her different from so many others. She’ll never need to perform a faux-lesbian kiss with an ingénue half her age, as Madonna did with Brittney Spears in 2003 VMAs, sheerly for the purposes of titillation.
Beyoncé’s not following anyone’s agenda.
She’s setting it.