On Tuesday, MTV dropped the nominations for the 2019 Video Music Awards. The announcement barely made a blip among more prominent news items such as what happened in the “Big Little Lies” finale and A$AP Rocky’s ongoing imprisonment. Alas, MTV isn’t the cultural force that it once was.
Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift headlined the announcement, each garnering 10 nominations. Emerging artists Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X trailed closely with nine and eight noms, respectively. Plenty of recognizable names populated the list of nominees, including Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Drake and the Jonas Brothers.
Regardless of the A-list talent up for awards, it’s not likely many will even tune in to see who will win a Moonman. At a time when Hollywood’s legacy awards shows seem just as likely to generate a critical backlash as a ratings windfall (see: #OscarsSoWhite), people are questioning whether even the most enduring ceremonies matter anymore. But the decline of MTV’s VMAs predates all that.
Recent VMA ceremonies have been notable for not being notable, a casualty of indifference from viewers and stars alike. In 2017, Frank Ocean premiered an episode of his radio show during the festivities, apparently unafraid of programming against the event. (The host of that year’s show, Katy Perry, joked that half of MTV’s target audience was instead enjoying the season finale of “Game of Thrones.”) Last year’s VMAs performed worse than the episode of WWE Raw that aired the same night, according to Deadline.
The moment the VMAs ceased to matter might have come earlier. Maybe it happened in 2014, when Drake won best hip-hop video for his pop ballad “Hold On (We’re Going Home)” and didn’t bother appearing to receive his award. Or maybe it was even earlier than that: The Associated Press compared the energy of the VMAs to the scripted reality-TV show “Cribs” all the way back in 2006.
There have been some memorably bizarre encounters, such as Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke in 2013 and Kanye West igniting his feud with Swift in 2009. But is MTV even capable of producing a viral pop-culture moment anymore?
Once upon a time, the network was cool. Music videos once were a disruptive cultural art form, and you had to actually tune to MTV to see them; they weren’t just a few clicks away online. But millennials and Gen Zers get their transgressive art and entertainment from streaming services and social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, where teen idols are now born.
It has become harder to remember a time when the network was considered edgy. MTV was one of the first mainstream platforms for hip-hop back when it was an emerging genre, showcasing stars like Run-DMC and LL Cool J. Now, new artists upload their genre-bending sounds to SoundCloud.
Even MTV’s reality-TV star machine has gotten creaky. “Catfish,” “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation” and “Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club” don’t command the same sort of attention as “The Bachelorette,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Queer Eye.”
This year’s VMAs present another opportunity for us to scratch our heads and wonder why the show is still around and how many more years it will bother hanging around the fringes of mainstream pop culture. But at least this round of nominations is making news: The show’s new “Best K Pop” category has infuriated corners of the Internet, spawning hashtags like #VMAsRacist. So, some people are giving VMAs the same sort of attention that the Oscars have gotten lately, but not in the way MTV might have hoped.