The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Remind me again: Why are we watching the VMAs?

DJ Khaled and his son Asahd appear on stage with Katy Perry during a skit at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
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The first question is why did Katy Perry — a pop superstar still struggling to acclimate to her newfound social consciousness — allow 38 minutes of Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards to slide past before finally acknowledging that Houston was becoming part of the Gulf of Mexico? And why did she follow it up with a joke about Hootie and the Blowfish? What year is this? Where are we? Why is this person hosting the VMAs and why are we watching it again?

Maybe because we were told that this year’s big show would be different — more mindfully attuned to this insane American moment, and certainly more “woke.” So why did it feel so sleepy? Why did so many in this assembly of pop stars have so little to say about the state of a world they’re so eagerly trying to locate the top of?

Why were the night’s performances so undercooked? Why did Lorde — who had the flu and couldn’t sing — choose to soldier on, silently dancing to “Homemade Dynamite” as if she’d recently flunked out of mime college? Why did Jared Leto feel the need to play an ambiguously political rock song with his unambiguously awful rock band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, when he already has an Academy Award sitting on his mantel at home? Why did rap phenom Lil Uzi Vert consent to performing “XO Tour Llif3” as a duet with that sentient jar of mayonnaise named Ed Sheeran?

Why all the shoulder-shruggy acceptance speeches? Why did Kendrick Lamar, voice of his generation, who won video of the year for “HUMBLE.” after stomping through it onstage, demur from saying anything more significant than thank you? Why did Alessia Cara, receiving the prize for best dance video, volunteer the fact that she didn’t know how to pronounce her director’s name? Why did Sheeran confess that he didn’t know whether his award for best artist was fan-voted or bestowed by the almighty gods of Viacom? (“It’s not voted, is it?” he asked.) It’s all so embarrassing. How can these artists expect us to care about their presence at the VMAs when they don’t?

As for the evening’s interstitial chit-chat, why wasn’t it more self-aware? Why was Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy handing out a prize for best dance video, and why did he have to make a joke about how white guys can’t dance by doing the robot (poorly), and why does he still have Richard Spencer’s haircut? On the topic of men with objectionable style, why did the bassist from DNCE say, “Shout-out to MTV and Taco Bell for always showing support to emerging artists,” when the only way that Taco Bell really supports emerging artists is by selling food that emerging artists can afford to eat?

Why were the telecast’s transitions from sobriety to levity made to feel as graceless as possible? More specifically, why did MTV invite Heather Heyer’s mother to speak about the fate of our nation, then pivot to a live feed from Las Vegas where Rod Stewart was singing “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” on a casino rooftop with the help of a mustachioed Jonas Brother? As for that performance itself, why did it feel so thin when it could have felt absurd, or clever, or maybe even fun?

Speaking of the absence of fun, why was Perry invited to host this thing? Who thinks she’s funny? Who was laughing when she delivered her show-opening monologue about spending the past few months in outer space, then pretended to be baffled by a fidget spinner? Why was the most-followed human being on Twitter making dull jokes about social media opportunists? Why can’t she see that her misguided comedic impulses are toxic to her stardom? Why can’t she go back to space?

And why-why-why-why-why is Taylor Swift in such a big hurry to beat Perry to the nadir of their respective careers?

Why did Swift decide to drop a new single about her rivalry with Kanye West — a feud born at the VMAs way back in 2009 — at a time when everyone seems eager for a massive pop hit that might clarify our national mood? Why did she go through with releasing a mawkish music video for that single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” on a weekend when our country’s fourth-largest city was halfway underwater? Why did MTV make it the selling point of Sunday’s show, then air it near the top of the telecast? And why did Swift tweet “The #LWYMMDvideo is out now” at the exact moment Heyer’s mother was standing at the microphone during the VMAs? Bad timing. Bad times.

More from the VMAs

13 things to know, from Kendrick Lamar’s many wins to Taylor Swift’s video

Read what Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, said during her tribute at the VMAs