The highs and lows of the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards

Chris Willman
Writer
Host Katy Perry flies in onstage during the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards at the Forum on Aug. 27 in Inglewood, Calif. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Instead of the epic twerkfest we’ve come to expect, this year’s MTV Video Music Awards often felt like a televised three-hour support-group meeting, aiming to offer aid and comfort to viewers distressed about racism, suicide, and body shaming. But not to worry — amid all this high-minded social consciousness, there was still enough celebrity feuding and floor-humping to make you feel like the world hadn’t turned completely upside down.

Some highlights and lowlights from the 2017 VMAs…

LOW: Katy Perry in space

Ceremony host Perry came off as a potentially gifted comedienne in search of some actual comedy writers. The political aspects of her opening monologue — with gags trying to find topical hay in everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to fidget spinners — seemed a little too safe, as if the producers felt it was too early in the night for a renowned liberal entertainer to antagonize Trump fans. Whatever the comedic point was of Perry going to Mars in her opening monologue, it got lost somewhere around the moon. She went aerial again at the close, being hoisted through the air to dunk a basket during “Swish Swish,” which at least made for an appealingly goofy visual. If nothing else, she was game.

HIGH: Lorde’s intentions for her “Homemade Dynamite” performance

In theory, it looked as if Lorde’s concept for her number was basically to stand out in contrast to the precision choreography usually offered up at the VMAs. If it had come off that way, it might have made a nice complement to some of the other messages of the night, like Alessia Cara’s accept-yourself-as-you-are number. Instead…

LOW: Lorde’s execution of her “Homemade Dynamite” performance

“Lorde did Lorde stuff,” Perry said in her show-ending recap, which was a polite way of characterizing the flabbergasted public response. All anyone could talk about was why Lorde wasn’t singing, or even lip-syncing, or seemingly putting much effort at all into her semi-goofy moves. Maybe her high-concept normalcy would have been hard to pull off under the best of circumstances, but it didn’t help that the singer was apparently sick as a dog. Don’t you feel awful for dissing her now, kids? Get well soon, Lorde, but don’t ever get normal.


LOW: Demi Lovato’s pool party and the Rod Stewart/DNCE penthouse blowout

The whole gambit of MTV cutting away from the Forum in L.A. to performances at different Las Vegas hotel hot spots felt so very, very Academy of Country Music Awards. Lovato looked like she wasn’t quite sure which outfit to wear, so she wore both. “Sorry, Not Sorry” didn’t come off particularly disastrously, but there’s something about seeing that many floaties that seems antithetical to excitement in pop music. As for Joe Jonas asking “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” with that porn-star ’stache, there’s an easy answer that’s two letters shorter than “DNCE.”

HIGH: The suicide song

The movie Heathers may have made fun of anti-suicide songs — something you maybe thought about as you saw the ads for MTV’s series reboot of that teen classic — but it turns out, with Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” that it is possible to do an effective save-yourself single after all … especially when you have a host of near-victims onstage silently making the case that survival rocks.

HIGH: Jared Leto honors late friend Chester Bennington

The theme of suicide came up more than once during the VMAs and, sadly, in one key moment, with a very recognizable human face to put on the topic: Chester Bennington’s. Jared Leto offered a moving tribute, saying, “I think about his wife and his six incredible children, I think about his family, I think about his band. … If there is anyone out there who is watching this tonight who feels like there is no hope, hear me now: You are not alone.” He then introduced a clip of Linkin Park playing the VMAs from Griffith Observatory a few years ago — which, unfortunately, faded to commercial after a mere minute. How additionally, if trivially, sad that it took Bennington’s death to get even one minute of rock music onto the 2017 show (Leto’s own contribution with a fairly poppy Thirty Seconds to Mars song notwithstanding).

LOW: Julia Michaels, in brief

Julia Michaels is one of the brighter young comers to emerge on the pop scene this past year, so it was refreshing to see MTV give someone determined to do nothing more than sing well a spot … until, once again, the show prematurely cut to commercial, almost as soon as the Best New Artist nominee had gotten through a verse.

HIGH: Heather Heyer’s mom and Robert E. Lee … together at last? 

The photo-op pairing of the night wasn’t Joe Jonas and Rod Stewart teaming up, but rather Susan Bro, the mother of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer, appearing arm-in-arm with Rev. Robert Lee IV, a descendent of the fellow whose statue started all the trouble, standing up against racism.

HIGH: Pink’s celebration of rock-star (and rock-kid) androgyny

Normally, we wouldn’t applaud a pop star talking about a PowerPoint presentation. But we make an exception for Pink, who used her lifetime achievement award speech to talk about her young daughter’s pain over being mistaken for a boy, and talked about putting together a history lesson for her about the history of gender-bending stars like David Bowie and Prince … with a nod to her own boyish locks, of course. The recognition of “artists that live their truth [and] are probably made fun of every day of their lives” fit right in with the night’s underdog theme.

HIGH: Fifth Harmony gives “Camila” a yank

When the vocal now-quartet first appeared in silhouette, there were five of them … till one got pulled backward off the platform, symbolizing their lack of lamentation over the exit of Camila Cabello. Is addressing a public feud like this petty? Sure. Is it part of why you tune in to the VMAs? Absolutely.

 

LOW: Miley Cyrus waxes wise on … aging?

The 24-year-old’s new song “Younger Now” is like the Byrds’ and Dylan’s “My Back Pages” (“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”) dumbed down for grade-schoolers. Having two groups of dancers — one, a set of vintage greasers, the other, older versions of those same ’50s cats — was a confusing visual conceit, even before one of the more aged dancers adjusted her (fake) sagging boobs to demonstrate the effects of gravity. This all seems to be part of Miley’s apology tour for having subjected us to that Robin Thicke business a few years ago. Consider yourself forgiven, but come up with a better mea culpa!

HIGH: Multiple bickering Taylors

There was a lot to unpack in the premiere of Taylor Swift’s new video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” but, love it or hate it, the most rewindable moment of the night came after the music stopped to give us a lineup of a dozen or more of Swift’s past video personas, arguing with one another or with the zombie Taylor that started off the clip. “You can’t possibly be that surprised all the time,” said one bad Swift to the old awards-show Swift. Another: “There she goes, playing the victim again.” Owning your insults is one way to prove you’re a queen.

HIGH: Cardi B goes off-script

Introducing Demi Lovato, the upstart rapper said, “But before I get to her, let me just tell you this, baby: Colin Kaepernick, as long as you kneel with us, we’re gonna be standing for you, baby! That’s right, I said it!” Even if you’re not a fan of taking the knee, you have to applaud the nerve of a performer who breaks from the fatuous, scripted awards-show pleasantries to actually speak her mind … don’t you?


HIGH: Kendrick Lamar’s fiery start and triumphant finish

The first and possibly last ever Majorly Socially Conscious VMAs got off to a grand beginning with Lamar’s performance, which set the stage for several favorably racially charged moments in the show. When he came back at the three-hour point to accept the evening’s top honor, it felt like MTV wasn’t just giving lip service to relevance with all these nonperformance moments of sobriety, but that — gasp! — some of this thoughtfulness has even infected the music itself.

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