MTV VMAs Push Nihilism and Despair
A dull pop spectacle brings up a cultural quandary.
The internet, following the 38th annual MTV Video Music Awards, served up its standard fare: gushing over Shakira’s ten-minute long performance, Taylor Swift’s nine award sweep, and *NSYNC’s reunion, and spilling tea over Megan Thee Stallion and Justin Timberlake’s alleged “fight” and Selena Gomez’s shady reaction to Olivio Rodrigo’s subpar performance. The content on display at the MTV VMAs has, over time, become progressively less substantive. Whether in its more grotesque or banal forms, the vibe is starkly nihilistic, opting for cliche virtue signaling and blandly predictable spectacles.
As a teen, I remember the excitement as the VMAs neared each year, turning on my TV with a nearly ritualistic reverence when the sacred moment arrived. I craved the explosiveness of performances that got everyone talking the next morning: from the 2003 Britney-Madonna-Christina kiss, to the 2009 Kanye-Taylor debacle and Gaga’s bloody rendering of “Paparazzi,” and, of course the infamous 2013 Miley-Robin Thicke twerk session that ended in his definitive cancellation. But as time passed, I began losing interest in award shows altogether.
When Bad Bunny made headlines last year for kissing one of his male dancers during their VMA performance, I wasn’t exactly surprised when I was showered with questions the next day asking how I felt about it–most of my acquaintances know how much I enjoy Benito’s music. Was it a positive step forward in the fight against homophobia and machismo? Or rather was it yet another sign of the unraveling of our society’s moral fabric?
Instead, I found it a profoundly unimportant and dull moment. An artist whose fame has been carried to global proportion by the vaporous waves of the internet is a little bicurious? In our age of “liquid modernity,” such feats of fluidity are not exactly novel. Surely the song “Tití Me Preguntó” is catchy and his dancers were halfway decent, but when speaking strictly of quality, the performance was lackluster.
What’s most uncanny is not the performance itself, but people’s reaction to it. Why is it that we are more inclined to make noise about the sensationalism of Bad Bunny’s sexual experimentation than about the performances’ overall shallowness? Gone are the days of the VMAs’ genuinely artistic, aesthetically substantive performances (I think of Madonna’s “Vogue” performance in 1990 or Michael Jackson’s medley in 1995). For all of our talk about the progressive thrust toward secularization, our affinity for spectacles remains entrenched in a religious paradigm in the form of the cult of celebrity and the idolatry of hype.
A spectacle of the banal
Max Weber theorized that the Protestant capitalist work ethic has spawned a wide-scale spiritual disenchantment. But other secularization theorists like Charles Taylor and William T. Cavanaugh argue instead the feeling of enchantment has “migrated.” The spiritual aura that once was attributed to certain realities has shifted to other ones. Cavanaugh builds on Karl Marx’s insights on “commodity fetishism,” the idea that the value of a product under capitalism shifts away from the product itself to the “brand” or the idea of it. This distancing enshrouds the product in a quasi-religious aura, which fills in the existential void created by consumerism. Today, a product’s value, asserts Cavanaugh, “depends not on its usefulness, but on what it can be exchanged for.”
He goes on to explore the history of advertising to show how basic tools for everyday life “took flight from the material world and entered into the realm of transcendence.” In the 19th century, advertising was largely informational. But as the century turned, “advertising had become more about persuading than informing.” And as time progressed, “there had been a shift further away from use value and toward the more intangible and spiritual aspirations of the consumer for freedom, sex, prestige, recognition, and other forms of transcendence. A shoe might still appear in a shoe ad, but there would no longer be any mention of its use value. Indeed, there might not be any mention of the shoe itself.”
These shifts in advertising have set a precedent for the normalization of perceiving “actual material objects” as mattering “less than the fantasy world associated with them.” One may call to mind people lining up outside of a Nike store to buy Jordan’s on a Saturday or outside of Lafayette Grand Cafe for their TikTok-famous cronuts–more so for the hype attached to the product than for its actual quality.
Thus perhaps it is more accurate to speak of our so-called “secular age” as a “spectacular age.” Larry Law, the cultural theorist of the “spectacular society,” claims that “things that were once directly lived, are now lived by proxy…As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience.”
Enlightenment humanism holds that reality itself is not charged with any substance in itself nor any intrinsic meaning of its own–that it’s secular or “neutral.” Thus the individual subject is “free” to confer their own meaning upon the object. This separation between reality and its substance, between an object and its intrinsic meaning or value is what philosopher David Schindler Jr. calls the “diabolical” tendency of modern freedom. Dia-balo, “to separate” in Greek, is the polar opposite of the symbolic: sym-balo, “to put together.”
To call the modern conception of autonomy “diabolical” may sound far-reaching. And surely most sensible people will relegate any associations of celebrity culture with the occult to the waste bin of outlandish conspiracy theories. Yet the false assertion that reality is neutral and that individuals can live “freely” as autonomous selves often comes with sinister consequences.
Cavanaugh’s thesis of the “migration of the holy” as it applies to the mass production of consumer goods sheds light on the celebrity industrial complex. “As commodities take on life, life is drained away from actual people. Hungry people don’t count in the market unless they have money, and workers are regarded as ‘labor costs,’ which need to be minimized. Commodification also hides the conditions of work.”
An icon, after all, is a window into a reality that transcends itself, an image of a higher ideal.
Using the Amazon warehouse as an example, he writes that “all the consumer sees in the store or on Amazon’s website is the commodity and its price. It takes a Herculean effort to uncover the people who actually made the product and delivered it, and the conditions in which they worked.” Though perhaps not issued directly from the devil himself, the reality remains incontrovertible hellish.
Similarly, musical artists are signed to major labels by corporate elites with little consideration of their actual musical talent, and instead are groomed to be demigods who are capable of winning over the attention, morals, and bank accounts of the masses. This lack of regard for the substance of their artistry further empowers elites who assume god-like power over their artists. Signed artists are often taken advantage of and manipulated, and others with considerable skill but less “hype-worthy” are left with few opportunities to build a lasting career. The hype surrounding sensationalistic (yet substance-less) spectacles put on at music award shows are prime examples of this.
“The way the world sees and depicts the condition of rock ‘n’ roll hero actually obscures the truth of the condition,” writes Irish music journalist John Waters, “perhaps even from the person at the center of it.” Waters reminds us of the “enchanted” roots of most pop music, which emerges “from Blues and Gospel, forms which stretch the true note between the muddy deltas of human habitation and the glittering firmaments above.” Yet the sense of the holy has migrated from the artform itself to the hype: “Outwardly reduced to ‘showbusiness’ and ‘entertainment’, the holiness of the song is forced inwards into a closed circuit, a communicating and receiving that becomes mistakable for something else and deniable in its true nature.”
“When the singer opens her mouth,” Waters continues, “a vital process occurs: a stirring of hearts and souls. But, in describing this, we resort to technicalities and more clichés…We speak of ‘soulfulness’ but the clue in the word goes in one ear and out the other. We note the existence of ‘passion’ but seem not to remember what the passion is for. Thus, the artist is caught in a bind: she is of the heavens and yet not permitted to comprehend or believe it.”
An icon, after all, is a window into a reality that transcends itself, an image of a higher ideal. Thus to call Britney Spears lip-syncing while holding a drugged-out snake “iconic” speaks volumes. “Holy” hype is prized over concern with actual quality, thus stifling the artist’s capacity to fall in love with the reality of music…with the very concrete beauty of her craft. The imperative to mass-produce iconic performers without much regard for the quality of their work is in the end a destructive one.
The hidden elites that run the industry aim to churn out from their artists the hype necessary to increase profit margins, crushing the prophetic dimension of their vocation. The symbolic order of being a musician is dismantled, thus giving way to the diabolic chaos that is the music industry, where those who sell out and conform are rewarded, and those who attempt to stay committed to their craft, who can’t help but fall in love with the beauty of music for its own sake, are driven into the ground. With this in mind, seemingly benevolent reactions lamenting Britney’s being “off her meds” and calling for greater #mentalhealthawareness upon seeing paparazzi photos of her stabbing a car with an umbrella while donning a buzzcut come off as naive and idiotic.
Britney is only one such example. Take Amy Winehouse. Despite refusing to fall in line with her label’s “BS” publicity standards (take her frankness in interviews, including the time she told an interviewer over the phone that she was on the toilet and didn’t feel like being interviewed anyway), her inner star-power, according to Waters, “combusted” by being reduced by her handlers to a mere “entertainer.” I think also of the cryptic messages in Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged 2.0 warning of the “crooked dragons” of the industry before her mainstream career crumbled due to her becoming “crazy and deranged.” Or of Michael Jackson’s eerie accusation of Sony Executive Tommy Mottla being “a devil” for the way he compromised artists like his ex-wife Mariah Carey’s artistic freedom, the video of which leaked shortly before Jackson’s death. Carey backed this up in her 2021 memoir, exposing the extreme lengths to which Sony went to manipulate her psyche and “keep her under control,” often alluding to the presence of “dark forces” involved.
Again, we may be tempted to fall into the trap lurking from the fringes of the internet: Could it really be that these bizarre spectacles serve as occult initiation rituals, which elevate certain celebrities into the upper echelons of the elites, while “sacrificing” others to be eaten alive by public scrutiny and disapproval? Perhaps…but perhaps MTV is just desperate to maintain its viewer count and stay relevant.
Either way, the real accusation should not be directed toward the artists in question or MTV and the sinister industry execs. Instead, the finger should be pointed at us, the public: Why do we sensationalize that which is banal, allowing unremarkably predictable acts to hold our attention and generate such public fanfare? The fact that such spectacles dominate our collective consciousness calls into question the lack of substance in our own day-to-day lives. Dare we look into the mirror that the VMAs hold up to our faces and see the devil within?