I have to confess - I absolutely love an awards show. From the red carpet fashion to the after party rumours, I can’t get enough of them.
But if you’ve ever seen a music awards show, then you know they are mostly all the same. Gushy speeches, some artist drama (I’m looking at you, Kanye), and more often than not, some mediocre performances of the latest trending hits. I’m not going to say they are bad, but we have seen almost all the gimmicks. Artists in the last 10 years have mostly paid homage to the 80’s and 90’s, with Brittney Spears’ I’m a Slave for You performance at the VMA’s in 2001 one of the most influencial performances that decade. Trend setters like Missy Elliot have even come back after retirement to prove they still have the best concepts, and oftentimes the biggest budgets to execute a thrilling performance. I wouldn’t say they’re boring yet, but awards shows are exactly what you expect.
Enter COVID-19. Gatherings of over 10 are banned in many states of Australia, England, and the USA. No longer can the exec’s at MTV rely on artist names to draw crowds for a sell-out event, or their producers to hype up the crowds between performances and countless Thank You speeches. Artists have been challenged with how they will engage audiences through the screen, with limited resources to do so. The good news; they all rose to that challenge. Getting more imaginative with their art direction, and leaning in to new-age technologies has led to a revolution in the simple performance and music videos.
Some of the first artists to respond to the lack of community contact, artists Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande released chart-topping Stuck With U, written and recorded from their respective homes within a month of the announcement of the global pandemic. For the video, Bieber and Grande chose to highlight their own families and fans at home enjoying the extra time together. Editing iPhone quality home captures in a way that is meaningful and not visually confusing is always a difficult process, but the grain and B&W techniques added only added to the realism and context of the concept, rather than distract from what was missing.
But that was May of 2020, a lifetime ago. It’s now September and the people are bored. Communities have turned to politics and short-form, mind-numbing, translation-requiring videos on their newest favorite time wasting app. Gen Z and Millennials don’t have the patience for boring content, and it’s 2020, they shouldn’t have to. Audiences were lost and confused, no one knew what to expect when MTV announced they were still going ahead with the 2020 VMA’s. People were worried they would lose what they stood for, music execs were worried they wouldn’t reach the audiences they used to.
Embracers of the avant garde, MTV worked for months on ensuring audiences still got exactly what they wanted from the show. Turned out, they got more. Hosted by Keke Palmer, the 37th annual ceremony featured iconic locations hand picked by the network all over New York where top artists BTS, The Weeknd, Miley Cyrus and Megan Thee Stalion would perform sans audience.
Aesthetically speaking, I’d bet films like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Tron all featured on many of the production’s moodboards. With MTV playing on a very dystopian future, all of the videos - yes videos, most of the performances this year were pre-recorded - featured similar lighting and editing techniques to ensure consistency, something the network often steers clear of to ensure all artists get to add their own interpretations of the theme.
The Weeknd performed his no. 1 hit, Blinding Lights, bloody-faced from over 1000 feet in the air. With lighting playing a starring role in the performance, The Weeknd relied on a blend of clashing colours to put the audience at the centre of his visual fantasy, immersing themselves in his hangover of a set before exploding onto the rooftop of the Hudson Yards. Taking inspiration from none other than Dave Myers, the city skyline backdrop and immersive reality set the tone of the 2020 performance so much so that you never missed the fact there was no one to witness it.
Lady Gaga dominated the stage with a mash-up of her latest hits Chromatica II, 911, Rain On Me, and finally Stupid Love. The 9-minute medley pushed even Gaga to her limits, with costume changes, a skull shaped piano, and even kept COVID-safe in a mask with an oscilloscope mouthpiece. Ever the over-achiever, Gaga's showmanship and art direction was no short of stunning. And being one of the only "traditional" performances on the night, Gaga outshone every other performer that evening. Not that we ever doubted a thing.
There will always be critics, but the 2020 VMAs propelled the music industry into technological innovators. Using current technology to the audience’s benefit has never been done to this scale before, often times tech is seen as a disadvantage or even distraction to the experience. This felt native, even if it was the first of its kind. Will there be audiences at awards ceremonies in the future, probably yes, but this year’s VMAs has paved the way for future shows to engage the use of technology in a way that entices audiences rather than annoy them.