Viewpoint: At the VMAs, Real Stars Kept Off Stage

MTV created a first in television history: the award show with reaction shots has become a reaction show with the occasional award

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Theo Wargo / WireImage via Getty Images

Justin Timberlake performs during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 25, 2013

One could forgive any viewer for thinking, after watching MTV’s Video Music Awards on Aug. 25, that the whole of popular music comprises maybe a dozen artists. There’s Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and One Direction, Macklemore and the guy with him, Kanye West and Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and, one supposes, Bruno Mars—is that all of ’em? Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Kendrick Lamar and 2 Chainz were all there, too, compressed into one performance.

But their songs weren’t the focus at the VMAs. Their faces were. Reaction shots on awards shows aren’t a new thing, but Sunday night was a reaction show with awards shots. With cameras more interested in the audience than in the music, it’s worth turning a lens on that choice.

Viewers at home didn’t just watch Justin Timberlake’s performance; we instead watched Taylor Swift watch—and dance to!—Justin Timberlake’s performance. When One Direction bantered banally before presenting the award for Best Pop Video, it took only one short pause in their script for the directors to cut to Swift, whose ex-boyfriend is in the group. (It paid off when she said either a bad word, or something that looked like a bad word.) Legendary maybe-couple Rihanna and Drake got run through a similar template. The most circulated bit online last night didn’t simply concern Miley Cyrus’s performance of “We Can’t Stop”; it was a photo of Will Smith’s family reacting to her performance (although actually reacting to another performance, it turns out).

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And what of Timberlake’s performance? He curiously got 15 minutes for a career retrospective medley—one he performed all by himself, excepting a minute-long *NSYNC reunion.

Why would a show recognizing the year in music videos devote so much of its runtime to giving the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award—the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award—to a 32-year-old actor/musician who is neither up-and-coming, nor prolific (he has released all of three solo albums in his lifetime) nor done with making videos? And why, too, would that show focus endlessly on a handful of eminently recognizable musicians, rather than, you know, the people who make the rest of the music on the radio and made many of the year’s best videos?

It has a lot to do with the motivation for the camera’s endless shifting from the stage to the crowd.

MTV largely, famously departed the music business many years ago. The network maintains the VMAs today for the sake of ratings, advertising buys and afterparties; it no longer needs them to tell people what’s new in pop music.

So the show follows MTV’s reality-era blueprint: It sells the stars, not the songs; the people, not the pop. Good luck finding anything last night from a young musician like Avicii, Lorde or Zedd, each of whom presently has a song near the top of the Spotify and Billboard charts. And good luck finding music by a band. One Direction, the only group on stage, presented but didn’t perform. (And, cripes, if that’s the closest thing MTV has to a rock band, we’re all in trouble.)

(MORE4 Reasons You’re Still Hearing About Miley Cyrus’ VMAs Performance)

Bands generally aren’t stars—too many moving parts. Nor are electronic musicians—too much time spent behind turntables. Thicke, the man behind the song of the summer but 36 and gawky, cannot make the cut; nor can the chilly Lamar. Even Cyrus, full of phony-mature posturing, has too much baggage.

Timberlake, though? So what if Anheuser-Busch had to coax him out of retirement? So what if he’s misguided enough to consider “Take Back the Night” a fine name for a single, and a fine single, period? So what if his performance dragged on so long that it missed the mark? The network anointed him the President of Pop. MTV should have said what it meant: He’s its star.