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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Lot of fire, but activism brought biggest excitement to VMAs

Alessia Cara performs "Scars to Your Beautiful" during the VMA's

Kudos to MTV and its annual Video Music Awards (VMA) for this year injecting some much needed reality into a program traditionally offering so little of it.

The presence of Charlottesville martyr Heather Heyer’s mother Susan Bro to launch a foundation in her memory to further her fight against hatred necessarily lifted the typically spectacular but vapid proceedings into the realm of much-needed activism, with MTV following suit in deciding to honor all six nominees of its new socially conscious VMA for “Best Fight Against the System.”

Earlier, presenter Paris Jackson urged resistance against “Nazi white supremacist jerks,” while Rev Robert Wright Lee IV, a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, likewise railed against “America’s original sin” of racism. Logic, Alessia Cara and Khalid teamed up in Logic’s suicide-prevention “1-800-273-8255” anthem, after which he also spoke out against racism.

Cara also delivered one of the night’s best solo spots with her promotion, via “Scars to Your Beautiful,” of natural beauty, aided by anonymous black figures who stripped away her wig, makeup and classy red dress and thereby exposing her own dressed-down natural beauty. Relevant here was the presentation to Pink of the Michael Jackson Vanguard Award for lifetime achievement after her fine performance segment. Accepting, she used herself as a role model in addressing and assuaging her young daughter’s concern with meeting other people’s beauty definitions.

While she wasn’t there, certain future Vanguard recipient Taylor Swift debuted her “Look What You Made Me Do” video, which can only be described as morbid and disturbing, and with little redeeming social value. Her recent heroic court appearance notwithstanding, the snake-infested zombie clip is entirely negative to go with its vengeful, self-pitying and indulgent lyric.

Swift’s video, like way too many of the program’s live performances--Pink’s, Ed Sheeran’s, and most notably Kendrick Lamar’s weird opening ninja firewall (with one ninja fully aflame)--relied so heavily on combustion that it was a relief to see Fifth Harmony get doused by a rain effect during their “Angel”/”Down” pairing.

Otherwise, the production values were quite good, thanks to busy but smooth camerawork that kept moving in for closeups on the performers and then back out into the crowd. But cuts to the crowd--and especially celebrities on the sidelines--more often than not showed less than enthusiastic faces.

Even Katy Perry, whose closing performance of “Swish Swish” with Nicki Minaj was excellent, fell flat as host with uninspiring gags like returning from a year-long space shuttle, playing with a fidget toy, speculating on the future of music and dealing with Billy Eichner.

Lorde’s ridiculous ballet--if that’s what it was--blew her piped-in track of “Homemade Dynamite” out of Fifth Harmony’s water, and even Miley Cyrus’s otherwise outstanding take on new single “Younger Now” was marred by the unsightly accompaniment of senior citizen dancers and fist-pumping toddlers on motorcycles.

Still, septuagenarian Rod Stewart’s teaming with DNCE on his late ‘70s disco hit “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” hardly made one nostalgic for the VMA’s heady early history.



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