The 2023 VMAs Remains Reliant on Millennial Star Power (And What That Says About the Future of Music)
The 2023 VMAs Remains Reliant on Millennial Star Power (And What That Says About the Future of Music)

Perhaps it was Taylor Swift’s gushing, enthusiastic fangirl reaction to being awarded “Best Pop” (a fairly broad category and term) by none other than *NSYNC that truly solidified just how much the MTV Video Music Awards is still reliant on musicians of a millennial nature. Or, in Olivia Rodrigo’s case, a millennial-appealing nature. How much, in fact, the awards ceremony still depends on millennials caring more than Gen Z about this type of thing. Although there were a handful of Gen Z-identifying “stars” peppered into the show, including Swiftian wingwomen Ice Spice and Sabrina Carpenter, it seemed, for the most part, that this was a VMA that could have just as easily been plucked out of the 2010s as now. Maybe that’s part of why the show had its highest viewership in three years (since people felt obliged to watch its very unusual rendering in 2020 with “nothing else to do” during the pandemic). With Queen of the 2010s herself, Nicki Minaj emceeing and Taylor Swift winning most of the awards (therefore, giving her a large majority of screen time), the only sign that it might be 2023 was the absence of Ye (formerly Kanye West) and Beyoncé, who is clearly too “class” now for such things, if her Renaissance Tour is any indication. 

Maybe that’s why Swift found it so easy to let her hair down, getting turnt on whatever special drink was in her cup while occasionally seated (when she wasn’t dancing or clapping like an Arsenio Hall audience member) next to Ice Spice. Knowing full well she had no competition (save for Olivia Rodrigo, who performed “vampire” and “get him back!,” in addition to being nominated in some of the same categories as Swift), it appeared to be a rare evening of letting loose for her. After all, there’s nothing more strenuous and strait-laced than the requirements of a world tour like the one she’s currently on. Taking full advantage of her “night off,” Swift went viral for many of her “audience member” moments, including when her drink got “stuck” (or so it seemed to her) in her seat’s cup holder. Imbibing to the point of obvious drunkenness, it was as though Swift didn’t care that she still had to, inevitably, show up onstage. So long as no performance was required, she likely knew she could manage. Even in the presence of *NSYNC’s “golden pop hands” to present one of her nine awards to her (she was nominated for eleven). This now puts her ahead of even Madonna in terms of her current racked-up number of VMAs. As usual, only Beyoncé has been able to surpass Taylor (in this regard and a few others), holding twenty-six moon men to Swift’s twenty-three (with Madonna now lagging behind with “just” twenty). 

And, talking of Madonna, despite it being the twentieth anniversary of the illustrious kiss shared between her, Britney and Christina, there was no tribute to that performance. Apart from Måneskin lamely “re-creating” it in the audience when asked to. Perhaps a factor in sidestepping it (instead showing “love” for Madonna with the airing of her formerly pulled 1989 Pepsi commercial) resulted from none of the three parties involved really wanting to show up for it. What with Madonna rehearsing extensively to get ready for her own massive world tour (the Celebration Tour), and Britney and Christina not really the best of the friends at this juncture. Plus, Spears seems rightly skeptical of doing anything involving the music industry (save for, perhaps, making another album for her fans at some point, but not promoting it with public appearances or live performances). Whatever the reason for not bothering to give the performance its proper anniversary due, it was perhaps for the best. Since, oftentimes, the pomp and circumstance of honoring and celebrating anniversaries of pop culture moments can end up falling flat compared to the original moment. And surely, Britney wouldn’t have been up for seeing all five *NSYNC boys in the flesh again. Too triggering. 

To add another layer of “millennial-ness” to the evening, Swift was presented with the award for Song of the Year by Timbaland and Nelly Furtado, who famously collaborated on 2006’s “Promiscuous.” The same year Swift’s self-titled album was released and she was still on her country hoedown tip. Fangirling over their “reunion” almost as much as *NSYNC’s, she made the same demand to them about whether or not they were “doing something” together (musically) soon. For it’s clear to Swift that only millennials (and the musicians millennials are nostalgic for) can keep the business going without it devolving entirely into nothing but nonsensical ten- to fifteen-second snippets. This being the extent of the Gen Z and Alpha attention spans thanks to social media. An entity that millennials have watched grow from something fun (instead of “hyper-curated”) and semi-pure into something utterly nefarious. Designed not only to be yet another tool by which people can compare themselves to others and decide they don’t measure up, but also little better than a data mining juggernaut with which big business can wield to cater to and manipulate consumer habits. In a much less innocent way than millennials once knew via their childhood TV commercials. This included some of Pepsi’s more famous ones (e.g., Britney’s “Joy of Cola” campaign) that MTV aired during the show so that the brand could commemorate its one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary. And with the VMAs coming up on its own fortieth anniversary, it has never been more apparent that when Madonna symbolically passed the baton (as she called it) to millennial pop stars with that kiss in 2003, it never got passed much further. 

With additional performers at the show consisting of Cardi B and Megan The Stallion (doing a raucous rendition of “Bongos”) and Anitta, all of whom fall into the millennial demographic, the 2023 VMAs were carried by that generation. Even when it comes to someone like Shakira, a Gen Xer who looks like she could be a millennial (especially as she delivered one of the most show-stopping medleys of the night in tribute to her Video Vanguard Award…which still foolishly has the name “Michael Jackson” attached to the front of it). Because it’s the latter generation that grew up with her music. While many of the millennials who appeared at the VMAs are stars that Gen Z knows and “uses” thanks to TikTok, it should be more worrying to people that Gen Z has no great surfeit of their own major icons by now (save for Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo). Because it’s indicative of a larger trend in the arts: they’re dying out. With millennial Grimes having eerily announced, “We’re in the end of art, human art” back in 2019, seeing the lack of progression and presence of what should be the next generation is cause for concern. Mainly because it means that Grimes is probably right, and the future holds little more than a lot of AI-generated “art.” “Made” by Gen Zers who will never cherish something as archaic as “VMA history” the way millennials still so clearly do. Possibly because the awards show could end up history itself at the rate things are devolving.

Genna Rivieccio

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