Critic's Notebook

How MTV's Video Music Awards reflected a troubled moment in America

It wasn’t Pink. It wasn’t Taylor Swift. It wasn’t even Katy Perry, who hosted the show and gave its closing performance.

No, the person MTV clearly wanted to represent the 2017 edition of its annual Video Music Awards — to communicate its heart and soul — was Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was killed this month as she protested the white-supremacist rally that erupted into violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Appearing near the end of Sunday’s production, broadcast live from the Forum in Inglewood, Bro was ostensibly at the VMAs to present the trophy for best fight against the system — a new category the network introduced this year to highlight work with a social conscience, including John Legend’s “Surefire” and “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” from “The Hamilton Mixtape.”

Really, though, Heyer’s mother, who spoke about a new foundation organized to “help make Heather’s death count,” had been enlisted to demonstrate that at a dark moment in American history, MTV stands squarely with those fighting for progressive values — and should no longer be thought of as a place for mere entertainment.

She was even introduced by Robert Lee IV — a descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — who said his ancestor had become an idol of white supremacy and hate. Lee went on to describe racism as America’s “original sin.”

Yet immediately after Bro’s speech, the show transitioned to a performance by Rod Stewart, who’d somehow persuaded the young electro-funk group DNCE (featuring a mustachioed Joe Jonas) to join him for a remake of his disco trifle “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.”

Obviously, MTV hasn’t abandoned its duty to titillate yet.

Indeed, in the week before the show aired, the network seemed to encourage rumors that the VMAs would offer a dramatic showdown between Perry and Swift, who’ve been locked in a feud for several years that began when … oh, who cares?

In the end, the duel didn’t materialize, though Perry did sing her song “Swish Swish” (widely thought to be about her foe) and the VMAs premiered Swift’s video for her combative new track, “Look What You Made Me Do” (albeit without a sign of the singer in the flesh).

Each highlighted the self-awareness that’s built into the experience of pop stardom in the Internet age — how an artist must now be fluent in the criticisms against him or her and react to them almost instantaneously with humor or sarcasm or, in the case of Swift’s video, a kind of scorched-earth disgust.

With its zombie imagery and its vivid depiction of Swift chainsawing a wing from a sleek private jet, the “Look What You Made Me Do” clip was an undeniable thrill. But it was also exhausting; it made you long for a time when pop songs didn’t require annotation.

Perhaps that’s why Pink’s performance was so restorative.

Appearing as this year’s recipient of the lifetime-achievement Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, the singer ran through some of her biggest hits — from “Get the Party Started” to the just-released “What About Us” — in a tidy but dense medley that emphasized her powerful voice and her universal themes of love and acceptance.

Not that she was simplistic: Pink spoke movingly in her acceptance speech about her young daughter’s struggle with restrictive beauty standards after she said, “Mama, I’m the ugliest girl I know.”

“I went home and made a PowerPoint presentation for her,” Pink said, “and in that presentation were androgynous rock stars and artists that live their truth, are probably made fun of every day of their lives and carry on and wave their flag, and inspire the rest of us.”

But the plain-spokenness of her display was effective; it felt inclusive in a way that went beyond liberal platitudes.

Other artists aimed for a similarly earnest vibe, from the rapper Logic — who did his suicide-prevention anthem, “1-800-273-8255,” while surrounded by what MTV said were survivors of suicide attempts — to Alessia Cara, the young R&B singer who started her “Scars to Your Beautiful” dressed in a fancy gown before stripping down to a no-frills tank-top and black pants.

And then there was Kendrick Lamar, who opened Sunday’s show and took video of the year with “Humble.” (Other winners included Fifth Harmony for best pop video with “Down” and Ed Sheeran for artist of the year.)

You wouldn’t call Lamar’s performance of two tracks from this year’s blockbuster “Damn” album stripped down; among other bits of spectacle, the bit had a dancing ninja covered in flames.

But as Lamar furiously spat out his rhymes — especially in “Humble,” about being “sick and tired” of the illusion of digital perfection — you could tell he was aiming to meet the same appetite for substance that Pink was.

MTV was no doubt pleased.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

mikael.wood@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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