A few years ago Adam Levine had some tough words for MTV ahead of its annual Video Music Awards spectacle.
“The VMA's. One day a year when MTV pretends to still care about music. I'm drawing a line in the sand,” the Maroon 5 frontman wrote ahead of 2011's telecast, adding an expletive-punctuated kiss-off.
The harsh tweet, which Levine said he “deeply regrets,” echoed a criticism of the network many have shared for years. But on Sunday, Maroon 5 will take to the VMA stage for the first time. So what changed for Levine?
“I was frustrated,” he said before rehearsals earlier this week. “But the reason for my frustration was very understandable considering the fact that I would say there aren't very many days out of the year that there is music on MTV. But there’s still the VMAs, and if I'm looking at it with rose-colored glasses I think it’s nice that the VMAs are trying to revamp the original mentality of MTV.”
In addition to MTV inviting the band to perform (it’s the first time they've been asked, Levine said), the network dusted off of its classic “I Want My MTV” campaign to fuel this year’s show. Levine and performers Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift and Usher all anchored commercials featuring their own takes of the tagline. It’s the first time MTV has used the slogan since its initial campaign in the '80s.
“That vintage idea is something I'm a very big proponent of. I’ve been wanting to hear it for a long time,” Levine said. “When I think about that tagline I think about discovering MTV for the first time and falling in love with it and having it be the eyes of music.”
“The VMAs still have that weight to them. They champion a lot of new music,” he said. “I’ve paid a lot more attention to the promos this year and there are a lot of great bands that are emerging now that MTV has championed. I really endorse that, I think it’s amazing.”
When asked about the impact the awards have on artists, MTV President Stephen Friedman looked back to Beyonce’s pregnancy reveal during her 2011 VMA performance (the same year Levine made his Twitter outburst).
“She actually dreamed that the VMA stage was the place she was going to announce it,” Friedman said. “That’s a huge honor for us, but I think it speaks to if artists are going to make history, this is the place they’ve dreamed about doing it. There’s no better stage, globally.”
This year’s show will be held for the first time at the Forum in Inglewood, a venue that underwent its own revival courtesy of a $100-million makeover from new owner Madison Square Garden. The venue opened in 1967, but diminished in popularity once Staples Center opened downtown in 1999.
Buzzy Australian pop-punk band 5 Seconds of Summer will perform, along with breakout British soul singer Sam Smith and Iggy Azalea, the Australian rapper who has dominated radio all summer with her smash “Fancy.” Pop starlet Ariana Grande will use her appearance on the show (she performed during the pre-show last year) to launch her sophomore album “My Everything,” which comes out Monday.
“Because it's so much harder to break through you have to look at multiple connections to the audience,” Friedman said. “Sam Smith, for example, he was on our college music awards show at SXSW in March and he was one of our artists to watch, which meant we played him a lot and we used his music in our different shows. Ariana, you saw her on our pre-show last year and we resurrected a version of ‘TRL’ with her. [Her team] is now hooking the entire global release of the album to this.”
Friedman added that the network was actually playing more music now than when it launched more than three decades ago when sister channels like MTV Hits, MTV Jams and MTV U are factored into the equation. Regardless, Friedman adds, the network's ability to play a role in boosting acts must go beyond airing their latest videos.
“It’s about a year-long relationship with these artists. It’s not just videos ... it’s about using MTV as a megaphone,” he said. “Because videos have become commodified it’s really just one piece of the puzzle. The audience, especially millennials, like the moment that comes from the night where you really see artists try to top themselves onstage.”
But in an awards show that’s long been famous for the unexpected, the main draw for audiences is what tricks artists will pull out their hats. A year later we are still talking about Miley Cyrus’ twerking act with Robin Thicke, and this year’s show is shaping up to be just as unpredictable.
Maroon 5 will play to 3,000 fans on a massive stage erected in the parking lot of the venue; Swift plans on showcasing her “newfound” pop side; and Minaj's appearance has already made headlines after a boa constrictor bit a dancer during rehearsals on Friday, which multiple sources confirmed to the Los Angeles Times. (The bite wasn’t serious and the dancer was treated onsite, according to MTV.) Azalea was also in the news after accidentally falling off the stage during her performance at a VMA benefit concert at the Avalon on Friday night.
But audiences are anticipating what’s in store for the night’s biggest star: Beyonce.
The pop diva, who has a leading eight nominations this year, will be awarded with the night’s highest honor -- the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award -- and perform an extended set. What has she planned? Well, that's anyone’s guess.
“What’s amazing about her is she’s always looking to take things forward,” VMA executive producer Jesse Ignjatovic said during a walk-through of the show. “She’s not an artist that just wants to sit back and look at her career. She’s looking at this like, where am I today? How do I showcase where I am and where I’m going?
“When you recognize an artist that’s had that kind of career you want them to come out and do what they do and not grind them on this has to be [3½ minutes],” Ignjatovic added. “We want her to come out and do Beyonce.”