A round of applause, everybody, for the folks at MTV, who did just what people wanted regarding the Queen of Soul — and still managed to make a royal mess.
Perhaps the loudest social media chatter in the days leading up to Monday night’s annual Video Music Awards was worry that MTV would whiff on a musical tribute to the late, great Aretha Franklin. (Assuming you’ve watched any awards show ever, you know how many different ways such a salute could go wrong.)
Was the network listening? Well, instead of having some underqualified pop star overemote through “Respect,” MTV invited Madonna to come on and share her thoughts on Franklin — a potentially classy move that might’ve opened a new lane of appreciation.
But that’s not quite what we got with the Queen of Pop, who ended up telling a rambling and deeply self-involved story about some long-ago audition in which she sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
It was baffling. It was tone-deaf. And it was perfectly in keeping with this year’s VMAs, which wasted no opportunity to do wrong, man.
You want mystifying awards choices? How about Camila Cabello winning video of the year for “Havana,” an excellent song that had no business taking that prize from Childish Gambino’s ground-shaking “This Is America”?
Or how about best collaboration going to Jennifer Lopez, DJ Khaled and Cardi B, who clearly won because all three of them had shown up (unlike Beyoncé and Jay-Z or N.E.R.D. and Rihanna)?
A lack of star power certainly hampered Monday’s show, broadcast live from New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Among those with better things to do were Drake, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, J. Cole, Adele, Kendrick Lamar and Janet Jackson, the last of whom might actually have pulled off an eye-opening Aretha tribute had she been asked.
But it’s not like MTV, which has battled desperately against declining ratings for its flagship event, made the most of the acts who bothered to attend.
Post Malone was somehow saddled with Aerosmith to play “Toys in the Attic,” while the teenage rapper Juice WRLD got to do all of about 60 seconds of his tender and gripping “Lucid Dreams.”
Lopez, who received the lifetime-achievement Video Vanguard Award, performed a medley of her hits that reminded you how long she’s stuck around. Yet the bit was so frenetically paced — from “Waiting for Tonight” to “On the Floor” to “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” — that she hardly seemed to be enjoying herself.
There were a couple of stray highlights, including Ariana Grande’s appealingly provocative rendition of “God Is a Woman” (which she staged in a “Last Supper”-style tableau) and a flashy, sensual turn by the Colombian singer Maluma.
And though the song sounds like a 1980s-sitcom theme, you had to appreciate the scale of an immigration-themed performance of “One Day” that had Logic and Ryan Tedder surrounded by dozens of parents embracing their children.