Some Assorted Thoughts on MTV’s Relevance


As I’m sure many people did, last night I went on YouTube to confirm that “Single Ladies” is not, in fact, “one of the best videos of all time” (seriously, it looks like a fucking GAP commercial).

With that said, Kanye West thinks it is, and if Kanye says it, it must be true.

Plenty of people have already criticized West’s antics from last night’s VMAs, but the most surprising revelation from the awards show (not that I watched, I’m too cool for MTV) wasn’t that Kanye is a dick, but that people still care about what happens on MTV.

As Tim tweeted, “Wait… people still care about the VMAs? No way! Do they still complain MTV doesn’t show music videos?”

The reasons for MTV’s declining relevance, however, are not all that different from the reasons that possessed West to storm the stage, take the microphone from a 19-year old girl and then declare that she did not deserve the award she just won.

At this point in time, pop music is incredibly fragmented. Kanye West and Taylor Swift are two of the biggest acts in the world (seriously, you may not be aware of this, but Taylor Swift is fucking huge), but I have a hard time imagining that their audiences really intersect all that much. West and Swift seem like they’re appealing to two totally different crowds, and yet they’re both supposed to be satisfied with MTV’s judgments.

There’s certainly a racial component to this that I don’t really want to touch: Swift is about as white as white artists get, and the fact that she beat out Beyoncé for “Female Video of the Year”* might seem like choosing “white music” over “black music.” Even West’s condescending apology seemed to back this up, with him calling Swift “very talented! I like the lyrics about being a cheerleader and she’s in the bleachers!” 

*Incidentally, how can a video that won “Video of the Year” not also win “Female Video of the Year”? Doesn’t the former include the latter? This is what I mean when I say music evaluations need a guiding philosophy, or at least internal consistency.

It’s not really as simple as “white music” vs. “black music,” but it certainly comes down to some sort of genre breakdown. The standards for evaluating popular “country” music are different than those for evaluating R&B or blues or rap or whatever; choosing between popular songs of different genres basically comes down to picking a genre. And there is no unifying genre of modern popular music.

Now, this isn’t entirely new. Popular music has been fractured at least since the Beatles broke up: I remember TRL including both “Freak on a Leash” and “Tearin’ Up My Heart” when I was in sixth grade, and I doubt those two had much audience overlap (although I kind of liked both songs). What’s really changed now is that there is no unifying source for music. It’s so much easier to choose your own music now, thanks to iPods and satellite radio, etc., that hearing music on popular radio or MTV is rarer and rarer: MTV doesn’t even show the snippets of video it used to show on TRL anymore; if I want to see a music video, I have to go to YouTube.

Most people probably didn’t like both “Freak on a Leash” and “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” but if you watched TRL (which most people did) you saw both. Now, though, I couldn’t even remember “Single Ladies” when Kanye brought it up and I still haven’t seen whatever video Swift actually won for. So for MTV to still maintain this farce of the VMAs when they don’t have any authority about “popular” music is absurd: Just work on getting us “The Ruins” faster.

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Charles on September 14, 2009 at 6:24 PM

    Yeah, I would agree that the black/white thing is almost incidental, as it’s really closer to a genre split. What’s interesting is that some people have called this a publicity stunt on MTV’s part, when to me it seems to be all Kanye. These types of things do tend to happen quite a bit in award shows, but they happen a lot more in Kanye’s life.

    In that line of reasoning, I would say that people cared not about what happened on MTV, but about Kanye’s latest trangression, which leads me to a similar question: Why do people care what Kanye West is doing any more?

    I thought he had turned a corner when he recently (or maybe I just read it recently) described Radiohead as one of his few creative rivals, which despite being massively egotistical is still somewhat endearing because, hey, Radiohead is awesome, but if he’s assessing Radiohead on the same scale that led him to the overstated praise of Beyonce’s video (your parenthetical review of it was great) then it can’t mean that much.

    Another interesting note: If Kanye had simply shut up for a few minutes, would he have been satisfied that Beyonce won Video of the Year? Was he even aware that Video of the Year award existed, or did he make the same reasonable assumption that you and the rest of us made (that the award would go to either Best Male or Best Female)?


  2. MTV, VMA’s, and Kanye West are no longer relevant – yesterday’s news, anachronistic, and as appealing as an Edsel. The Beatles albums, now remastered, sound incredible, and 40 years later are more relevant than all the idiocy associated with the aforementioned networks, awards shows, and arrogant hip-hop artists.


  3. Posted by James Schneider on September 15, 2009 at 4:19 PM

    oh man, now i have to change my facebook status


  4. Posted by John S on September 15, 2009 at 4:26 PM

    Whoa, James, was that an Aziz Ansari reference?


  5. Posted by Alex on September 15, 2009 at 5:59 PM

    I’m going to put myself out there and admit that I like both Kanye West and Taylor Swift. I will identify one or the other as a guilty pleasure, depending on the crowd. I thought it was interesting that Kanye got booed when his nomination was up, suggesting that Swift fans dominated the in-house crowd.

    On a somewhat related note, can we talk about the songs chosen for football season? Faith Hill on NBC, Dave Matthews and Kenny Chesney on ESPN, I believe. I know it’s not a new trend, but why is country the genre represented here?


  6. I’m gonna have to disagree with Doc. Anyone who thought that the cultural holy trinity of MTV, VMAs, and Kanye West was irrelevant was shown otherwise by the furor that erupted post-show. Relevance is hard to define, but I adhere to a strict, “If the president talks about it, it’s relevant” ideology. (

    As for The Beatles, they are of course still relevant, but the remastered box set makes them no more relevant than they were the day before. It’s hard to imagine the people who bought it were on the fence regarding the band’s quality; the people who laid down hundreds of dollars on it are the same ones who thought The Beatles sounded incredible before. And if you’re going to take the Rock Band route to increased relevance, then you can’t necessarily call Kanye irrelevant.

    And Alex, I find it interesting that you classify Dave Matthews as country, and I think the choices have more to do with the fact that Monday Night Football has been introduced by a Hank Williams, Jr. song for 25 years now. Not saying it’s right or that I agree with it, but I’m betting that’s why.


  7. Tim – Headline from Billboard Magazine online: “Kanye West Raises VMAs Hell, Beatles Sell Well”

    So, I guess everything and everyone is relevant. The President thinks Kanye is a “jackass”, and Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road (remastered versions) are expected to sell between 500,000-600,000 units in their first week out.


  8. I know I’m a bit late on this, but I feel its important to point out (and no one did as of yet) that Kayne’s behavior is explained because a gay fish (from South Park):

    For reference, the joke goes:

    A) Do you like fish (st/d)icks
    B) Yes
    A) Do you like putting fish (st/d)icks in your mouth
    B) Yes
    A) Then you’re a gay fish.


  9. […] never been a big fan of Kanye West. I generally think he’s overrated,* and I find his antics off-putting. None of his big singles—“Jesus Walks,” “Through the Wire,” “Gold Digger”—ever […]


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