When Paul Reubens died in late July, among the remembrances and tributes, his fans and peers recalled the time that he opened the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards in character as Pee-wee Herman. This was mere weeks after Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater in Florida. The arrest made headlines everywhere, shocking people who knew Reubens as a children’s entertainer with an outsized personality. In a world where pop culture news was much more centralized, it was a scandal on par with later vice busts on celebs like Hugh Grant or Eddie Murphy. Walking out to the center of the VMAs stage in his trademark gray suit and red bowtie, Reubens took in the surprised and then loudly appreciative ovation from the crowd, before finally cracking, "Heard any good jokes lately?" With roaring approval, the MTV audience — and by proxy popular culture as it existed in 1991 — had bestowed their forgiveness and helped define one of the major stories of the moment.
The Video Music Awards had these moments of pop culture synergy all the time, when the worlds of music, television, comedy, and celebrity gossip converged at the vortex of youth culture. Three years after Pee-wee Herman's appearance, the 1994 VMAs took part in the biggest tabloid story that wasn't related to the O.J. Simpson case: Michael Jackson's out-of-nowhere marriage to Lisa Marie Presley. Again utilizing the award show's cold open for shock value, Jackson and Presley walked out hand in hand, the King of Pop and the daughter of the King of Rock n Roll, their stilted chemistry just waiting for dozens of articles to pick apart their body language. "And just think," Jackson chirped to the rubbernecking crowd at Radio City Music Hall, "nobody thought this would last." No one quite knew what to make of the kiss that followed, but the important thing is that we were all watching it together.
Much has been made over the last decade or so about the death of the monoculture. Media has become too fragmented, too personalized, and too plentiful to ever offer one common experience of pop culture. MTV's place at the heart of the monoculture was once unquestioned — while no one outlet ever captured all of youth culture, during its glory years, MTV was absolutely its avatar.
But that hasn't been the case for a long time, and the atrophy of MTV as the central hub for a youth culture that no longer has a center has been felt in particular at what once was the network's annual high holy day, the Video Music Awards. The truth is, there hasn't been a breakthrough pop culture moment at the Video Music Awards in more than a decade. There have been great performances, of course. Rihanna, Missy Elliot, and Kendrick Lamar are just a few of the artists who have put it down on the VMAs stage. There is no shortage of talent in popular music today. But great performances at the VMAs aren't news. Those have always existed, from Prince doing "Gett Off" in assless pants to Alanis Morissette rampaging through "You Oughta Know." But in terms of moments that break through the pop-stan bubble and, even momentarily, reach the broader public, it's been a dry 12 years since Beyoncé announced her pregnancy by rubbing her belly in the middle of a performance of "Love On Top."
Frustratingly, if you're in the business of putting on the Video Music Awards, the reasons for this heat death of cultural relevance likely don't have anything to do with the quality of the VMA production itself. For one thing, this is an event that's been happening since 1984, and for an award show that's always put spectacle ahead of the actual awards, it makes it hard to continually top what's already been done. More likely, we've ended up with new moments that echo old moments. Eye-popping wardrobe choices like Lady Gaga's meat dress feel like echoes of Lil Kim's single freewheeling breast in 1999, and that's when they're not referencing old looks outright (Katy Perry and Riff Raff's 2014 all-denim looks calling back to Britney and Justin in 2001). Newer beefs (Nicki Minaj snarling "Miley, what's good?" from the podium) feel like echoes of older beefs (Madonna and Courtney Love clashing on the MTV News after-show). Everything Kanye did at the VMAs after 2009 felt like an attempt to recapture the attention he got when he rushed the stage to interrupt Taylor Swift's acceptance speech. After four decades of Video Music Awards productions working within a medium that prioritizes edginess, it can't be surprising that it's harder and harder to shock anyone anymore.
Then there's the fact that if the monoculture even exists anymore, MTV is no longer its nexus. It's probably not a coincidence that the era of breakout VMAs moments began to fade away around the same time as the rise of social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, et cetera. That's where pop culture news breaks now, where takes get regurgitated, stans wage proxy wars with each other, and even the celebrities themselves beef with each other. Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren are no longer breaking the news of Tupac's death or changes to the Lollapalooza lineup on MTV News.
Fiona Apple's 1997 "This world is bullshit" acceptance speech would be a Notes App screed today. Madonna and David Letterman patching up their public feud as presenters for Video of the Year could be packaged as a joint Instagram post today. A moment like Pee-wee Herman's "Heard any good jokes lately?" would just as likely have been a YouTube video.
Even if the Video Music Awards wanted to insert themselves into the pop culture story of the moment, that moment would be over in the few days it would take to conceive, set up, and execute any kind of on-stage stunt like Reubens’ 1991 appearance. Things simply move too quickly now. The multidirectional churn of modern pop culture naturally resists any one moment resonating long enough to become a water-cooler sensation anymore. Artists release new music these days at a breakneck pace to try to outrun obsolescence, surprise-dropping albums at midnight to thwart digital leaks and be digested before anyone's gone to bed. The increasing frequency with which one has to ask the question "who's that?" only to have learn "they're a TikTok artist" is the result of those artists being minted, monetized, and masticated in record time.
Unless you are incredibly dedicated to staying on top of new music — every late-night leak, stan war, and hype-house breakthrough — you're going to be hopelessly lost. The water cooler was never meant for this kind of hardcore enthusiast. It was meant for the hopelessly casua, the people whose pop culture discourse was carried out in the time it took to down a cup of coffee. The water cooler existed to give a critical mass of people a baseline of cultural awareness. That's why RuPaul dissing Milton Berle while they presented the Viewer's Choice award resonated, while Fifth Harmony dissing Camila Cabello after her split didn't.
This churn isn’t limited to just pop music either. The Peak TV era is like an ever-speeding treadmill you have to walk to keep up with even the most popular shows, much less everything. The biggest movies of the last decade have been giant multi-part sagas that require consumption of multiple films and even TV shows. Keeping up with the news is a 24/7 cycle of doom-scrolling and cable TV.
The MTV of old — the one that aired The Week in Rock every Friday and hosted election-year forums with Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and covered the Woodstock '99 disaster in real time — would have a hard time keeping up with the pace of pop culture today, much less the MTV of today, which airs roughly 20 hours of Ridiculousness and a Catfish every now and then. The VMAs were an extravaganza not just for music fans but for a youth culture that was aware of everything from the new Aerosmith video to the East Coast-West Coast rap beefs to the premature cancellation of My So-Called Life. The Video Music Awards and MTV were the place for pop culture omnivores, but being a pop culture omnivore may no longer be possible.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.