The MTV Video Music Awards is designed to generate water-cooler conversation moments. "Which is precisely why there are fewer and fewer such instances actually birthed each year," says Alex McLevy. "As any person (or corporation, just as often) that’s tried to artificially bump something to the front page of Reddit has discovered, you can’t plan in advance what people will care about. You can’t make something 'go viral.' And you sure as sh*t can’t engineer stunts guaranteed to get people talking. All of which is bad news for MTV, which has done everything in its power over the past 35 years to breed out any potential for spontaneity or unexpected surprises during its broadcast. MTV wants stage-managed chaos, rigorously rehearsed moments of faux controversy, and spectacle-filled wackiness meticulously planned within an inch of its life. It wants the credibility and cache of free-wheeling celebrity antics without the actual presence of such behavior. And what it definitely doesn’t want is surprises. MTV hates surprises."
How the 2009 Taylor Swift-Kanye West VMAs scandal became a perfect American morality tale: "On one level, the fact that the scandal would go on to have such legs seems absurd," says Constance Grady. "It was such a petty nothing of a moment! A drunk celebrity with a history of being volatile acted out at an awards show: So what? Why was that such a big deal? Why is it so ingrained in our cultural consciousness now, 10 years later? But the resulting fallout was explosive. What happened at the 2009 VMAs helped define Twitter as the conversation driver it is today. The story foreshadowed Kanye West’s eventual transformation into a pop culture villain, which would be realized with West’s embrace of Donald Trump and Trumpism. It set the narrative that Taylor Swift would always be a pop culture victim, for better or for worse. And the way it has influenced their two images in the decade since follows the lines of major schisms in American culture."
The 1999 VMAs were the last hurrah for classic MTV: "The 1999 Video Music Awards didn’t stand out because of its zomg! moments -- unless you count the dude who crashed the Backstreet Boys’ acceptance speech by rushing the stage and exclaiming 'Wake Up at 3!' (Tellingly, he was aiming for a TV deal.)," says Mara Reinstein. "This wasn’t Kanye interrupting Taylor or Madonna slipping Britney the tongue or Fiona Apple ripping the music industry or Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora inventing MTV Unplugged on the spot. But viewed through the retrospective 2019 lens, the 9.9.99 event was as singular as its date. The event represented peak MTV at the height of the Total Request Live era, and yet it also paid proper homage to its pop and rock roots. We’ll never see its likes again."