For some years now, MTV has largely relied on nostalgia and the promise of returning to what used to make its Video Music Awards show vital viewing to lure people into watching. You watch—majorly because the performers list is so stacked that you can’t help giving in to temptation—and then you’re let down. This year is no different, but thankfully, there was Beyoncé.
Beyoncé is that rare contemporary act who not only can stand confidently alongside her predecessors who helped create the VMA mystique but also performs at a level that has her soaring above many of them. I have laughed at some of the tweets that have imagined how MTV and Beyoncé decided her performance—set list, time allotted, etc.—but I imagine that MTV didn’t flinch at Beyoncé’s request for 16 minutes all her own. They probably would have given her an entire hour if she wanted. They know who sets the standard; they know who will captivate; they know who will deliver.
Beyoncé, who won eight awards last night, including Video of the Year, performed five tracks from her critical and commercial juggernaut Lemonade. In the first few minutes, as we heard percussion shots, we saw women fall to the stage, their bodies magnified in red. It’s unclear whether the allusions to violence pertained to the violence in this country, the themes of her album or some combination of the two, but that imagery, coupled with the one that closed her performance—her dancers forming the female symbol—signified that Beyoncé continues to use her art and her celebrity to say something. And before she took the stage, Beyoncé had “the Mothers of the Movement” on the red carpet with her, continuing to amplify their message and reminding this country of what it steals from black people.
The performance itself, though, was yet another example of her commitment to precision. So much thought went into that performance—down to the camera angles, specifically those that followed her as she stormed through “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” She stared into that camera knowing she was commanding our attention. Her choreography, tweaked for songs like Lemonade’s first single, “Formation,” was delivered in delightfully frenetic fashion.
She didn’t have to work that hard, but it made for better television that she did. One of the most alluring things about Beyoncé in 2016 is that she continues to strive to outdo herself. It is in stark contrast with many of her peers who excel despite having very little interest in improving or even giving the best that they’ve got at the moment.
Immediately, some will read that as a diss of Rihanna, the only other performer who mattered last night. It is not. Rihanna was enjoyable throughout her multiple performances on the show.
As one of the premier visual artists of her generation, she absolutely deserved the Video Vanguard Award. Still, she is an anomaly in that she can get away with things most artists in a previous time likely would have been condemned and subsequently cast out for doing. Things like singing every third word while sort of doing the choreography. That typically bothers me, ’cause when Rihanna tries, she’s good. Effort matters. That said, there was some effort made last night, so when Rihanna did keep moving the mic away, at least it was to dance.
Rihanna is the only person who, as an entertainer, can force you to find redeeming qualities, if not a slight beauty, in being blasé. But she wasn’t that blasé yesterday. She always kept her cool, but she clearly cared about honoring her legacy properly. When she did offer live vocals during “Stay,” “Love on the Brain” and “Diamonds,” she reminded you that she sings well when she so desires. The same goes for her dancing, especially during her dancehall set.
It was not Beyoncé, but that was not her intention, and both delivered what fans of each performer appreciate. Everyone else is largely forgettable. That would include Alicia Keys and her impromptu spoken-word poem, in which Keys continues to embody an inspirational Instagram word meme. It would also include Kanye West’s speech, in which he said many words—none of which amounted to much. That said, Teyana Taylor stood out for being the star of West’s “Faded” video.
Taylor is quite the dancer, and her body makes me regret every fried piece of chicken I’ve ever inhaled (until the next bite, anyway). Taylor has now had two big moments on television this year, but I hope that in the future, they have more to do with her, given that her own music is worthy of wider attention.
Now, I will say that for what she has gone through since her last VMA performance, I salute Britney Spears for going back and offering more energy than we’ve seen in years. However, she should have opened the show rather than follow Beyoncé. That's just cruel.
Moreover, whoever at MTV keeps thinking the show doesn’t need a host should toss that notion into the street and allow a garbage truck to run over it. The show needs a host. The show also needs more of its performers to make an effort. The show could also be a bit more thoughtful—e.g., by acknowledging Prince and David Bowie.
In sum, the show needs to be more like Beyoncé.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.