Pop Gets Political at the 2017 VMAs

Entertainment is no longer a reliable means of escape from reality. In 2017, it seems reality has more shock value than the fictional stories designed to grab our attention. The entertainment industry, in turn, has begun to replace superficiality with substance. Pop culture has become increasingly political; the Video Music Awards, which aired last Sunday night on MTV, are evidence of this change.

With Katy Perry hosting, the VMAs were littered with the sparkly sex appeal and meme-worthy gags we’ve come to expect; this year, however, the awards show had much more to say. Typically, the VMAs are a notoriously vapid event filled with performances as flashy as the artists’ outfits. Last Sunday, though, social justice issues upstaged every star in the room. 

The show began with a live performance from Kendrick Lamar, who set the socially-aware tone of the evening with his very first words: “police brutality.” Not long after, Paris Jackson followed in Lamar’s politically-charged footsteps, using her introduction for Best Pop Video to denounce bigotry. She called attention to the recent events in Charlottesville, saying, “we must show these Nazi supremacist jerks that we have zero tolerance for their violence, hatred and discrimination.” 

Later in the program, Alessia Cara and Pink used their impressive voices to preach self-acceptance—Cara during her performance of “Scars to Your Beautiful” and Pink in her acceptance speech for the Video Vanguard Award. Pink highlighted the importance of unconventional and shamelessly original artists, who “help other people to change so they can see more kinds of beauty.” The message of acceptance echoed throughout the night, hitting center stage yet again during Logic’s performance of his suicide-awareness song “1-800-273-8255.” Logic, accompanied by Alessia Cara and Khalid, made a moving display of mental health awareness; he shared the spotlight with a large group of suicide-attempt survivors in shirts reading “You are not alone,” during the number.

Pastor Robert Lee IV, a descendant of Robert E. Lee, took to the stage to speak out against racism, “America’s original sin,” and introduce Susan Bro—arguably the evening’s most honored guest. Bro is the mother of Heather Heyer, the anti-racist protestor who was killed by a neo-Nazi during the violent demonstration in Charlottesville. She announced the Heather Heyer Foundation—a non-profit scholarship program for students who want to pursue law, education, and social justice issues as Heyer did. The star-studded crowd was especially reverent during Bro’s emotional speech, revealing a meaningful shift in the VMAs rationale. 

As the entertainment industry grows more “woke” it slowly loses touch with its vacuous reputation; it’s pulled a Miley Cyrus, swapping the trashy thrills for a more honest presentation. The 2017 VMAs chose Kendrick over Kanye, which might reflect the award show’s gradual upheaval of vanity in the name of substance. The show was decked out in rhinestones and political relevance—a combination that the contemporary audience seems ready to try on.