Graham: VMAs head back to school with Miley, Bieber

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

MTV doesn’t play music videos anymore, which is a complaint older than MTV not playing music videos. You’re more likely to run across a marathon of “Ridiculousness” or a Saturday night airing of “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” on the cable network than you are the latest music video by the Weeknd.

Yet MTV’s Video Music Awards remain an essential annual event. That’s because for pop culture, the VMAs are like the first day of school.

Remember the first day of school? Everyone showed up wearing new clothes, sporting fresh haircuts, letting everyone know what they had been up to all summer. It was a time to catch up with old friends and start anew, to launch the campaign for who you wanted to be going forward.

The VMAs are much the same. Everyone has been off doing their own thing — Taylor Swift piecing together the most bizarre celebrity pairings she can imagine, one concert stage at a time, Justin Bieber reinventing himself from egg-throwing boy to possibly not egg-throwing man — and they’re all coming together Sunday to start the new school year off right.

The VMAs are the traditional kickoff to pop culture’s most prestigious season, when record companies roll out their biggest releases and movie studios tout their awards caliber fare. It’s the big goof-off before things get serious — the first day of school is never heavy — and the show has a knack for creating indelible pop culture moments that rule the conversation for years to come.

You don’t remember the winners — quick, who won the award for Best Male Video in 2011? — but you remember the highlights: Britney and Madonna sharing a smooch, Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus twerking on a Foot Locker employee (oops, sorry, that was Robin Thicke).

The other awards shows have more clout, but the VMAs, even in their off-years, create more chatter than the Oscar, Grammy or Emmy telecasts combined.

VMA ratings in recent years have seesawed; last year’s show brought in 8.3 million viewers, down from 10.1 million in 2013, which was up from the 6.1 million in 2012, itself a sharp decline from the record 12.4 million that tuned in for 2011’s show (that was the one where Beyoncé announced her pregnancy).

This year’s edition has the makings of another up year. Miley Cyrus is hosting, and from her twerksplosion in 2013 to her shining a light on the problem of homeless youth at last year’s show, she’s proven to be a VMA lightning rod. Kanye West will be there, receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, in which producers reserve the right to give to anyone they want to make sure he, she or they show up at their show.

Nominees Nicki Minaj (performing at the show) and Taylor Swift (premiering her new music video during the pre-show) got into a Twitter spat last month about race and gender politics as it relates to the VMA voting body, which is the most serious anyone has taken the Video Music Awards since Jackson thought he was being presented with the (nonexistent) Artist of the Millennium award. Their interactions should be, well, interesting to watch.

Also in the mix: Bieber (performing his new song), Britney Spears (presenting an award), Demi Lovato, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and plenty more.

Who will be sitting with whom at the lunch table? Who’s showing up with a new persona and a new attitude? It’s been a good summer, but starting Sunday, class is back in session. The first day of school is going to be fun.


2015 MTV Video Music Awards

■Miley Cyrus is host.

■Performers include Nick Jonas, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Walk the Moon and Tori Kelly.

■Presenters include Britney Spears, Ice Cube, Miguel, Rebel Wilson and Rita Ora.

9 p.m. Sunday on MTV