MTV Has to Stop Trying to Win Millennials
As part of Monday night’s 2018 MTV VMAs, Jennifer Lopez brought us back in time by way of a medley of her greatest hits. She opened with one of her more recent singles, “Get On the Floor,” before transitioning into classics, like 1999’s “Waiting for Tonight.” She was joined momentarily by her iconic collaborator Ja Rule, jolting the audience — or those of us old enough to remember — straight to 2001. And at one point, riding a replica 6 train, she gave us her 2002 smash “Jenny From the Block.” Just as quickly, we were catapulted back to 2018, where a 20-year-old Shawn Mendes, who had earlier in the show participated in what can only be described as a wet T-shirt contest for one, presented Lopez with her Moon Person for the Video Vanguard Award.
“I grew up watching MTV,” the 49-year-old star said in her acceptance speech, reminding us of the heady days of music television. You might say this is an example of how the VMAs had something for everyone. And you might say that was exactly its problem.
Of all the grievances about millennials — our disdain for parenthood, mayonnaise, Hooters — the VMAs highlighted the larger, elephant-in-room situation, which is the parameters for being a millennial in the first place. According to the latest ruling, a millennial is someone born between 1981 and 1996: a span of 15 years that means you either grew up playing "Oregon Trail" or you grew up with MapQuest and never worried about finding the best way to get anywhere. Our generation is bifurcated, and attempts to appeal to both segments inevitably fall flat, just as MTV’s awards show felt Monday night.
This year’s VMAs felt like watching an oscillating fan, waiting for your turn at the breeze — and ultimately being disappointed when it arrived. Moments of ‘90s and early ‘00s nostalgia were sandwiched between artists popular with today’s teens, and it made for a strange pairing. The Backstreet Boys performed a harmonized medley of some of this year’s biggest hits, like Camila Cabello’s “Havana” and Dua Lipa’s “New Rules.” Aerosmith joined Post Malone in an attempt to blend his hip-hop “Rock Star” with actual rock stars. Madonna presented Camila Cabello with the coveted Video of the Year award, which would be fine if anyone could explain why Madonna is the presenter in this situation in the first place.
During a red carpet interview at the start of the night, the cast of The Hills, which first aired in 2006 when the youngest millennials were 10, teased a big announcement to Pauly D and Vinny, who launched into reality-star fame thanks to 2009’s Jersey Shore. That show re-entered the reality realm for its premature reboot this year, and so naturally The Hills is following suit. Later in the VMAs broadcast, the cast announced that their redux is coming in 2019. That was predictable, but what’s unclear is who the target audience of these reboots will be. Sure, it was entertaining for older millennials, at the time in college, to follow the antics of Snooki and co. as they terrorized Seaside Heights. But there’s something less enjoyable about seeing Deena fall over in a bar, accidentally expose her ass, and then say, “My poor husband.” Especially for the young millennials, for whom the cast might resemble embarrassing aunts and uncles.
There exists a great divide between the two halves of the millennials, and rather than getting to know — and serving — either half particularly well, networks, brands, and now the VMAs are trying fruitlessly to win over whatever lives at the intersection of both. Consider Pepsi: In the last two years, the brand tried to reintroduce Crystal Pepsi, playing into elder millennials' nostalgia trigger, and then it came out with that infamous Kendall Jenner ad, attempting to bank on younger millennials’ social-justice oriented “wokeness.” Both swings were a miss. You can’t be all things to all people, and a 34-year-old who remembers dancing to “Jenny From the Block” has very few interests in common with a 21-year-old who knows why it was a big deal that Travis Scott showed up to this year's VMAs.
What's that thin slice of the Venn diagram that appeals to both the current college student and the working 35-year-old who grew up "wanting their MTV?" The VMAs’ strategy to winning over both segments appeared to be alternating flashes of people named “Lil” with face tattoos and the titans of the early 2000s. And in the end, the show didn't win over the entire millennial crowd at all, it just left us taking turns saying, "Wait, who's that?" In trying to reach all of us, the show itself ended up feeling out of touch.
And perhaps that’s why this year, as in 2016, there was no official host of the VMAs. It’s hard enough to create programming that appeals to a generation 80 million strong spread across 15 ages — never mind find a single host that could embody it. After all, what one person could hold the attention of both halves of millennials for the duration of a three-and-a-half hour awards presentation? Actually, there is one person: Her name is Cardi B.