And so, for most of the night, the expected came to pass: Miley wore lots of things that looked like or featured body parts as design elements; Miley wore nothing. Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj made up, performing a medley of each other’s hits to open the show, and then Nicki called Miley out for Miley’s having called her out. Justin Bieber performed for the first time in two-and-a-half years, flew around, and then cried about it. Macklemore rapped about mopeds. A band called Twenty One Pilots exists, and their mediocre rapping frontman was apparently given a more powerful mic than A$AP Rocky. And then Taylor Swift presented Kanye West with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, and even more of the expected came to pass — yet somehow it was the freshest moment of the night.
Until Kanye’s time on stage, every little micro-event, every little swear word from Miley or strategic cut to the Kardashians in the audience seemed tailor-made for tweeting, images and statements so boiled down and extravagant as to warrant little more than a screengrab, retweet, or favorite. (If you still don’t believe MTV wanted us to live this thing through the Internet, know that the show was broadcast live on MTV’s website — from five different angles.)
Nicki confronting Miley was exciting, sure, and it highlighted the tenuousness of fighting online and how, when those fights are brought face-to-face, in a public forum, the awkwardness has the unique power to suck the air from the room, no matter how smoke-filled or neon. But that moment was diffused by an unmoved Miley (and maybe even by a dismissive Nicki, who tweeted “lmfao” minutes later), so the show went on more smoothly than even its more grown-up awards show predecessors. And then Kanye showed up.
The power of Kanye West is strange, head-scratching, because his power is just being himself. He stated it plainly at the beginning of his speech, which he only started after a solid three minutes of applause: people are surprised when he goes to get a juice because he is not yelling at them. His admitting this — that he is aware of and constantly reminded that people see him as a monster — was clearly not the direction the audience in the Microsoft Theater was expecting his speech to go. Maybe there would be some grandstanding about the importance of his art, or how he’s a visionary — something like that. But for what seemed like 20 minutes (but was really about half that), Kanye said very little about himself. What he wanted to talk about was how he’s adjusted his views of artistry, and where he thinks the world is going.
Up there on stage, alone in shoes and clothes he designed himself, standing in front of nothing but a screen screaming his own name, Kanye let it out. It seemed a lot of his frustration stemmed from those 2009 VMAs, where he made the mistake of interrupting a woman who would become the most famous pop star of her generation.
Sometimes I feel like all this [shit] they run about beef and all that? Sometimes I feel like I died for the artist’s opinion. For the artist to be able to have an opinion after they were successful. And look at that. You know how many times MTV ran that footage again? Because it got them more ratings? You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award because it got them more ratings? I will die for the art and for what I believe in. And the art ain’t always going to be polite.
After which, he tapped into the heart of his sentiment:
This is a new mentality. We are not going to control our kids with brands. We’re not going to teach low self-esteem and hate to our kids. We’re going to teach our kids that they can be somethin’. We going to teach our kids that they can stand up for themselves. We going to teach our kids to believe in themselves. If my grandfather was here right now, he would not let me back down. I don’t know what I finna to lose after this. It no matter, though, because it ain’t about me. It’s about ideas, bro. New ideas. People with ideas. People who believe in truth.
Finally, Kanye closed out the whole thing with a bang, saying, “And yes. As you probably could’ve guessed by this moment, I have decided in 2020 to run for president,” and dropped the mic.
It was a speech that couldn’t be tweeted. People tried — they always try — but they were mostly baffled, missed the point, or focused entirely on the presidential announcement at the end. In that speech, Kanye couched some criticism of award shows in general, simplified to one quote: “I still don’t understand awards shows.”
But he does understand awards shows, and the way they try to mine artists and their feuds for ratings (see: Taylor/Nicki, Miley/Nicki, Kanye/Taylor). And, by giving a speech that demanded full-on transcription, he avoided the awards-show-as-Twitter-food trend. The tension of the speech was derided, and his jokey bit about running for president is all over the news this morning, but there’s more to chew on there. Whether or not people will chew on it, who knows. That’s the shame about Kanye: unlike awards shows, most of what he says is at least meaningful, constructed to communicate real feelings. But just like awards shows, only the most ridiculous thing he says will be in the headlines the next day.