Twitter and Facebook were aglow seconds after Kanye West’s most recent flare-up at MTV’s Video Music Awards. “Protesting” Taylor Swift’s victory for Best Female Video over fellow nominee Beyonce Knowles, West snatched the microphone from Swift during her acceptance speech and declared “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”
West’s behavior at such events has become something of a cliché, and as such, it was almost to be expected. But this time was a bit different in that West was not protesting on behalf of his usual favorite charity – himself.
In a weekend that was in part defined by black impropriety – including Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech and Serena Williams’ vitriolic verbal attack on a line judge at the U.S. Open – West’s moment seemed like staged Jes Grew, as author Ishmael Reed might refer to it, in response to what have been several months of improprieties liberally taken at the expense of black people, be it the late “King of Pop” or the current President of the United States.
It is part of a script that West has carefully crafted, in the best post-modern spirit of the famous showman P.T. Barnum. The boos that appeared whenever West’s name was mentioned throughout the evening were also part of that script, and we all sat enraptured wondering how Knowles might respond to West’s misguided attempt to speak on her behalf. After a stirring performance of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” all eyes were on Knowles when she received the award for Video of the Year and called Swift to the stage to recover her interrupted moment.
What immediately struck me about Knowles’ gesture were the cynics who suggested that Knowles did so at the behest of MTV and that Knowles’ kindness was essentially staged by the network. But if that is plausible, why isn’t it also plausible that the whole experience was in fact staged, to generate the kind of buzz on social networking sites, which translates into increased viewership and traffic at MTV.com? Now in its 25th year, the VMAs are an aging and fatigued brand. As such, the drama of the awards (remember Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley’s staged kiss?) has become more integral to the success of the awards than its performances.
There was no risk in having Kanye West act a fool, because it is what we have come to expect from him. A fair amount of people will grant him his eccentricities, because of his genius.
As for Taylor Swift, she now has increased visibility because she was the victim of black impropriety, something she shares with tennis player Kim Clijsters, this weekend’s winner of the U.S. Open. Beyonce Knowles is now granted a level of gravitas for her public graciousness or what critic Leonard Feather might call “a rare noblesse oblige gesture” as he did when Aretha Franklin gave her 1973 Grammy Award to fellow nominee Esther Phillips. And finally for MTV, they have produced the most talked about VMAs since that Jackson and Presley kiss.