Inside the Forum on Aug. 23, four days before this year’s edition of the MTV Video Music Awards, engineers checked audio levels with a trap-music remix of the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
One worker swung dozens of feet through the air, attached to rooftop scaffolding above a stage of silver mirrored panels. Others scrambled through a maze of placards denoting the celebrity seating chart.
Amid the preparations, however, MTV has two problems still left to solve at the VMAs. One — declining TV ratings amid a spike in social media attention — was predictable.
The other is how performers will address the now-constant tension of a Trump-era America.
The VMAs are famous for their madcap moments like Britney Spears and Madonna’s smooch or Lady Gaga’s meat dress. In the run-up to last year’s contentious election, the performers were surprisingly muted in their political commentary. Perhaps many of the liberal-leaning, MTV-friendly artists thought a Clinton win was in the bag.
Of course, things turned out differently. And the VMAs’ relevance may hinge on how the ceremony handles our sociopolitical climate.
“It’s always been part of the show to reflect the conditions around it — look at Miley Cyrus and Jesse (her homeless guest at the 2014 VMAs),” said Garrett English, the executive vice president of MTV. “But so much has happened in the U.S. politically, and we want to have a mixture of levity and gravity.”
This year’s awards are hosted by Katy Perry, the pop singer whose new album, “Witness,” tried to grapple with contemporary political and social issues. The LP’s reviews were mixed, but it’s probably no coincidence that producers picked her to carry the VMA torch this year.
To make it more explicit, they introduced a new award category, best fight against the system, whose provocation will almost surely result in a charged speech (nominees John Legend and the “Hamilton” cast have had barbed criticism for Trump’s administration). And even the longstanding “Moonman” statue for the winners has been changed to a “Moon Person” this year, a nod to how the network is trying to do away with traditional gender norms.
As for the night’s performers, Kendrick Lamar has made his awards-show sets into extraordinary political theater, having performed in prison chains during the Grammys and in a field of fire with Beyoncé at the BET Awards. Miley Cyrus and Lorde have spoken out on varied social justice issues, as have multiple members of Fifth Harmony.
MTV and production executives said they don’t know what to expect as far as specific artists speaking out. Unpredictability, of course, has always been part of the VMA brand. But in a year when most of MTV’s audience (along with most of America) is consumed by political storms playing out on their news feeds, it’s likely that at least some acts will use the platform to make a dramatic gesture.
“There’s an openness to allow artists to express themselves,” said Jesse Ignjatovic, executive producer with the firm Done+Dusted, which is producing the live show. “This year, artists may feel more inspired to speak out. In times like these, we need Kendrick Lamar, and if this is the show for that, that’s reason enough.”
The ratings problems might be tougher to solve. The tough fact is that MTV’s core audience has almost entirely migrated to online video and away from live cable. Last year’s TV ratings were down 34 percent from 2015, but video streams were up 70 percent.
It’s not impossible to imagine the VMAs as a loss leader, given the benefits of the wide social media reach and brand-building. The network has signaled a renewed emphasis on music coverage, bringing back its ’90s-beloved “Unplugged” concert series and millennial-nostalgia-era “Total Request Live.”
“Music’s always been a critical part of our DNA,” English said. “Now it’s about: How can we evolve the show to have even more space for it?”
But VMAs brass will have to figure out how the flagship live event on a network nominally devoted to music fits into a fast-moving online conversation where all the eyeballs (and ad revenue) are tuning in through a social-media filter.
Live performances are “a tribal experience in a digital world,” said Ric Lipson, the set designer at the firm Stufish who oversaw the VMAs design. He previously worked on U2’s stadium tour for “The Joshua Tree” anniversary, and though the shows are very different, he sees a parallel in creating intimacy within a huge spectacle. “A gig is still the most powerful way to experience music. It’s our modern church.”
In a time when all culture is atomized for immediate sharing, the fact that anything can happen is still a compelling reason to watch in a live setting. More so now than ever, even (especially given the possibility of a surprise Taylor Swift cameo, given the timing of her angry new single “Look What You Made Me Do”).
It won’t be all fire and fury, however. English said that escapism is still definitely part of the show’s appeal.
But whether it’s pure fun or harsh dissent, the VMAs are still one of the last redoubts for surprises in live music on a mass scale.
In a year that no one could have prepared for, that might be reason enough to tune in.
“It’s a place to be creatively aggressive,” English said. “Everyone talks about the water-cooler moments. Navigating that is what the show is for.”