The MTV VMAs 2020 were fun, but could pre-records make awards shows predictable and sterile?

Non-live ceremonies might up the production values, but the trade-off may also mean reducing future moments of tasty unscripted mayhem

One of the most exciting things about any awards show is the possibility of the unscripted, unplanned mayhem its attendees might cause. The big, no-expense-spared performances are all well and good and maybe someone will say something interesting in an acceptance speech, but the real highlights are always the moments when you can sense the show’s producers breaking into a sweat as they picture the reaction on social media (or, in the olden days, print press).

We’re talking Jarvis Cocker waggling his arse on stage at the BRITs as Michael Jackson performed ‘Earth Song’ in 1996. Performance artist Michael Portnoy crashing Bob Dylan’s 1998 Grammys performance with “soy bomb” daubed across his bare chest in thick black marker. Kanye West’s infamous “I’ma let you finish” moment during Taylor Swift’s VMAs speech in 2009 and then him almost jokingly pulling the same stunt on Beck at the Grammys in 2015. These incidents aren’t always good, but you can’t deny they keep the schmoozy, back-slapping nature of these ceremonies interesting.

Holding an awards show in the middle of a pandemic cuts the chances of any such events right down – everything is remote, there’s barely any audience and, in the case of the MTV VMAs 2020, it’s largely pre-recorded. In most ways, this actually worked a treat for the MTV ceremony – it felt fast-paced in a way awards shows usually don’t and neatly mixed parts of heady escapism with moments of sobering reality.

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Taping everything ahead of time seemed to give the producers more freedom in using super high tech effects, too, like DaBaby’s ‘Blame It On Baby’ medley, which ended with the rapper on top of a police car, CGI helicopter sending fireballs at the virtual skyscrapers behind him. Lady Gaga was able to shift between sets for a typically inventive performance of tunes from ‘Chromatica’, and BTS – despite being in Seoul – could give a performance in front of a green screen covered in retro-futuristic visions of New York.

It wouldn’t be surprising or necessarily a bad thing if ceremony organisers decided to stick to this way of doing things in the future (but hopefully with more of a live audience) – except for one big reason. Taping everything in advance might mean you can up the stakes in the production, but it also means any hints of edge and controversy can be taken out, leaving a highly efficient but highly sanitised show.

Artist says something you don’t like? Make them give their speech again. A performance includes a surprise element you think is going to kick up a social media storm? Ask for another take without their little stunt. Star does something that’s perfectly acceptable but feels a little too political for your liking? The power is in producers’ hands to cut it pre-broadcast.

Stupid stunts aside, it’s important that artists are allowed to use their platform to promote the causes they think necessary. At the VMAs, The Weeknd used both of his speeches to call for justice for Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor, who were both shot by police officers. Thankfully, this wasn’t cut, but what if a producer had different political views to you or just didn’t want to risk upsetting the status quo? You might think getting political in acceptance speeches is just a ‘woke’ display, but household names highlighting the real issues going on in our world with passion and emotion could inspire someone to vote, do their bit, and try and make change.

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If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that we need that right now. By all means, use advanced recording to cut long, self-serving rambles but, should awards shows go down the pre-record path in future, we need them to not erase the important messages that could make a difference.

Awards shows and whether or not they feel like anything can happen is far from the most important thing in the world, of course. The success of the MTV VMAs 2020 could make it a lot more attractive for their organisers to ditch the live format and take back full control. If that happens, we’ll be left with awards seasons that are perfectly pleasant, but lack the conversation-making, iconic moments that people remember far longer than a nice performance or a speech thanking everyone from an artist’s parents to their pet dog.

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