If you feel like tonight’s (Aug. 20) MTV Video Music Awards have snuck up on you a little, you’re certainly not alone: Not only are they the earliest on the calendar that the awards have ever been, but they come after big releases in consecutive weeks from Travis Scott, Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande — and on a Monday, no less.
But indeed, the day of the 34th annual VMAs has arrived, and with it, a number of burning questions that will face the Radio City Music Hall proceedings, starting at 9:00 p.m. ET. Here are the five we’re the most curious about.
1. What’s Cardi B up to?
After last year’s “Bodak Yellow” performance lit up the 2017 VMAs pre-show, and Cardi B ascended to true superstardom in the year since, fans were obviously excited to learn that Cardi would be opening the show this year. But hold on: Turns out, though she’s technically “opening” the show, she’s not expected to perform.
What she’ll actually be doing remains a subject of some mystery — TMZ reports that “she will either do a monologue or partake in some sort of skit instead.” Perhaps something to do with Video Vanguard recipient (and fellow Bronx native / “Dinero” collaborator) Jennifer Lopez, who will be performing a career-spanning medley of hits? Given that baby Kulture has temporarily taken her out of the spotlight (and inspired her to pull out of a planned tour with Bruno Mars), it might be one of the few public glimpses fans get of Cardi for the rest of 2018, so anticipation will be high for whatever she does.
2. How will MTV handle tributes to recently passed artists?
Of course, the most historied artist we’ve lost in the year since the previous VMAs is Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who died last Thursday (Aug. 16) — and MTV has said it will honor Franklin on the broadcast, though without specifying who will be paying the tribute (or if it will definitely involve a performance). But while Aretha has some history with MTV and the VMAs (including a best female video nomination for “Freeway of Love” in 1986), certain other musician deaths will likely be rawer for the show’s young-skewing audience — including Avicii, Lil Peep and XXXTentatcion, all of whom passed away in the last year while still in their 20s.
The question of which of these artists will receive tributes, and how those tributes will be carried out, is an extremely interesting one — particularly in the case of XXXTentacion. While he was and remains enormously popular with the young fans MTV has traditionally targeted, the allegations of brutal domestic violence that cast a pall on the alternative rapper for the duration of his short career would put MTV in an awkward situation if they attempted any kind of tribute to him.
As the channel has rebranded its award shows in recent years to put an emphasis on social progressiveness — with gender-neutral categories, awards rewarding message-based movies and videos, and an increased focus on diversity with presenters and performers — would MTV risk compromising that to acknowledge the life and work of an artist so dear to much of its viewership? And conversely, will Avicii or Lil Peep’s deaths — reportedly from suicide and a drug overdose, respectively — receive extra attention for their causes, inspiring MTV to take a moment ot promote awareness of related issues?
3. Will Nicki Minaj’s performance reflect any of the controversies she’s been embroiled in the past few weeks?
While her fourth album Queen drew a strong 190k equivalent album units in its first week, and album highlight “Barbie Dreams” rode a wave of deafening Internet buzz to a top 20 debut on the Billboard Hot 100, most of the headlines surrounding Nicki Minaj in the past week have been mixed at best. That’s because the actual music on Queen has been overshadowed by both the negative press she’s received for her extended collaboration with the misconduct-convicted rapper 6ix9ine, and for her own tweets — in response to both that media backlash, and to Queen‘s numbers coming up short of those of Travis Scott’s Astroworld, for which she cast a wide net of blame.
While the storm that Nicki has found herself in the eye of this August continues to swell, she’s scheduled to perform remotely at tonight’s VMAs, from what has been described as “an iconic New York location” — rumored to be the Oculus hub for the World Trade Center transit station, where she was filmed on Instagram performing a “secret show” for fans on Sunday night that many suspect to have been a prerecording for these VMAs. Whether or not the performance can shift the narrative back to discussion of her music an artistry remains to be seen, but it’s worth pointing out that the song she was filmed performing in that Instagram clip was “FeFe,” her 6ix9ine collab.
4. …Aerosmith, really?
Of all the performers announced for this year’s VMAs — a list that includes Post Malone, Ariana Grande, Travis Scott and many other of today’s biggest and brightest stars — the arguably least-hyped and definitely most-surprising name on that list is that of Aerosmith. The classic rock stars are no doubt in town to promote their upcoming Vegas residency, which makes sense from their perspective. But why MTV, where Aerosmith hasn’t had a hit video since 2001, and whose viewership is mostly young enough to potentially be the grandchildren of the band’s members, would choose to enlist them for a performance — a show-closing rendition of mid-’70s hit “Walk This Way,” according to TMZ — is less clear.
It’s not totally without logic, or precedent. Aerosmith are obviously an MTV legacy act, having won 10 VMAs over the course of their many-decade career, including video of the year for “Cryin'” in 1994. What’s more, their “Walk This Way” has extended live history on the network, counting three VMA performances — with Run-D.M.C. in ’87, on their own in ’94, and then again with Run-D.M.C. and rap-rock successor Kid Rock as part of a medley in ’99. To receive a fourth performance in the 21st century could be an attempt by MTV to provide their signature award show a kind of historical continuity — and maybe even provide an opportunity for Aerosmith to once again past the torch to a collaborator of the newer generation.
Perhaps the inclusion of Aerosmith at this year’s awards, along with their planned Aretha tribute, and the recent announcement that all-time MTV icon Madonna will be presenting the video of the year award, all indicate that MTV — after a long period of mostly ignoring its own history at the VMAs — is ready to start dipping back into its past once more. How an audience of fans who may not even be old enough to remember Armageddon (much less Toys in the Attic) will respond to their performance should be fascinating.
5. Should Bruno Mars be rooting against himself in the best video category?
As is often the case with the VMAs, discussion of the actual awards to be handed out comes last here. But this year even more than other years, perhaps it should be more front and center: 2018 has been a banner year for music videos that have captivated and moved pop culture forward, re-establishing the medium’s vitality to a level we haven’t seen in a long time. And for the most part, this is reflected in this year’s most-nominated videos, which encompass the year’s most-debated video (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”), the year’s most jaw-dropping how-did-they-do-that video (The Carters’ “Apeshit”) and the year’s pre-eminent video artist (Drake, with “God’s Plan”), as well as similarly viral clips from the likes of Ariana Grande (“No Tears Left to Cry”), Migos (“Walk It Talk It”) and many others.
It should be a marquee year for celebration of MTV’s once-signature artform, and it’d be hard to argue with most potential winners. But given recent award-show events and their ensuing public responses, Bruno Mars — whose fun-but-frivolous Cardi B collab “Finesse” is up for six awards, including video of the year — might actually be better off coming up a little short this time around. If “Finesse” triumphs in the biggest categories over the much more topical and urgent “This Is America” — or the charitable “God’s Plan,” or even the partly tragedy-inspired “No Tears Left to Cry” — it could reignite all sorts of conversations about award-worthiness and cultural appropriation that no one, least of all Mars or MTV, wants to find themselves in the middle of again. So don’t be surprised if they cut to Bruno while the nominees are being read, and he appears to be silently pleading with the gods that someone else’s name gets called out this time.