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With its latest subtle rebranding and move from June to late-August, does the Canadian awards show still matter?
The MuchMusic Video Awards are dead.
I know, bitter nostalgists of a certain age have been eager to bury the former nation’s music station flagship event for years, but in this case I mean it literally. Just as there’s no longer a MuchMusic (it’s just Much now), there’s no longer a MuchMusic Video Awards. Those initials are officially just letters now, signifying nothing specific but reminding us of the show’s history from behind the corporate branding – they’re the iHeartRadio MMVAs, and for the first time this year they took place in late-August rather than June.
So how vital is the award show in its latest round of repositioning? Last night (August 26) seemed like a good time to check its pulse, and it’s still there, faintly, in the way it reflects teen-friendly pop culture while still, surprisingly, pushing it forward. But it’s doing so in a format that’s feeling increasingly more old-fashioned, and the lingering resemblance to its history isn’t doing it any favours.
Like many Canadians who grew up watching hours of music videos a day on MuchMusic – often whether I liked them or not – I have a soft spot for the MMVAs, fuelled by fond memories of Vince Carter dancing with Lil Bow Wow, or Avril Lavigne recreating her own wardrobe malfunction. Tuning in over the last few years, I’ve been more confused than anything else, wondering how, as someone whose job it is to keep up with pop culture, I’ve apparently missed so much pop culture. I knew the big bold-faced names, but who are the Reklaws? Or New City? Are Bebe Rexha stans really called Rexhards. And when did squeaky clean Shawn Mendes become Bieber-level popular?
Courtesy of CTV
In a way, that confusion means it’s kept up its function. These awards aren’t really for me, and they haven’t been for well over a decade. It makes sense to make it a back-to-school event – as Jersey Shore’s JWoww said on the red carpet “there’s nothing better than a bunch of screaming teenage girls.” You could tell that was the crowd every time Mendes was in sight and the shrieks echoed throughout Queen Street – and considering he performed twice, opening and closing the broadcast, while winning just about every award they handed out on air, that was a lot. He even accepted one he didn’t win, revealing himself as the head under EDM DJ Marshmello’s smiley face helmet, and then playing the joke a little too straight and actually going through with the acceptance speech.
Teenagers have remained the demographic, and really the culture has just changed around them. But just as MTV’s VMAs have declined, both in ratings and cultural significance, so is the Canadian counterpart displaying an identity crisis.
I recently moved to an apartment around the corner from the former MuchMusic environment (now the studio for CTV talk shows The Social and the Marilyn Denis Show) at 299 Queen West, and so I’ve been walking by the stage in all its stages of construction. I’ve caught soundcheck performances by Alessia Cara and Bebe Rexha without even meaning to, a nice reminder of the casual accessibility of the old Much – how easy is it to accidentally hear a major charting song performed live on an early Friday evening on one of Toronto’s busiest streets?
Host Awkwafina hit that talking point a number of times throughout the show, calling it “the biggest street party in Canada.” But whereas the soundcheck was open to fans and confused onlookers alike, the actual show, despite being free, is now gated off, meaning, unless you were watching it on TV (or Twitter, where it was broadcast in full for the first time this year), the show was better heard than seen. Participation in fan culture is fully the domain of social media now, and lining up for hours for a wristband to stand near celebrities seems a bit quaint.
Courtesy of CTV
That was driven home by a performance by reunited boy band 98 Degrees, which they juxtaposed with throwback footage from their last performance at the MMVAs in 1999. You could see them, in oversized suit jackets with no shirts, playing while hanging out of the studio – that old anarchic Much spirit coming through how literally close they were to their audience. For lack of a better term, it really felt “live.”
That late-90s performance was older than many of the fans in attendance. Likely some of the performers, too – watching their successors like 5 Seconds of Summer play the now-much-bigger, flashier, more-expensive-looking stage you could feel that former anything-could-happen ethos evaporating. Truthfully it’s been gone for years, but watching this big, carefully stage-managed event really drove it home.
Courtesy of CTV
There were more live performances than ever this year (easy to repackage as bite-sized content), and the more easily controllable set (basically an outdoor version of the American iHeartRadio Awards set) let them get more elaborate with choreography and lighting. It served first-time performers like bülow, the Dutch teen pop singer (now based in Toronto) making her live TV debut. Or Kris Wu, the Chinese pop singer/actor/model who won his first North American award as the Fan Fave New Artist. There was even room for one rock band, Toronto’s major label upstarts, The Beaches, who chipped in a performance that felt fun and fresh.
The broadcast played up that A&R role, reminding viewers that the MMVAs were early to give airtime to Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Gigi Hadid. (Much also played a big role in the success of the Spice Girls, once upon a time, long before the MTV and U.S .radio, and it sounded familiar to Wu remarking on how crazy it is for him every time he comes to Canada). They were ahead of the curve getting Awkwafina, too, announcing her before her breakout acting role in Crazy Rich Asians. The gig made her the first Asian-American actor to host a North American awards show.
But that’s the only way Much is breaking any new artists these days. Parent company Bell Media has repeatedly petitioned the CRTC to be allowed to play fewer music videos, and this year cut off funding to MuchFACT, the now-deceased music video fund that’s served so many directors and musicians over the last few decades.
Courtesy of CTV
It’s no wonder the actual awards were so de-emphasized this year – they’re not really there to celebrate music videos. There aren’t even any more VJs. Much is one branch in a corporate synergy tree that includes the iHeartRadio app, radio network and event promotion wing, Bell Media’s other channels (like CTV, which got a boost from a live performance of a song from its singing show The Launch, and E!, which got a nice plug from Ashlee Simpson and Evan Ross for their new reality show), and cross-platform advertising for brands like Virgin and Coke.
The iHeartRadio MMVAs does still serve a function in 2018. But it’s not the one I remember.
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