Miley's people: How MTV awards excess has been replaced by stars speaking up for good causes

This year’s VMAs were more about a political message than mooning or meat dresses

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The Independent Culture

The MTV Video Music Awards can always be counted on to provide sublime and ridiculous celebrity moments – whether it’s Lady Gaga turning up draped in cold cuts or Sacha Baron Cohen launching his naked bum cheeks into Eminem’s face.

But this year’s VMAs were more about a political message (cue serious face) than mooning or meat dresses.

While presenting the award for best hip-hop video, the rapper Common held a moment of silence for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. “Hip-hop has always presented a voice for the revolution,” said Common, as the cameraman cut to Snoop Dogg flashing a peace sign.

Not to be outdone in the earnest stakes, Miley Cyrus, whose semi-naked shenanigans at last year’s VMAs generated more than 300,000 tweets a minute, asked a young homeless man to accept her video of the year award for “Wrecking Ball”.

“My name is Jesse and I am accepting this award on behalf of the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the United States who are starving, lost and scared for their lives right now. I know this because I’m one of these people,” he nervously told the audience.  As Jesse directed people to Miley’s Facebook page, where they will be able to donate to a homeless shelter in Hollywood, the star perched on the edge of the stage and sobbed at her own beneficence. What homelessness and a video about licking a hammer have in common is anyone’s guess.

Beyoncé closed the show with a 15-minute performance in front of a giant neon “feminist” sign. It was a statement about as subtle as the family photos she projected behind her, no doubt designed to set those divorce rumours straight.


Celebrities with a cause are no strangers to turning an awards ceremony into their own personal soapbox – usually the Oscars. In 1973, for example, Marlon Brando sent the American Indian civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather on stage to collect his best actor award in protest of the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. But are the VMAs – an event that’s as much about the multiple outfit changes as the music – really the right forum in which to instigate political debate?

PR expert Mark Borkowski thinks the po-faced antics at this year’s MTV awards are part of a wider trend for stunt-based good deeds such as the ice-bucket Challenge. “Agents, managers and artists are more switched on to world events than ever because of social media, so there’s pressure on celebrities to feed into the news agenda. It’s no longer enough to give a tissue-soaked speech or wear a stunning dress to leverage global headlines.”

A recent report found that celebrities are ineffective at encouraging people to care about foreign causes, meaning that public philanthropy can become more about raising one’s own profile than raising awareness. “If there’s a dedicated celebrity who has campaigned over a number of years for a charity that they’re clearly passionate about, then that’s one thing,” says Mr Borkowski. “But as a one-off stunt where you pick up a cause for the night … well, Miley will now be under a lot of scrutiny.”