Stepping back from award ceremonies’ traditional penchant for down-to-the-second scripts, MTV producers said they have simply selected the artists for Sunday’s extravaganza and will leave it to them to decide what to do.
The show, to be broadcast to more than 120 countries, will provide an open platform for outspoken stars including rapper Kanye West, who used last year’s show to announce, however improbably, that he will run for president in 2020.
The setup could encourage the outlandish – or allow for more serious gestures in a year marked by global conflict, souring race relations in the West, and one of the most foul-toned US presidential elections ever.
“Last year we took a bit more of a playful approach. This year it’s like this is a canvas for artists – not just for their art but for their statements, what they believe is going on in the world,” said Erik Flannigan, an executive producer of the show.
“You’ve got to strike a balance between topicality and being heavy – and this is also a gigantic party. We kind of want to do both,” he said.
After shock diva Miley Cyrus took much of the limelight as last year’s MC in Los Angeles, the awards do not plan a single host, spreading the duties to a wide cast.
The show, which kicks off at 9 pm (0100 GMT Monday), will for the first time take place in New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden.
Scheduled performers include R&B chart-topper Rihanna, who will receive the Video Vanguard Award for lifetime achievement, as well as pop idols Ariana Grande and Britney Spears and rappers Nicki Minaj, Common and Future.
Beyonce tops nominations
Pop icon Beyonce tops the nominations at 11 amid acclaim for “Lemonade,” her intertwined film and album.
She is followed by Adele, who was nominated in eight categories. All but one were for the English singer/songwriter’s blockbuster ballad “Hello,” the first music video in the high-resolution IMAX format.
Other nominees for Video of the Year include West’s controversial “Famous,” in which the rapper boasts that superstar Taylor Swift may sleep with him because “I made that bitch famous.”
Defying her protests over the song, West made a video that shows a naked woman with a striking resemblance to Swift – as well as a naked rendering of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – in bed with him.
Bad blood has grown after West’s wife, reality television star Kim Kardashian, aired footage in which the rapper asks Swift for permission to record the song.
Swift insisted she never gave her green light. But viewers will not see her squirming at the VMAs, which Kardashian will also attend.
Swift – the key winner both at last year’s VMAs and the latest Grammys – is not scheduled to come.
Videos still relevant?
Beyonce was nominated for Video of the Year for “Formation,” the most politically charged single of her career.
The video, shot in New Orleans, offers solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality with officers depicted raising their arms as if under arrest.
But “Formation” marked a comparatively rare political statement from a VMA nominee or on MTV, which revolutionised the music business through videos in the 1980s but has since shifted more generally to youth-oriented programming.
Another exception is Lukas Graham, a Danish band nominated for Best New Artist that has crafted a pop realism through tales of a childhood spent on the economic margins.
“There is very little cultural or political provocation, which is a pity,” frontman Lukas Forchhammer said of the bulk of award-nominated music.
“Our art in a sense is quite revolutionary,” he said. “We’re talking about growing up in regular families, dreaming about better things, instead of popping bottles in the club and spending a lot of money that you don’t have while living in your mother’s basement.”
But Forchhammer, whose song “7 Years” has become a viral global hit, said that MTV still offered a powerful outlet for rising artists.
Videos, with their investment in visuals, allow bands to cultivate an audience beyond casual listeners on streaming services, he said.
“Where MTV once had a monopoly, now the video is more like extra content for the fan,” he said.