MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now let's hear about what one writer called our favorite bonkers award show - MTV's Video Music Awards, the VMAs. They air tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern time on MTV and mtv.com. The VMAs began in 1984, but they've provided many watercooler or cringe-worthy moments since then, depending on your point of view. There was Prince's, let's call it, eye-catching yellow outfit in 1991, Britney Spears' appearance with a live Python back in 2001 and Lady Gaga's meat dress in 2010. And who could forget the now infamous moment in 2009 when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KANYE WEST: I'm really happy for you. I'm going to let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.
MARTIN: Who knows what antics will be in store tonight? So we called Alex Gale, the executive editor of The New York-based pop culture magazine Complex for a preview. Hi, Alex. Thanks for joining us.
ALEX GALE: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So now to the most important question - will Beyonce be there? Just kidding. The first question is there are so many award shows on television now. Why do we still care about the VMAs? What makes the VMAs stand out?
GALE: The VMAs are basically where pop music really gets to act a little bit like pop music. You're not wearing a tux there. People - it's kind of known for, like - you let it all out, and that's not only allowed, but encouraged. It's kind of just known for these iconic statement-making moments more so than the awards. The awards are just an afterthought. It's really about the red carpet and what happens on the stage.
MARTIN: Many people might remember that visual albums have become popular this year. There's, of course, "Lemonade." There's - Frank Ocean has a new visual album out. Has that - I don't know - revived the form in any way?
GALE: Obviously, in the past year it's been huge for basically the music video. Once again, it's kind of making a comeback. But the thing is for the most part, there's a strange disconnect because videos don't really break through for the most part, except for these two huge exceptions, you know, which were really like full-length, album-length videos.
In fact, they actually pretty much seemingly created the category basically to give Beyonce an award because for Beyonce to not get an award for "Lemonade" would have been a little ridiculous, so there's something they've called The Breakthrough Long Form Video Award. And the category basically consists of "Lemonade" and then a few other projects that most of us have not heard of (laughter). But then also, Rihanna is being honored with something called the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, which celebrates an artist for their contributions to music. Let me just play a little bit of Rihanna's song "Work."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK")
RIHANNA: (Singing) Recognize I'm trying baby. I have to work, work, work, work, work, work. He say me have to work, work, work, work, work, work. He see me do me...
MARTIN: This has generally been considered the biggest award of the night, though, right?
GALE: Yeah. You know, she's - it'll make us all feel old - but she's really had like a legendary run in terms of, you know, hot 100, number-one hits well into the teens. I believe she's tied with Madonna now, which is just pretty amazing, so she absolutely does deserve this. She's been releasing incredible videos for some 10 years, so it makes a lot of sense.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, what do you think if there was one moment that you would choose to kind of sum up the VMAs for somebody who'd never seen them before, what moment would you pick?
GALE: Well, I think the most iconic moment that really sums up to be amazed to me that I always think of is really you go all the way back to 1984 where Madonna performed "Like A Virgin," and she was in a wedding dress. And she was sort of, you know, riding around on stage, and it launched her career to a new level. And it really made the VMAs matter and sort of set the blueprint for what the VMAs have become. It all seems very quaint kind of that someone just rolling around in a dress could get everyone talking, but at the time, it was pretty shocking. And the VMAs are kind of that moment. It's for pop stars to kind of shock America.
MARTIN: That's Alex Gale. He's the executive editor of The New York-based pop culture magazine Complex with us from New York. Alex, thanks so much for joining us.
GALE: Thanks so much for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.