When I got a writing job at MTV News earlier this year, one of the first things my mom said to me was, “You have to take me with you to the Grammys.” This comment, which I essentially ignored with a wan smile, made absolutely no sense to me until I realized she meant the VMAs. Of course I will bring my dear mother to the VMAs, I thought to myself. I will be a magnanimous benefactor in the manner of Daddy Warbucks, et al. When I die, they will paint a mural of me on the White House, a giant cubist interpretation of my face surrounded by thousands of cubist people thanking me for taking them to the VMAs.
Then MTV News did not invite me (or anyone) to the VMAs.
Instead, we would be expected to gather in the same office where we worked every day to write about the VMAs as we watched it live on TV like everyone else on the lord’s green earth. Last week, though, we MTV News staffers learned that in order to breach the ironclad walls of Madison Square Garden, we had but one hope: The staff ticket raffle, which would gift a number of tickets to a randomly selected group of MTV employees. I entered the raffle halfheartedly, with the deflated confidence of someone whose own bosses do not think her (or anyone, I guess) worthy of a sixth-floor nosebleed seat with obstructed views. And against all odds, I won.
The reaction to my victory was mixed, nowhere more so than inside my own brain. At first, I felt elation, imagining myself sharing a soap dispenser with Rihanna in the bathroom and smashing haphazardly into Ariana Grande as we both rounded the same corner and, after we both recovered from the searing pain, laughing and laughing until she said, “You must come to my after-party so Nicki Minaj and I can sit on either side of you and explain, once and for all, who is and is not in the Illuminati.” But when I shared the controversial news, my coworkers eyed me like a suspicious package on the subway. I can’t go, I realized. I will be a traitor the likes of which the world has never known. I cannot rightfully enjoy myself while my friends sit around a conference table, mournfully chugging boxed wine. On Saturday, I told my editor I would not be attending, and gave the tickets to my boyfriend and my friend, Jess, who both happened to be standing in my vicinity as I made the final, brave decision to forgo them.
But then, there was Beyoncé. At 4:40 p.m. on Sunday, I realized that I could not, in good faith, turn down a chance to watch Beyoncé murder an arena’s worth of people with a single note. At 6 p.m. on Sunday, I stole the ticket back from my extremely patient boyfriend and headed to MSG.
From the get-go, the experience was, in a word, humbling. Since I had not adequately planned for the occasion, I show up to MSG wearing an Urban Outfitters romper and a $30 “kimono” that my 13-year-old sister had convinced me to purchase at a suburban chain store. Jess, who is seven months pregnant and therefore has approximately 60 percent fewer clothing options available to her because #patriarchy, arrives looking sleek as hell. For a full hour, I have lipstick smeared on my chin without realizing it. When I hand our tickets to the usher outside, he looks upon us with disdain. “Oh,” he says. “You’re regular admission.”
Being Regulars, Jess and I are two hours early, so we ask another usher if we’re allowed to go watch the red carpet. “You can try,” he says. “But you probably won’t be able to see anything. Also, all the famous people are already inside.” This makes no sense — Beyoncé would never deign to sit in a chair staring at nothing for two hours — but I choose to believe him. This is another grave mistake.
We find our seats 20 minutes later, four floors up despite being labeled “Garden Concourse.” We are jammed into the corner of a sort of half-box, where a slate of TVs play Teen Mom. The arena is, of course, almost entirely empty. I make a mental note to never trust another usher again, save for Usher Raymond, whom I would trust with my social security number and sexual welfare until my death.
I spend the next two hours staring intently at the humans that trickle onto the floor level of MSG — built into a very confusing sort of dungeon maze that magically cuts off all contact from Regulars, but also appears to have about 16 entry points for waiters carrying trays of alcohol — trying to discern whether or not they are famous. This turns into a very grim game of Where’s Waldo?, wherein Waldo is wildly famous and therefore is actually nowhere. I point at a woman with a giant ponytail. “Is that Ariana Grande?” I ask Jess. We watch her take overly posed selfies with what is clearly a Regular. It is not Ariana Grande. A woman in a white silk dress who looks exactly like Taylor Swift is not Taylor Swift. A large man in a red-and-white striped t-shirt wanders about the ground floor in a visible haze, clearly a Regular who has accidentally found himself among the Famous and is frantically attempting to keep up the ruse.
The first Famous — a Famous Regular, really — to show up is Farrah Abraham of Teen Mom, who sashays onto the floor wearing Wonder Woman’s skin. On the TV in our half-box, she is having some kind of emotional breakdown on her show. I experience cognitive dissonance.
At about 8 p.m., a torrent of teens flood the floor, where they will stand and scream for the next five hours. I turn to ask a stranger — who turns out to be one of the show’s producers — who they are and how they have secured invites to this show. “They’re cast,” he explains. Essentially, he says, these kids show up and stand outside and hope they’re cute enough to get picked to stand around the stage and scream. It is at this point that Jess shares with me that I have lipstick on my chin and have for a long while.
Watching the Farrahs and the Not Arianas and the Not Taylors and the Striped Shirts, I realize that award-show entry times are a statement of hierarchy. If you are a Not Taylor, you show up to the VMAs at 7 p.m. and flounce around in your silk dress taking thousands of selfies. If you are a Beyoncé, you do not spend one single second on the floor of MSG before or during the show; nay, you are escorted back and forth from your dressing room only to accept an award or blow up the known universe.
Around 8:30, Jess decides she wants chicken fingers and heads out to the hallway to purchase some. She comes back five minutes later looking gray and shaken, carrying a massive box of fries. “They wouldn’t sell me chicken fingers,” she says. “They said concessions are closed and everyone has to be in their seats.” We eat the fries silently, listening to a DJ attempt to keep the teens screaming. “IT’S THE VMAS, Y’ALL,” he yells. “PUT YOUR HANDS UP. BEYONCÉ IS IN THE BUILDING.” I see no indication of Beyoncé, but again misplace my trust in an authority figure and put my hands up.
It’s nearly 9 now, which means the Famouses (sans Beyoncé) are finally beginning to take their seats. Most of them are unidentifiable save for their aura — for the most part, I can’t tell who’s who, but the first few rows emit a sort of amber glow of money, impeccable skin care, and lightly mind-altering substances. The only Famouses I can discern are Amber Rose and Chance the Rapper, who looks like the love child of a Super Mario brother and a UPS employee. The greeting of choice between Famouses appears to be “side hug.” The Famous side-hug each other like old high school classmates who’ve run into one another in the tampon aisle on a late-night Walgreens run. Some are more enthusiastic than others, but on the whole, there’s a sense of duty inherent in each side hug — a knowledge that the side hug is not ephemeral, that somewhere, somebody is snapping a photo of the side hug, and it will live on in the public consciousness until the nuclear apocalypse.
The show begins promptly at 9, which is nice when you are working and/or pregnant and cannot distract yourself with copious plastic cups of wine. Rather than walk you through something you’ve already seen on live television, I will tell you what it’s like to watch something live that is designed specifically for television: surreal as hell. The VMAs are not put on to merely please their live audience. They are put on to please the entire world, which means that, first and foremost, everyone involved in the show plays to the camera. The camera is god. This creates a strangely tranquil energy; the audience, minus the teens, are intentionally quiet and attentive, hoping not to miss a camera-size moment. The show doesn’t feel like a wild concert as much as it does a very well-staged, well-cast play.
Before the lights go up for Rihanna’s performance, I watch her stand silently in the darkness, waiting for the cameras to find her. During commercial breaks, the floor goes entirely dark, and the Lernaean hydra that is the Famouses undulates. Hailee Steinfelds exit; Joe Jonases enter. Infinite waiters appear out of nowhere in sleek lines, doling out glasses of champagne. Schmoozing is redefined. Kanye wanders into various aisles, hugging Charlamagne Tha God, catching up with Chance, appearing completely oblivious to Jimmy Fallon’s orgy jokes. Frankie Grande does not ever stop dancing. Ever. When Ariana appears after her performance, resplendent in faux–Soul Cycle gear, the Famouses flock to her in unison like slightly drunken birds. One of the members of Fifth Harmony yanks her onto the stage for a side hug and I worry, briefly, about one of her delicate limbs disjointing. My neck starts to hurt from straining forward to try to see what the actual fuck Ansel Elgort is wearing. The metaphor is not lost on me.
Before Beyoncé’s mind-scalding performance, I watch her dancers stand in a line next to the burbling cauldron of shrieking teens. Some of the teens try to interact with them; the dancers appear disinterested and nervous, each in her own universe, bending and straightening her knees, going through the steps one last time in her head. A group of security guards show up in my section and stand silently, watching over Beyoncé from afar, as if to make sure we do not attempt to hurl ourselves over the balcony and land at her feet. At the end of Beyoncé’s performance, the cameras pan to Key and Peele, but the Queen stands on stage for at least a minute, basking in the glow of the nuclear winter she’d just induced. She leaves the stage only when she’s ready, and disappears into the maze.
As the show winds down, the Famouses and the Regulars alike begin to get drunker and surreptitiously peace the fuck out. A man behind me begins screaming about Nirvana. Ariana flounces out hand-in-hand with Mac Miller. Michael Phelps and his fiancée wave at fans as they depart in the smack middle of Rihanna’s last performance. Rihanna and Drake walk into the gaping maw of the stage-maze, whispering into each other’s ears. I leave only after the entire floor has cleared, craning my neck to see if an errant Famous will do anything besides drink or side hug. They don’t. When even the churning river of teens has run dry, I depart.
I walk out of MSG and follow the signs for the after-party I am not invited to, but which I plan to scam my way into nonetheless. I stand in line behind a group of middle-aged women and their teenage daughters, all of whom are holding silver tickets. I do not have this ticket, so instead, I put on my most disaffected face and flash the badge that gets me into the MTV office. The man taking the tickets stares at me like I am Drake and he is Rihanna and I have just laid myself bare to him in an international forum. “Do you have a silver ticket?” he asks. “No,” I say, “but I work at MTV.” The ticket man laughs. “So does practically everyone here,” he says. “Oh,” I say. I walk into the black New York night and hail a cab back to the office, where several of my coworkers are still writing, and pour myself a cup of boxed wine.