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Tuesday, August 26 2014

What Is It About Award Shows Anyway?

Last night, much of the nation tuned in to watch the Emmy Awards, television's annual night of festivity, fun, and patting each other on the back.  Or, at least, that's what Twitter made it look like was going on, between tweets about Bryan Cranston, Sofia Vergara, and Bendypatch Humptyboots (or Benedict Cumberbatch, or something like that). A couple nights before, MTV held their annual Video Music Awards (VMAs), where Beyoncé notably danced and gyrated in front of a "Feminist" sign which, according to notables on Twitter, elevated her display above the Emmy appearance of poor Sofia Vergara.

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about here, a quick Google search of "Sofia Vergara Emmy" would be instructive.)

The Emmys and VMAs, the CMAs, the Golden Globes and the Grammies, the Tonies, the Razzies, and of course the Oscars: as a culture, as a society, we seem to be fascinated by the phenomenon of the Award Show.

Every March or so, like clockwork, we sit down on a Sunday evening to thrill to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presenting various actors, directors, and assorted creative types with big shiny statues. In the last several years, Oscar parties have become a thing, mirroring the far more fabulous and star-studded galas the Hollywood elite attend. And for a day or two (or three) afterward, much of the news cycle is dominated by talk of who won what, and who didn't, of who wore what, and who didn't, and who received their awards with grace and poise, and who didn't.

So I have to wonder: what is it about entertainment award shows we find so fascinating?

I do, of course, have a few theories.

  • The Competitive Spirit
    As a species, we seem to be prone to an overwhelming need to compete for everything. In a world which grows ever more civilized (and in which, therefore, there is less and less need to compete for survival), we are constantly looking for outlets for that competitive spirit. Much of our popular culture, from professional sports to Reality TV, to magazines and websites tracking the popularity of various movies, TV shows, songs and artists—all of it seems to be geared toward meeting this incredible need we feel, to indulge that impulse to compete.

    And most of the time, it's not even us competing; it's purely the thrill of vicarious competition through surrogates. In the case of your average entertainment award, it happens to be four or five fabulously beautiful, unspeakably wealthy übermenschen. That just makes it better, in a way; if you are going to indulge that need to fight for the top prize via proxies, why not proxies  you can really identify with?

  • Affirmation, Baby!
    When you get your competitive jollies vicariously, you have to pick a team to root for. With sports, this generally comes down either to where you live, or where you used to live. With award shows, though, it's usually something to do with personal preference—the actor or actress you like best, or the movie you thought was the best one, and so on. This is much more of a personal judgment, and makes the whole question much more subjective: with sports teams, one team is, in any given contest, objectively better than the other. With award shows, though, who wins the award comes down to how those who were eligible to vote (members of the Academy, members of the Foreign Press, etc.) voted.

    The interesting thing is that, no matter how a given award turns out, you can manage to find it self-affirming. If your "team" wins the award, then you get to feel great that you have such good taste. If they don't win, you can shift allegiance, or else you can find affirmation in the fact that there are undoubtedly others who felt as you did about who SHOULD have won. Plus, there's always the fact that you clearly have much, much better taste in movies/tv/music/etc. than those dumb voters!;

  • Errors and Foibles and Gaffes, Oh My!
    One of the most charming moments during the 2013 Academy Awards came when, in making her way up to the stage to accept her award for Silver Linings Playbook, actress Jennifer Lawrence tripped and fell. As she gave her speech, you could see the nervous energy and genuine excitement and awe play across her face as she (quite adorably) acknowledged her slip. It was a lovely, true moment that made anyone watching fall in love (if they hadn't already).

    And that's all part of the fun, really. No award show broadcast ever goes perfectly, there's always something to catch, some slip or error or twist of the tongue. When it's something sweet and touching, as with Ms. Lawrence, we enjoy the emotional warmth of identifying with one of our screen or music idols. When it's more embarrassing than cute, we get the reassurance that these stars are just as human as the rest of us. And when it's something horrific, like Kanyé West's infamous interruption of Taylor Swift, we get the nasty little schadenfreude of seeing an over-privileged twit get "taken down a notch." Either way, it's a win for us.;

  • Avengers, Assemble!
    Everyone loves a super-group. Whether it's the Justice League of America, or the band Damn Yankees, there something just so damn thrilling about seeing a collection of the greatest names in… well, anything! Remember "USA for Africa", back in the 80s? Award shows offer us some of the same thrill: seeing one luminary after another, all under the same roof, laughing and interacting with one another as if they're just—canyoujustimagineit—a collection of people like any other. What on earth might happen, when you collect THAT MUCH TALENT in one place???

These are just some thoughts, off the top of my head, though perhaps I am over-thinking things. There are, after all, a number of drinking games associated with the various award shows. Take a drink for an overly-revealing gown, take a drink for a nightmarish fashion faux-pas, do a shot for an acceptance speech that goes too long.

Sometimes a good excuse for drinking is all it takes, after all.

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