How do you sum up a MTV Video Music Awards night that begins with Madonna serving leather dominatrix vibes, then ends with Lil Nas X yelling “Let’s go, gay agenda”? A night where one of the highlights is Billie Eilish refusing to clap for Jennifer Lopez? A night where Justin Bieber is the only one to mention “the Covid thing”? A night where Normani climbs up on an actual cross to hump a crucified Teyana Taylor into the middle of next Holy Week? A night with old-school MTV legends like Cyndi Lauper, Busta Rhymes, and David Lee Roth? A night where the cameras catch Olivia Rodrigo screaming along as Foo Fighters play “Everlong”? A night where Ozuna takes a psychedelic trip into the land of magic dancing teddy bears?
You could say it’s a win for the MTV agenda. Let’s face it — the dumbest move they could have tried this year was to get serious, which is always a disaster on this show. The VMAs are all about flash, sex, scandal, egomania, pop stars making absurd fashion choices. And that’s what we got. MTV decided to flip the 2021 VMAs into a 40th birthday party for itself, and that was a damn shrewd move. It was the best VMA bash since 2015, the year Taylor Swift gave a lifetime achievement award to “my friend, Kanye West.” (Yes, that really happened. Life is weird.)
MTV kicked off the birthday celebration with a surprise guest of honor: Madonna herself. It was the queen’s most shocking VMAs jump-start since the year she began the show by making out with Britney Spears. She rocked her “Justify My Love” leather lewk, turning at the end to brandish her back catalog for the cameras. She spoke about how she and MTV made an iconic couple, with the quip “And they said we wouldn’t last.”
But this was an in-joke for hardcore fans — it’s the line that capped her iconic 10th-birthday tribute to MTV in 1991, in a clip where she shaded Cher, Axl Rose, and basically everybody not cool enough to be her. Only Madonna would try giving MTV the same birthday toast — 30 years apart. And only Madonna has the star power to get away with it. She never fails us. She never will.
Madonna set the tone for this year’s VMAs. We didn’t even get off the red carpet before the words “icon” and “legend” got beaten to a pulp, and they kept taking punches all night. Charli XCX called Camila Cabello an “icon legend.” Tinashe told Alicia Keys, “You are my icon.” Ciara called Normani “a legend in the making.” It peaked when Billie Eilish introduced Foo Fighters: “They’re heroes, they’re legends, and now they are officially global icons!” At first, I decided to use the word “iconic” in every sentence of this review. Unfortunately, I realized there was no possible way to use it in any sentence about 21 Pilots.
Jennifer Lopez was one of the show’s first icons, without Ben in tow. (The cameras caught a defiantly non-clapping Billie.) La Lopez is at a career/life/everything peak right now, so it was touching to hear her say, “MTV has always been the place to deliver the music and videos that define our generation.” A wonderfully inclusive sentiment — when J.Lo says “our generation,” she means everyone from David Lee Roth to Lil Nas X.
MTV lived up to that spirit all night, with faces from all over the network’s history. Cyndi Lauper mentioned that she won at the first VMAs — 1984 — and made a fiercely political pro-choice speech. Ashanti and Ja Rule still have chemistry, Wyclef yelled, “Brooklyn! Biggie Smalls!,” then gave a touching shout-out to the recently deceased Charlie Watts, Dusty Hill, Biz Markie, Shock G, and DMX.
Alas, despite all of the MTV legends, one was missing: Billy Joel. Some of us really got our hopes up that tonight would be the Billy-Olivia “Deja Vu”/“Uptown Girl” duet the world has been waiting for. Maybe next year?
Olivia nailed “good 4 u” in full-blast rock mode. (Her drummer with the green hair gave serious punk-goddess vibes.) She ended by cracking a camera lens — much fresher than smashing a guitar. She also won Song of the Year for “Driver’s License.” If I’m not mistaken, the first to make this call was my colleague Brittany Spanos in the pages of Rolling Stone, 11 days into 2021, asking, “Is it too early to call song of the year?”
Has there ever been a year when the definitive song was so obvious so soon? On her way to the podium, Olivia made a touching bow to Billie and Finneas. She also gave the night’s best speech: “I wanna dedicate this award to all the other girls who write songs on their bathroom floor.”
The speeches were refreshingly brief, at least until Justin Bieber got up there and went off about “this Covid thing,” while wearing a hoodie, because he’s “shy” and an “artist.” “I know you guys have probably heard it a lot,” he said, “but we are in unprecedented times right now, with this Covid thing that’s happening. It’s not the Covid thing, but it’s a big deal.” This was some of the deepest thinking on MTV since the glory days of Justin Bobby on The Hills.
Normani stole the show in “Wild Side,” with the night’s official instant-classic VMAs moment. You know, when she enacted all the Stations of the Cross by bowing before her lord and savior Teyana, who was writhing (and chewing gum) in Crucified Bikini Jesus mode. Then Normani mounted the cross to perform some sexual healing on her suddenly resurrected messiah. Amen. How intense was this moment? MTV cut right to an ad for pregnancy tests.
Avril Lavigne and Billie made a sweet couple, gushing with mutual fandom. (“Avril, I love you so much!”) Billie stood regal in her black cape, making a tough speech after winning for “Your Power.” She said that writing this song was “so satisfying and freeing, and also really fucking sad. I want to say we need to protect our young women at all costs. For real.”
As for Avril, she had an awesomely petty moment when Bieber won Artist of the Year, with her grudging semi-claps. Could she make it any more obvious?
Tommy Lee was on hand — although for some of us, it doesn’t count as a real Tommy Lee VMAs appearance until he beats the shit out of Kid Rock. But Tommy gave the Best Alternative award to a kid who’s already played him in a Hollywood movie, “My bro Machine Gun Kelly!” (Tommy put on his reading glasses, which is so metal.) MGK began his speech with the words, “Shout out to the emo kids for bringing it all back!”
MGK got attacked on the red carpet by Conor McGregor, but on a more positive note, canoodled all night with Megan Fox, whose diaphanous outfit evoked Rose McGowan’s VMAs star turn in 1999. MGK did an endearingly klutzy attack on “Rock Star” with Travis Barker, turning it into a Nirvana tribute, ending with 2021’s most comical attempt to smash a guitar. Hey, if it made Megan happy, that’s all that matters.
Foo Fighters did a ripping medley of classics — with a shot of Olivia singing “Everlong” in the audience. So many things to cherish about this moment, aside from the fact it probably ruined Courtney’s night. Taylor Hawkins had “Charlie R.I.P.” on his bass drum, a tribute to the late Stones legend. The Foos also won the Global Icon Award, which really should be called the Literally Iconic Global Legend Award. Dave Grohl gave a shout-out to a string of old-school MTV stars: Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren, Matt Pinfield, and strictly for the hardcore, Steve Isaacs, the VJ who hosted Hangin’ With MTV every afternoon with Kennedy.
Ozuna did a trippy “La Funka,” with his hallucinatory dancing teddy bears. It was a perfect sequel to Miley Cyrus’ VMAs coronation moment with “We Can’t Stop.” Who knows — maybe Ozuna even recruited some of the same bears? Lil Nas X kept it low-key, entering with a marching band, switching to an “Industry Baby” duet with Jack Harlow, then ending with “Montero” and a prison full of dudes in glittering pink briefs. Chloe did her soulful solo debut, “Have Mercy,” with a sweet intro from proud sister Halle.
Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes continue to baffle — how did they turn two thriving solo brands into such a mutually sabotaging double-brand? She did a flamenco-style “Don’t Go Yet,” a song where she actually has to beg a young gentleman to make out with her, while he keeps saying he has to get up early in the morning. It’s impossible to imagine a sentiment like this from the confident Camila of three years ago. What the hell happened?
Doja Cat, who won last year’s award for Best New Artist, kept it moving as host — loved when she wore a chair on her head, plus the flower costume nicked from Peter Gabriel on the 1970s Genesis tours. (Supper’s ready!) She got airborne to do “You Right” and “Been Like This.” Ed Sheeran sang “Shivers” by the Brooklyn Bridge. Busta Rhymes did an oldies medley, yelling “Flatbush, stand up!” (Now Busta is giving anti-mask speeches? Maybe because he lasted only one episode on The Masked Singer?) Harry Styles’ “Treat People With Kindness” won for Best Choreography — for his Old Hollywood pas a deux with Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
MTV, always eager to show off how they deeply care about music, built up to the VMAs with archival performances from … nah, don’t be silly. It was a bunch of reruns of The Office. MTV kept hyping its cutting-edge programming all night, such as Floribama Shore (you remember Buckwild, right?) and Double Shot at Love, not to be confused with A Shot at Love II with Tila Tequila. (Hey, what kind of monster doesn’t want to see Pauly D help Vinny find his very own shot at love?)
The VMAs ended with a totally beautiful moment: David Lee Roth, the hammiest of all MTV hams, came out to give Lil Nas X the award for Video of the Year. “There’s money in this motherfucker,” Diamond Dave told the crowd, milking the spotlight as always. Lil Nas X claimed his prize with the words, “First of all, thank you to the gay agenda! Let’s go, gay agenda!”
There was something weirdly sweet about seeing Lil Nas X take the torch from Diamond Dave — the pioneer who burlesqued paradigms of masculine rockness with his assless chaps in the “Yankee Rose” video, the first male (or otherwise) star to flaunt his bare cheeks on MTV. Roth even wore leather chaps tonight — the same ones? (Don’t put it past him.) The Dave-Nas combo was a moment that crossed generations, genres, and cultures, to bring it all back to what music video is all about: expressing yourself.
A philosophical question: What have we, as a culture, done to deserve the blessing of not having DJ Khaled ruin award shows any more? What caused the collective sanity spasm? How did producers suddenly realize it was dumb to keep letting Khaled show up and grunt “Standing ovaaaation!” when there are actual stars willing to perform music? With all the things we’ve gotten so wrong in recent years, how did we accidentally get this one right? We might never know. But all we can do is savor this moment. Bieber is right: We live in unprecedented times.