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MTV VMAs 2017: The Best, Worst and Most WTF Moments

From Katy Perry’s spotty debut as host to Kendrick Lamar’s victory to a Chester Bennington tribute, here’s the evening’s highs and lows

At last year’s MTV Video Music Awards, performer Britney Spears had the considerable misfortune of following Beyoncé’s masterful Lemonade medley performance. This year’s VMAs had the misfortune of simply lacking Beyoncé or a Beyoncé-caliber moment – or even a Spears moment, for that matter. Nevertheless, the raucous evening, held inside the Forum in Inglewood, California, produced plenty of fodder to kvell, kvetch and tweet about: from Kendrick Lamar’s absolute domination to host Katy Perry’s iffy jokes to a touching Chester Bennington tribute to the thunder-stealing return (sort of) of Taylor Swift.  Here, Rolling Stone recaps the night’s highs and lows.

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Best: Kendrick Lamar’s Opener Is Lit, Literally

Kendrick Lamar opened the VMAs with another emphatic performance, blazing through “DNA” and “Humble” with taut focus. Both of the Damn. tracks were produced with club-shaking force by Mike Will Made It, but at the VMAs, Lamar reworked them as muscular funk-rock, full of ringing guitars and clobbering drum fills. He opened the performance clad head-to-toe in red and rapped from within a shifting cage of lasers; later, the lasers were replaced by impressive pyrotechnics: a burning, multistory latticework and a dancer who twirled while enveloped in flames. Lamar broke up the comforting flow of his Number One hit “Humble” with fierce, stop-start passages, while the dancers appeared to climb the firewall behind him. It was an impressive display from the evening’s leading light: Lamar was nominated for eight awards at the VMAs, more than any artist in any genre, and won six, including Video of the Year, for “Humble.” EL

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Worst: Newcomers Get Sidelined

This VMAs broadcast had a frustrating tendency to relegate vital new artists to the pre-show or cut their performances short before they made it past their first hook. This was especially egregious in the case of Cardi B: her hit “Bodak Yellow” rose to Number Three on the Hot 100 last week, but the ascendant rapper was still stuck in the pre-show portion of the event. She delivered one of the night’s most exciting performances anyway, employing an arsenal of sneers, snarls and stiff-arms as she strutted around MTV’s studio. Also stuck in the pre-show was Khalid, who hopped from one foot to the other as he delivered cheerful renditions of his hit “Location” and his latest single, “Young Dumb & Broke.” (He’d later win the fan-voted Best New Artist during the show.) And during the main event, singer-songwriter Julia Michaels was just settling into her string-slathered, heart-on-sleeve ballad “Issues” when MTV cut to commercial. All three deserved better. EL

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WTF: Katy Perry’s Iffy Comedic Chops

Without the timing of a proper comedian – or, for that matter, Cardi B – Katy Perry relied on weirdness and inside jokes to take her through the show, which began with a painfully long “I’ve been on the moon for a year” astronaut bit. Some jokes landed – there was a nice nod to the conspiracy theory that Perry is in fact JonBenét Ramsey and a riff about a dirty drafted tweet to Ed Sheeran – but she too often fell short: normal rather than normie. Ellen DeGeneres was seen nearly wincing when Perry doubled down on a fake-baby gag by shooting fake breast milk under her dress. Ouch. NM

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Best: Fifth Harmony Hits the Ejector Button

There was a lot to take in during Fifth Harmony’s performance of “Angel” and “Down:” Tightly coordinated movements from the group, a slew of silver-suited dancers, Normani Kordei wowing the crowd by dropping into a split onstage, a brassy, EDM-inspired breakdown and a cool-as-ice Gucci Mane ambling onstage to deliver a laid-back verse. But all of this was overshadowed by Fifth Harmony’s pointed opening: the group began “Angel” cloaked and hooded on top of tall glass boxes, with a faceless fifth singer in place of former member Camila Cabello. Suddenly the fifth was thrown backwards as if shot, and she tumbled out of sight. After that ejection, Kordei, Ally Brooke, Dinah Jane and Lauren Jauregui threw back their hoods and began to sing.

Perhaps this will stop interviewers like Charlamagne the God from continuing to ask questions about Cabello’s exit. During the pre-show, he asked Fifth Harmony, “If y’all win the choreography award, do you give one to the member who’s no longer in the group?” “If we win for best choreography, we’ll actually give it to our choreographer,” Kordei replied slyly. “He deserves it.” EL

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Worst: Lorde’s Wordless Interpretive Dance

Performing a deep cut at an awards show, while all your peers are parading their biggest hits, is the kind of power move usually reserved for VMA superstars. Lorde isn’t quite at that level, which made it all the more gutsy that she took the VMA stage with “Homemade Dynamite” instead of one of the Melodrama’s two singles. More surprising was that she opted to simply dance, not even lip syncing as the album track rang out. To be fair to Lorde, that may not have been her original plan; she tweeted shortly before show time that “i have the flu so bad i needed an IV #showgoeson #cutelilproppedupcorpse.” Nonetheless, it was not the triumphant moment for Lorde’s quirky choreography that it could’ve been. AS

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WTF: Ed Sheeran Makes Friends with Lil Uzi Vert

At this point, Ed Sheeran has rapped and collaborated with rappers more than, really, anybody but Ed Sheeran could possibly ask for. But it was still a little surprising when SoundCloud rap’s favorite rock star Lil Uzi Vert crashed the stage to rap over the end of Sheeran’s ubiquitous trop house chart-topper “The Shape of You.” And when Sheeran began singing Uzi’s “all my friends are dead” emo rap hit “XO Tour Llif3,” Cardi B’s raised eyebrow was the audience reaction shot that summed up how pretty much everyone at home felt. AS

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Best: Jared Leto Honors Chester Bennington

Current-era award shows are filled with enough tributes to keep Dave Grohl busy year-round. Yet few felt as profound as the words Jared Leto spoke for Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, who took his own life at age 41 in July. “I think about his heart, which he wore on his sleeve,” said Leto. “I think about his band who were really his brothers, and I remember his voice, at one ferocious and delicate, which will live forever.” In a program filled with messages about suicide prevention, Leto’s message was especially resonant: “The absolute biggest breakthroughs in life lie just beyond the darkest days.” NM

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Worst: The Bored-AF Audience

During the VMAs, many of honorees and presenters were cordoned off from the rabble in an awkward lounge area, and when the camera cut to capture a celebrity reaction to a joke, acceptance speech, or performance, theyfrequently appeared bored: The Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff stared into the distance and munched on a banana, seemingly unaware of his surroundings, Lorde was surprisingly nonplussed during Pink’s powerhouse medley, Ellen DeGeneres remained impassive as host Katy Perry whiffed on some of her one-liners, and DeGeneres’ wife Portia de Rossi seemed similarly unmoved. There were a few notable exceptions: Bebe Rexha, who exploded with excitement when Fifth Harmony’s Normani Kordei dropped into a split during “Down,” and P!nk’s daughter Willow, who flashed a toothy smile at her mother after she accepted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. EL 

WTF: DNCE, Rod Stewart’s “Sexy” Vegas Collab

Rod Stewart was making tasteless synth-rock before the tasteless synth-rockers of DNCE were even born. Their VMA collaboration, however, went back even further, resurrecting “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” for a performance that no one asked for but a few people, somewhere, probably appreciated. DNCE handled the first verse on their own, frontman Joe Jonas (with a modified porn-stache) crooning the vocals in a zebra print suit, unafraid of what stains the set’s black lights might uncover. Stewart, even bolder, strutted off an elevator in skin-tight white pants, then sang the lyrics with the confidence of a man who believes that each year leaves him sexier than the one before. Naturally, the performance was filmed on a B-stage atop a tower in Vegas. NM

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Best: A “Younger” Miley’s Chill VMAs Return

Did Miley Cyrus – she’s Dolly Parton’s goddaughter, after all – just go full-on country? Sort of. With a Patsy Cline meets Tom Petty vibe, the recently reinvented Cyrus showcased her strongest vocals yet performing “Younger Now.” She wore cat-eye glasses and a poodle skirt, and danced past a row of old folks in leather jackets, which made more sense during the song’s Link Wray bridge. There were also boy scouts on tricycles, which made little sense at all. The whole thing was weird and fun and low-key, especially compared to the universe-splitting, twerking bears of her 2013 VMAs. But she was so much older then. NM

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Worst: 30 Seconds to Mars’ Goggle Gimmick

Even beyond Jared Leto’s Hollywood fame, 30 Seconds to Mars have always had a flair for visual spectacle in their videos and concerts – which justified their selection as the VMAs’ token rock performance this year. But the band’s performance of their new single “Walk On Water” was perhaps too ambitious, filmed entirely through heat vision goggles that ultimately looked like a more boring version of the Beastie Boys’ video for “So What’cha Want.” Leto wore and removed a ski mask as a mild attempt at having fun with the heat sensors, and Travis Scott wandered into the frame to shoehorn a few bars of his hit “Butterfly Effect” into the song, but the performance just never had a pulse. AS

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Best: Pink’s Refreshingly Excellent Speech

Pink’s performance before accepting the Video Vanguard Award was a solid testament to the strength of her discography, if not her fairly unremarkable videography, and as usual she elided the R&B-tinged Can’t Take Me Home era from her career narrative. It was all worth it, however, for Pink’s touching, funny acceptance speech, which began with an anecdote about her 6-year-old daughter, Willow (seen watching in the audience). “She said, ‘I’m the ugliest girl I know.’ And I said, ‘huh?’ And she was like ‘Yeah, I look like a boy with long hair.'” She proceeded to wax eloquent about androgynous rock stars and “artists who live their truth” like Prince and Annie Lennox who made it possible for people like Pink and her daughter to feel comfortable in their own skin. AS

Best: Things Get Woke

In the all-time ranking of memorable VMA moments, a speech by a descendant of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (introducing Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro) may not be able to beat, say, the fist-fight between Kid Rock and Tommy Lee. Yet in the context of the 2017 ceremony, it was undoubtedly a highlight, its tone consistent with a show in which artists repeatedly tried to figure out how they – and their fans – can effect change. Kesha reminded viewers that they’re not alone in the world. Cardi B promised to stand with Colin Kaepernick.

Logic’s performance of “1-800-273-8255,” with Khalid and Alessia Cara, was particularly intense. The song’s title, the number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, illuminated the stage, which was also occupied by rows of suicide survivors. “I don’t give a damn if you’re black white or anything in between. We’re all born equal, but we’re treated unequal,” the rapper said in an emotional speech after the last verse. NM

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Worst: Katy Perry’s Meh Finale

The rebuttal that wasn’t. Closing out the show, Perry reprised the basketball theme of her recently released music video for “Swish Swish” when she brought the single to the VMAs, but the performance was flat and lacking sparks – especially when compared with her rival Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” song and video (more on that in a second). Perry soared through the air over the stage twice with the aid of a harness, but she had already done that to start the show, so the trick began to wear thin, and when basketball-like balloons fell from the ceiling, the hoops-theme started to seem overdone. Nicki Minaj stood still as she rapped her “Swish Swish” verse and let the camera move around her, so the energy level of the performance barely shifted. Perry finished the song on a high note by triumphantly dunking a basketball. But moments later, she was left floating awkwardly in the air once more.  EL

WTF: Taylor Swift, in Absentia, Hijacked Entire Night

MTV has always relished the collisions of big names and big egos that other award shows might prefer to keep polite and proper. And the moment in 2009 that Kanye West grabbed the mic and interrupted a young Taylor Swift instantly birthed the VMAs’ most enduring soap opera. Both returned to the show in 2010 to debut songs seemingly inspired by the incident, Swift presented an award to West in 2015 (the same year she squashed another nascent beef with Nicki Minaj), and in 2016, West was nominated in several major categories for “Famous,” the song that finally turned their odd shared history into a full-on feud. So it’s no surprise that the 2017 VMAs offered a continuation of the saga, with Swift – present only in the video which premiered 20 minutes into the show – poking fun at her image in a playful, bombastic clip for her disdainful new ode to West (and others), “Look What You Made Me Do.” And of course, Swift’s second most famous frenemy, Perry, hosted the whole night, mostly avoiding the fracas besides a few highly interpretable, wordless winks and nudges. AS