VMAs 2019: 12 Best, Worst, WTF Moments at MTV Awards Show – Rolling Stone
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MTV VMAs 2019: 12 Best, Worst, WTF Moments

From Missy Elliott playing a sentient garbage bag to that “sensual” moment between Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, we look at the highs, lows and other absurd moments at this year’s Video Music Awards

Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, Missy Elliott, MTV VMAs 2019

Our recap of the best and worst moments from the 2019 MTV VMAs.

Christopher Polk/Variety/Shutterstock,2; John Shearer/Getty Images

It took nearly 40 years for the MTV Video Music Awards to settle on Newark, New Jersey, as its location. And that meant Monday’s production was going to honor the state’s long history of legendary music performers. We had plenty of references to Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Bon Jovi and even The Sopranos, along with three different eras of hip-hop — Naughty by Nature, Queen Latifah, Redman, Fetty Wap, and Wyclef Jean — closing out the show. Thankfully, Missy Elliott, this year’s Video Vanguard Award recipient, stole the show and justified its continued existence. So what did it all mean? Here, we look back on the highs and lows of the show’s, umm, interesting, Garden State edition.

Taylor SwiftMTV Video Music Awards, Show, Prudential Center, New Jersey, USA - 26 Aug 2019

Christopher Polk/Variety/Shutterstock

Best: Taylor Swift Keeps Calm, Carries On

Taylor Swift opened the ceremony with a bedazzled performance of “You Need to Calm Down,” filled with AR projections of the song’s lyrics as well as the words “Equality Act” blaring across the screen. (In June, Swift posted an open letter to her Instagram, urging Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander to help pass the pro-LGBTQ Equality Act in the U.S. Senate.) But Swift got through the shortened version of her gay rights single very quickly, instead devoting her time on stage largely to her new album’s stripped-down title track, “Lover.” Armed with only a guitar and playing to an arena of fans waving their phone lights, the performance felt like a genuine moment in an awards show that’s notoriously artificial. — Claire Shaffer

Sebastian ManiscalcoMTV Video Music Awards, Show, Prudential Center, New Jersey, USA - 26 Aug 2019

Christopher Polk/Variety/Shutterstock

Worst: Host Sebastian Maniscalco’s Monologue Sucks

Many MTV viewers probably began their evening not knowing much about host Sebastian Maniscalco, but they’ll always remember him now as the guy that failed to generate even a single laugh during his opening monologue. Maniscalco is not exactly an unknown considering he regularly packs arenas across America and even played two nights at Madison Square Garden earlier this year, but he wasn’t playing to his strengths in this format with limp jokes about his mother’s fried zucchini, Newark, Instagram influencers, cell phones, and camera angles. At no point did he indicate that he had even a passing familiarity with any of the acts performing throughout the night. The whole thing made us long for the days of Chris Rock, Dana Carvey — or even those years with no host at all. — Andy Greene

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - AUGUST 26: Lizzo performs onstage during the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center on August 26, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images)

John Shearer/Getty Images

Best: Lizzo Takes Everyone to Church

Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” is a study in how circuitous hit-making in 2019 can be. Originally released in 2017, it turns out that the Minneapolis rapper and singer was just ahead of the game; it became her breakout hit this year, once audiences began to catch on. Her performance on Monday night had no such lag time: Lizzo has a presence so immediate and charming it’s unclear why she hasn’t been a star for years. Backed by excellently outfitted backup dancers, Lizzo was part pop presence, part preacher, urging the audience to dance and also begin practicing radical self-acceptance in a world that is often cruel. It was a commanding performance, and one that proves that Lizzo’s star turn is finally here. —Brendan Klinkenberg

Chris Spiegel/Madison Marquette

WTF: Jonas Brothers’ ‘Historic’ Stint at the Stone Pony

As every Jonas Brothers fan knows, they didn’t break big until years of sweating it out on the Jersey bar circuit alongside Bobby Bandiera’s Cats on a Smooth Surface, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band and Bocci and the Badboys. In the summer of 1982, they played the Stone Pony a record 87 times and even got the chance to jam with Bruce Springsteen on an in-progress version of “I’m Goin’ Down.” Of course, none of that is true. But you’d never know that from their VMA performance at the historic Asbury Park music venue where they played “Sucker” and “Only Human” while shamelessly shilling for Toyota and pretending like they didn’t tape the whole thing a day earlier. —Andy Greene

Lil Nas XMTV Video Music Awards, Show, Prudential Center, New Jersey, USA - 26 Aug 2019

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Best: Lil Nas X Serves Legendary Pop Panache

There was a question, when Lil Nas X landed like a meteor in the cultural consciousness this year with the astounding success of “Old Town Road, of what kind of pop star he would become. The answer began to take shape on Monday night: A great one. He was irreverent — opening with a joking sketch about the success of “Old Town Road” then not performing it, and openly lip-syncing — but brought the right amount of ambition to his rendition of “Panini.” He has apparently spent his time since releasing 7, his EP-length follow-up to “Old Town Road,” with a fanatical dedication to dance classes. Flanked by spandex-clad dancers in front of a complex, engrossing Tron-influenced set design, Nas channeled a Britney Spears-esque performance. No one could have predicted the 20-year-old would become a force this year, but it’s going to be endlessly entertaining to see what he continues to do with the spotlight. —Brendan Klinkenberg

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - AUGUST 26: Missy Elliott performs onstage during the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center on August 26, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images)

John Shearer/Getty Images

Best: Missy Elliott Makes VMAs Feel Fresh

Missy Elliott is known for pushing the boundaries. During her unimpeachable run through the early 2000s, she was synonymous with the future, near-singlehandedly changing the rubric for what could be a pop hit. It shouldn’t be surprising that she brought it to her medley performance before winning the night’s Video Vanguard award. And yet. This was a performance that justified the continued existence of the VMAs, a tour de force that featured Missy playing both a sentient garbage bag and a scarecrow living through an alien abduction. The marquee performance is meant as a sort of career retrospective, but Missy used it as an argument for her continued, likely permanent relevance. There’s just no one doing it quite like her. — Brendan Klinkenberg

J Balvin and Bad BunnyMTV Video Music Awards, Show, Prudential Center, New Jersey, USA - 26 Aug 2019

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WTF: J Balvin and Bad Bunny Get Trippy in Their ‘Looney’ Debut

How high can they go? Dressed in comically long-limbed inflatable suits, J Balvin and Bad Bunny performed their Oasis cut “Qué Pretendes” for the first time on TV, and channeled the pop absurdism of David Byrne with the zany, technicolor aesthetic of old Looney Tunes cartoons. Between the singers bounced an array of inflatable animals and figures — among them a twerking stegosaurus — prancing between giant cacti balloons. “Arriba, los Latinos!” shouted Balvin — “Rise up, Latinos!” — as he and Bunny floated above the stage via suspension cords. But when Balvin says to go higher, it’s hard to tell whether he’s talking about the physical plane, or the astral one. —Suzy Exposito

Shawn Mendes and Camila CabelloMTV Video Music Awards, Show, Prudential Center, New Jersey, USA - 26 Aug 2019

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Worst: Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello Stay Chaste

Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes have been in each other’s orbits since they first recorded their 2015 duet, “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Yet the two pop titans went from casual orbiting to open-mouthed collision following this summer’s release of their Latin lite FM hit, “Señorita.” Relationship rumors have abounded for months; but on Monday night, the two decided their MTV appearance would ring a little more… Disney Channel. Mendes and Cabello succeeded at keeping viewers on their toes while performing their latest track, if only by exchanging a series of tepid, vaguely sensual brushes of arms and boops of noses. Instead of capitulating to their fans’ wishes and sealing the deal with a cathartic on-air kiss, Mendes and Cabello left room for the Holy Spirit — and settled with a chaste nuzzle. Monday night’s “Señorita” marked a major win for youth pastors, and a loss for CaMendes stans. —Suzy Exposito

Miley CyrusMTV Video Music Awards, Show, Prudential Center, New Jersey, USA - 26 Aug 2019

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Best: Miley Cyrus Soars With ‘Slide Away’

Unlike Lil Nas X, this wasn’t Miley’s first rodeo. The singer has had many notable VMA moments — from scandalously twerking with Robin Thicke in 2013 to performing a fiery “Dooo It” with RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants in 2015. So she scaled it back this year, surprising the crowd with an intimate, jaw-dropping performance of her new single “Slide Away.” Dressed in a chic black mini dress and backed by a string quartet, Cyrus delivered the Liam Hemsworth-inspired track with grace and heartbreak, reaching new emotional heights as she sang about her disintegrating relationship. “Move on, we’re not 17,” she sings. “I’m not who I used to be.” It was almost like Ally Maine singing “I’ll Never Love Again” in the final moments of A Star Is Born, except when it comes to Cyrus, we know she will. —Angie Martoccio

RosaliaMTV Video Music Awards, Show, Prudential Center, New Jersey, USA - 26 Aug 2019

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Best: Rosalía and Ozuna Bring Tropical Gothic Romance

It wouldn’t be a genuine Rosalía performance without a touch of melodrama. Ensconced in black satin, mesh and rhinestones, the Spanish singer-songwriter opened her first-ever VMAs performance with “A Ningún Hombre,” the flamenco noir closing track off her 2018 breakthrough LP, El Mal Querer. Then Ozuna, Puerto Rican heartthrob and fellow VMAs rookie, emerged in a matching black, bedazzled suit; and like a Hispanic Gomez and Morticia Addams, the two coyly circled each other as they sang their buoyant new reggaeton hit, “Yo X Ti, Tu X Mi,” which translates to “Me for you, you for me.” It was Rosalía who cut the love fest short — wrapping up with her fizzy dance-pop track, “Aute Cuture.” But behind her dance crew was a silhouette of Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf — a famous landmark from her hometown — outlined in bright lights. —Suzy Exposito

Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Vincent Pastore and Vincent PastoreMTV Video Music Awards, Show, Prudential Center, New Jersey, USA - 26 Aug 2019

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Worst: ‘Sopranos’ Reunion Pussies Out

When the word spread a few days ago there would be a Sopranos 20th-anniversary reunion at the VMAs’ first-ever New Jersey edition, fans began imagining some sort of incredible tribute to the late James Gandolfini featuring the likes of Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, and Tony Sirico. Instead, we simply got Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore, and Drea de Matteo engaging in painfully scripted banter as they introduced the award for Best Pop Video. They didn’t mention Gandolfini, but they did joke about the mob and shoving an Italian flag into Drea de Matteo’s underwear. It was like they promised a Family Matters reunion and then brought out Waldo, Aunt Rachel, and the Urkelbot. —Andy Greene

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - AUGUST 26: Naughty By Nature, Wyclef Jean, Fetty Wap, Queen Latifah and Redman perform onstage during the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center on August 26, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/VMN19/Getty Images for MTV)

Dimitrios Kambouris/VMN19/Getty Images for MTV

WTF: That Confusing New Jersey Medley to Unite Three Generations of Hip-Hop

To honor this year’s awards show home, an odd assortment of Jersey’s most iconic rappers — Naughty by NatureQueen LatifahRedmanFetty Wap, and Wyclef Jean —  were selected to deliver the finale for this year’s show. Naughty by Nature performed “O.P.P.” to a room full of people that weren’t born when it was a hit. Fetty Wap ran through “Trap Queen” for a crowd that was definitely alive and thriving when the Paterson rapper was beginning his now-legendary 2014-2015 run. Then Wyclef started walking on his hands. It was a mixed, chaotic, but ultimately worthwhile bag. Plus, we got Queen Latifah riding in on a motorcycle. All it was missing was Zach Braff DJ’ing a quick Garden State soundtrack set. — Charles Holmes