Joy, tedium, awkwardness, earnestness, Marshmello: Monday’s VMAs had it all. Fortunately, there were quite a few bright spots — Jennifer Lopez’s wildly energetic medley followed by a classy Video Vanguard acceptance speech; Nicki Minaj owning the Oculus; adorable mom moments aplenty — mixed in with the steady procession of face-palm moments. Here, we look back on the highs and lows of the show’s 35th annual edition.
Best of the Night: Jennifer Lopez Nabs the Video Vanguard Award — and Works for It
“Music, acting, performing,” J.Lo said, Moon Person in hand, “this career has always been an obsession for me. When people said to me, ‘You do too much, you can only do one thing!’ I was always the person [to be] like, ‘Why not?'” Case in point: Her dazzling, epic performance from just minutes before. The 49-year-old Nuyorican icon took to the stage Monday night in blue-and-gold brocade, powering through no fewer than a dozen hits, from 1999’s “Waiting for Tonight” to 2018’s “Dinero,” with snazzy choreography and set changes aplenty. Midway through her medley, Lopez stripped down to a sparkling gold bodysuit that would be the envy of Donatella — then slipped on a fur coat for a momentary snowfall, evoking the holiday breakup anthem “All I Have.” She promptly vanished behind a makeshift brick wall, so that a replica of an NYC 6 train could come crashing through, with Lopez in tow as she sang the chorus of “Jenny From the Block.” And somewhere in there, surprise guest Ja Rule resurfaced from a long, post-Fyre Festival hiatus for a quick cameo. Ever the Instagram artiste, Lopez’s beau Alex Rodriguez stood by with pursed lips and his iPhone camera at the ready, as the star popped her legendary booty in gold spandex. Not even a gracious introduction by a soft-spoken Shawn Mendes could contain the uproar of her fans who cheered well into her acceptance speech.
Best: Nicki Minaj Returns to the Throne
Performing from a previously undisclosed location (spoiler: it was the Oculus in downtown NYC, and it was packed with her extremely enthusiastic fans) Nicki Minaj appeared in gold, backed by gold-clad dancers, in front of an imposing golden throne. She performed a quick-moving medley beginning with a brisk “Majesty,” forgoing the Eminem verse in favor of moving on to “Barbie Dreams,” the song filled with a series of (good-natured) shots heard round the world when she dropped it on Queen’s release day last week. She then rounded out the performance with an a capella verse from album opener “Ganja Burns,” before closing with her 6ix9ine collaboration — and current Number 5 single — “FEFE.”
Worst: Madonna’s Aretha Tribute Goes Off the Rails
Honoring Aretha Franklin is no easy task, but the VMAs’ tribute was an unequivocal failure. The show-runners recruited Madonna to give a speech — potentially a major coup — but unfortunately it had little to do with the Queen of Soul. The star began her address by saying that “Franklin changed the course of my life”; she ended it by noting that “none of [my career] would’ve happened … without our Lady of Soul.” In between, there was a story about failed auditions, an assertion of Madonna’s rebelliousness, a “bitch I’m Madonna” joke and a bad, possibly offensive imitation of a French accent, but nothing more than a passing mention of Aretha. Needless to say, Twitter was none too pleased.
Best: Logic Takes a Stand
Logic isn’t subtle. And, when you want to get a point across quickly and effectively with a single song performance on a nationally televised awards show, that’s a strength. Taking to the stage wearing a black “Fuck The Wall” T-shirt and followed by a stream of children, some of whom were displaced by our country’s immigration laws, Logic (alongside Ryan Tedder) used his “One Day” performance to make a blunt, powerful and necessary statement.
Best: Who Run the World? Moms.
Let’s be real: Monday’s VMAs were all about the mothers. From the show’s onset, new mom Cardi B got her kicks pretending to nurse her daughter, Kulture — which turned out to be a swaddled Moon Person statue. (“I am the empress,” Cardi stated matter-of-factly.) Jennifer Lopez later dedicated her Video Vanguard award to her twins, Max and Emme — “The future is brighter than anything I could have accomplished because of you,” she said to her children in the audience. Meanwhile Ariana Grande brought her mother Joan, her grandmother (a.k.a. Nonna) and her cousin Lani onstage for her fiery performance of “God Is a Woman.” By the end of the night, Camila Cabello pulled her own mom, Sinuhe Estrabao, up from her seat to dance along to Maluma’s sultry number. We’re not crying — you’re crying!
Worst: Post Malone Crashes Aerosmith’s Party
It started with a haunted-factory vibe, as a neon-bedecked Post Malone stalked dimly-lit steel corridors mumbling about “shottas” and “poppin’ pillies” and things of that nature. Scary! Things didn’t get much more fun when a glowering guitarist who resembled a sentient Canada Goose jacket entered the picture. But the corniest was yet to come: After making rap hands at 21 Savage for a hot second, Posty picked up an axe of his own and joined Aerosmith for thoroughly half-assed renditions of “Dream On” and “Toys in the Attic.” It was a must-see moment for the 0.2 people in the Venn diagram of the two artists’ fan bases.
Best: Travis Scott Earns His Number One Spot
People usually point at Yeezus, the Kanye West album that Travis Scott helped shape, as Scott’s foundational text. But Scott’s performance at the VMA’s hewed closer to an earlier West tour: the space opera of 2007’s Glow in the Dark tour. Scott began the set in a cockpit of a spaceship for “Stargazing” – accompanied by likely epilepsy-inducing flashes of light — before ceding the spotlight to James Blake for a somber rendition of “Stop Trying to Be God.” He finished strong, with a solo performance of his high-profile collaboration with Drake (and more), “Sicko Mode.”
Worst: The Lost Radio City of Zs
Were the VMA producers desperate to harvesting the reaction shots that would yield a year of GIFs? There was a lot of shots of the crowd … and a lot shots of a bored crowd. An unamused Migos, Nicki Minaj clapping politely for Shawn Mendes, Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande enjoying each others’ company, Camila Cabello patiently sitting through the presentation for Best Video With a Message, Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott watching Jennifer Lopez like they were at home watching the VMAs on TV, Joey Kramer looking like a Son of Anarchy while the Backstreet Boys sing. At least Bobby Brown looked excited to be there?
Best: Maluma Turns On His Effortless Charm
Did you know that the number of YouTube views Maluma’s racked up is equal to one seventh of the earth’s population? After his performance at Monday’s awards, there’s no mystery to the Colombian singer’s star power; he’s practically the hottest dude in pop (and he knows it). Which is why Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello looked the happiest she’d been all night when Maluma hopped offstage and strutted her way, enticing her to get on her feet and move like she comes from Havana. Although Cabello would have been remiss to leave behind her date — who happened to be her mom. For a moment Maluma, Cabello and her mother Sinuhe shared a sweet family-friendly groove, bringing Colombia and Cuba together in perfect harmony.
Worst: The Hart/Haddish Comedy Superduo Somehow Manages to Bomb
Haddish and Hart had the thankless job of riling up the low-energy crowd. This was made more difficult by the fact that they had to plug the VMAs — “this is the biggest night in music,” Hart declared, though that is objectively false — and other MTV ventures such as Jersey Shore. “Jersey Shore is back and it’s bigger than ever, which makes sense: If you don’t get treatment, that sort of stuff will keep flaring up every couple of years,” Haddish said. “That’s a herpes joke!” Hart added. When you have to explain your comedy, it’s never a good sign.
Best: Ariana’s Divine Inspiration
Ariana Grande, whose Sweetener is one of the year’s best pop albums, transformed Radio City into a sacred/profane Sistine Chapel for a performance of her sultry single “God Is a Woman.” Between the Last Supper-inspired choreography and the sexy-theologian lyrics, Grande’s performance evoked classic Madonna on a night when Madonna’s own appearance left viewers baffled — and delivered one of precious few moments from Monday’s show that evoked the days when MTV could still shock and/or thrill.
Worst: Panic! At the Disco Tries to Rush a Good Thing
Typically a commander of song and stage, Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie got winded Monday night as he bounded from aisle to aisle like a marathon runner, trying to stoke the otherwise lackluster audience. It’s a wonder he made it without mussing up his coiffure or gold-leaf sport coat — but he struggled to catch his breath during the song. He made one hell of a Hail Mary with his closing falsetto, but it simply wasn’t enough to fire up the crowd.
Best: Shawn Mendes Waves the Flag for Rock
A teen pop star star going full-rock & roll could be an embarrassing move, but Shawn Mendes sells it. Mendes, going for a Springsteen look with a tank top and Telecaster, delivered “In My Blood,” a genuinely great anthem that would have been at home on Kings of Leon’s Only by the Night. Mendes’ wrote the song after a spell of anxiety, and that vulnerability came across in his performance. But he was also in command, running up and down the catwalk and conjuring musical tension, getting the attention of Ariana Grande, Pete Davidson and Camila Cabello and her mom, who could all be seen rocking out. The performance ended with an artificial rainfall, which felt a little on the nose, but it was admirable to see a 20-year-old former social-media star embracing an out-of-favor genre and winning.
Best: Marshmello, the Human Photo Bomb
Marshmello’s big white head, with its goofy, static grin was a treat every time it popped up, whether peeking over to see G-Eazy and Shay Mitchell or gently rocking out to Jesse Reyez. Up for exactly one award (he lost Best Dance to Avicii), he seemed less like a masked mystery in the vein of Slipknot or Deadmau5 and more like a silly, smiling pop of the celebrity bubble.
Worst: The Charade of the Awards in General
Last night MTV aired an incredible, nostalgic, hit-filled, Vegas-style Jennifer Lopez show complete with guest appearances and a heartfelt speech. Pretty much everyone agrees it was great. So, why did we have to pretend she’s a music-video artist who deserved a “Video Vanguard” award more than Missy Elliott or Lady Gaga or Devo or Metallica or Prince or any of the other artists who haven’t claimed it? Why did we have to sit through acceptance speeches and weak comedy routines and the Push Artist Stage? Bring back MTV Icon!