There’s a simple rule for the MTV Video Music Awards: If Taylor Swift shows up, the night has a chance. If she doesn’t, it doesn’t. The past few years, Taylor has strategically opted to go nowhere near MTV’s annual “Googles music once” party. But last night in Newark, New Jersey, she decided to not just show up, but show off, opening with a soulful performance of “Lover” that felt epic even though it was just Tay and her acoustic guitar, which is all she ever needs to slay. Just a few days after dropping one of her best albums, Tay made “Lover” a solo tour de force that got Queen Latifah grooving along in the crowd. It rescued the show with a taste of her real-deal star power, making it a night that celebrated all the pop thrills MTV spends the other 364 days of the year ignoring.
One of the night’s comic highlights: Hailee Steinfeld came out to announce, “All year long, MTV helped discover, nurture, and amplify breakout artists, connecting them with fans all over the world!” This did not, in fact, happen. But it highlighted the ridiculousness of this network presenting itself as a place where music happens. Yet this year’s bash was livelier than the past few VMAs, if only because actual stars arrived to do their star thing, with a slew of great live perfomances.
Unfortunately, the host was future trivia answer Sebastian Maniscalco, who “kicked off” the show the way Betty White might kick a beach ball off her lanai. When his name was announced, you might have figured you’d never heard of him because he was too young and edgy — maybe an influencer? So it was a shock when he turned out to be the same stand-up comic who does a few gigs a year at your auntie’s Golden Sunset Village in Pensacola. His “kids today, amirite?” shtick had jokes about safe spaces and support animals and his Uncle Luigi and his mom’s zucchini, as if this were Lady Gaga reprising the year she hosted this show in character as her alter ego Jo Calderon.
Maniscalco said plenty of butt-stupid things, but he really took the reading-the-room prize when he announced that “Jersey has had one influencer in the past 40 years and that’s Bruce Springsteen!” Any comedian who thinks Springsteen started writing songs about Jersey in 1979 needs to have a long talking-to from Crazy Janie, Wendy, Sandy, Candy, Kitty, Jack the Rabbit, Weak Knees Willy, the Magic Rat and/or Rosalita’s mama.
Lil Nas X had one of the funniest moments when he whipped out a script and then simply said “Thank you.” He didn’t do “Old Town Road,” which was a shame since it should have been his big coming-out moment as a live performer. Instead, he did a sci-fi “Panini” that was “futuristic” in the sense that it resembled the Black Eyed Peas ten years ago in their “wear Tron robot suits to do ‘I’ve Had the Time of My Life’ at the Super Bowl” phase. It brought back flashbacks of Fergie grinding next to Slash. Billy Ray Cyrus gave him a heart-tugging introduction. Billy Ray hasn’t lost a step since the days when he won the American Music Award for best country song, accepted his trophy from the dudes in Motley Crue, and used the occasion to stoke his then-raging beef with country singer Travis Tritt: “To those people who don’t like ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ here’s a quarter—call someone who cares!”
The Jonas Brothers amped up the Springsteen ambience rocking out at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, dressed in E Street drag. The JoBros are riding high on their well-deserved comeback with “Sucker,” which is not merely their best hit ever but a perfect way to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Lines, Vines and Trying Times. Even though it was a canned performance taped the night before, you still kept waiting for Springsteen to jump onstage and jam with the JoBros, since it looked like the whole performance was planned with his cameo in mind. (Like when he did “One Headlight” with the Wallflowers back in the day.) Just a couple of years after the VMAs when Rod Stewart got up there with Joe Jonas and DNCE to sing “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” it had to hurt.
One of the night’s hottest live performances happened before the show: Megan Thee Stallion ripping up “Cash Shit” on the red carpet. J. Balvin and Bad Bunny got psychedelic. Lizzo stole the show with a breathless medley of “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell” under a gigantic inflatable ass. Rosalía and Ozuna gothed it up on “Yo X Ti, Tu X Mi.” Miley Cyrus made an unexpected appearance to sing “Slide Away,” not an Oasis cover but a tormented ballad about her recent split from Liam Hemsworth — recent as in a couple of weeks ago. It was a long way away from the twerk-and-hump “We Can’t Stop” sweet-sixteen party that Miley threw for herself at this show in 2013. She also showed off her new breakup tattoo, a lyric from the Pixies B-side “The Thing”: “My head was feeling scared, but my heart was feeling free.”
Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes dueted on “Señorita” and then Camila urged the crowd, “Get wasted!” As if there were any other way to cope with this show. Normani did a kinetic “Motivation” — between Normani and Camila, it was a big night for Fifth Harmony, just a couple of years after the classic VMAs moment when they pressed the eject button and launched a Faux Camila off their stage.
People are still inviting John Travolta to award shows to say things on live TV, and that’s a beautiful thing. He made a cute joke about his “Adele Dazeem” gaffe, but then immediately got Taylor Swift confused with drag queen Jade Jolie. Cardi B gave a brilliant speech where she kept thanking Jesus along with her director Jora Frantzis, for her willingness to “edit my butt” and “smooth my cellulites out.” Taylor won Video of the Year for “You Need To Calm Down,” made a politically-charged speech about the Equality Law, and displayed a whole new repetoire of “Tay dancing in her seat” head-bobbing moves. When she won her first award for “You Need to Calm Down,” she appropriately let her friend and muse Todrick Hall give the speech, with a wonderful anecdote about taking his childhood fashion inspiration from The Little Mermaid.
Missy Elliott won the Video Vanguard Award, which for once seemed to mean something, a year after they gave the same award to music legend Jennifer Lopez. Missy rose to the occasion, just a few days after releasing her first new music in nearly 15 years. She’s always had a knack for big, messy, lavish VMAs show-stoppers, and she didn’t disappoint with a seven-minute medley of her classics, plus a speech where she thanked her inspirations from Madonna to Peter Gabriel. There was also a tribute with spoken-word Missy love from fans like Lizzo and Janet Jackson — not to mention her original Virginia Beach partner-in-crime Timbaland, who graciously said, “If it wasn’t for Missy, I don’t think there would be a Timbaland.” Let’s face it: if not for Missy, would there be any of us?
The night ended with a tribute to New Jersey hip-hop, introduced by Newark native Ice-T. The Garden State medley was a head-scratcher for sure — presenting Fetty Wap as a golden oldie on memory lane alongside Queen Latifah, Naughty By Nature, Redman and Wyclef, who did poignant snippets of “Gone Till November” and “No Woman, No Cry.” It was a mess — but that was all right, a moment when Fetty Wap got to introduce his stove to the old school.
MTV, taking advantage of the high-profile chance to boast about all its cutting-edge programming, kept running ads all night for the new version of Jersey Shore and the new version of Teen Mom. Here’s a cup of decade-old Ron-Ron Juice to you, MTV! Get obliviated! All those Jersey Shore ads seemed to combine into a David Lynchian dystopia zone where the GTL Era never ends, T-Shirt Time is a flat circle and the cabs are always here.