This year’s MTV Video Music Awards bash was the first major Covid-era award show, which meant it had something rare for the VMAs: a reason to exist. The whole night felt like a weird experiment, with everyone figuring out how to do a glitzy music spectacle during a pandemic, with social distancing and no audience. MTV originally planned it as a live broadcast from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but it turned into a virtual gala full of pretaped razzle-dazzle. Yet that just gave it a sense of creative risk and emotional stakes — for once, it felt like an actual show. Not even the Black Eyed Peas could ruin it (although they sure tried).
Was everyone just starved for an awards show? Were the artists desperate for a chance to strut their stuff and prove they’re pop stars, after a summer of canceled tours? Were they grateful to join in a glam old-fashioned mindless pop party for these fun-deprived times? Did they seek an antidote to the TikTok Triumph of the Will that was last week’s Republican convention? Was it a relief to avoid the energy-sucking backstage schmooze scene? Either way, everyone rose to the occasion. (Almost everyone. Did I mention the Black Eyed Peas?)
If MTV wanted to maximize the social distancing, it could have just guaranteed people would stay away by bringing back last year’s host, Sebastian Maniscalco. You remember: The dreadful comedian doing zingers about his mom’s zucchini recipe and what’s wrong with kids these days? (But he was great a few months later in Scorsese’s The Irishman, playing Crazy Joey Gallo, so we all have a place in the cosmic plan.) This year’s host, Keke Palmer, kept it serious, opening with a dedication to the late Chadwick Boseman. She spoke about Black Lives Matter and the riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, saying, “We can never tolerate police brutality, or any injustice.”
Since the artists couldn’t do live shtick, they ended up getting forced to do music videos — the last thing you ever expect to see on MTV. (What a concept!) They cavorted in front of green-screen soundstages that could have been Zoom backgrounds, with fake audience noise and CGI fireworks. Yet the simulated liveness made the show feel liver than usual. Miley Cyrus set the tone — she’s always down to turn the VMAs into her year-by-year LiveJournal, ever since her historic 2013 “We Can’t Stop” twerk. She sang a fantastic “Midnight Sky,” climbing on board to ride a disco mirrorball and evoke her “Wrecking Ball” days. It was a beautiful moment — the realest thing she’s done on the VMAs since the terror on her face at the 2015 show, when Nicki Minaj yelled, “Miley, what’s good?”
BTS made their long overdue VMAs debut with a hyperactive “Dynamite,” finally cutting loose on the big stage and seizing their moment. They did the Chic-style disco romp “Dynamite” wearing Eighties-movie office wear in front of a Manhattan/Seoul backdrop — it was a bit Fred Astaire, a bit Backstreet Boys, yet unmistakably BTS. (Love those TRL-era headset microphones.) Jungkook was in prime form, rapping, “Cup of milk, let’s rock & roll/King Kong, kick the drum/Rolling on like a rolling stone.” (The first time Bob Dylan has gotten a VMAs shout-out in quite a while.)
The Weeknd sang “Blinding Lights” to helicopters over New York City, eventually winning Video of the Year. He made the same speech twice: “It’s really hard for me to celebrate right now and enjoy this moment, so I’m just going to say justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor.” DaBaby did a ferocious “Rockstar” on top of a police car, in front of a sign that said “Stop killing us.” Taylor Swift won for directing “The Man,” giving a poignant remote speech to thank the fans and slip in a reference to Folklore. She got to receive her award from Drew Barrymore, who brought all her grunge fervor to yelling the name “Taylor Swift!”
CNCO gave the old-school boy-band charm offensive of the night, doing “Beso” at a drive-in movie theater, preening on top of cars. It’s safe to say CNCO are the rookies who made the most new fans at this show. The CNCO and Maluma performances were both allegedly live from a drive-in theater in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, except the theater was actually showing Minions at the time.
MTV gave out an award for Best Alternative video for the first time since the Nineties — the last year the VMAs had an alternative category, Green Day won with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” beating out Radiohead, Garbage, and the Verve. This year, the Best Alternative award went to an artist so young and edgy, he’s already played Tommy Lee in a Hollywood movie: Congrats to Machine Gun Kelly, who beat the 1975, Lana Del Rey, 21 Pilots, Finneas, and All Time Low. Here we are now — entertain us.
But Lady Gaga was the star of the night, treating it as a coronation for her Chromatica era — 10 years after her meat-dress triumph of 2010, she showed up hungry to reclaim the edge of glory. Back in the day, when Gaga could take a spotlight like this for granted, she took pride in blowing it off — one year she even hosted as her alter ego Jo Calderon. But this year, she felt like showing off, to everyone’s benefit. She gave the night’s most powerful live performance, doing a medley of Chromatica highlights and bringing in Ariana Grande for “Rain on Me.” When she sat at the piano to do “Stupid Love,” it was a soulful reminder of how phenomenal a live performer she can always be, and how hungry she sounds to be back out there playing these songs in front of people.
She reveled in masquerade-ball pandemic chic, wearing a slew of avant-couture masks and making each one a different fashion and political statement. (It was like the year R.E.M. won for “Losing My Religion” and Michael Stipe kept changing T-shirts.) She even upsold her Video Vanguard Award into something new called the “Tri-Con,” which is basically the same as the Artist of the Millennium prize that Michael Jackson decided he won back in 2002. Maybe next year she’ll be back to upgrade her Tri-Con to a Quadricon or an Octoglom?
Chloe x Halle, did a stellar red-carpet “Ungodly Hour,” one of the night’s music highlights. Doja Cat gave a shout-out to vintage MTV, playing a VJ doing a Kurt Loder-tastic news report on herself. She also won Best New Artist, saying, “Stay safe, and thanks Mom.” Blackpink won Song of the Summer for “How You Like That,” which only makes you wish 2020 could have given Blackpink a summer worthier of this great song.
The night went down in flames with the doofiest possible climax: ladies and gentlemen, the Black Eyed Peas, defrosted with their neon-crotch glowsticks ready to go. They busted out their MySpace Top 8 anthem “I Gotta Feeling” to evoke the bad old days of 10 years ago, as if MTV is already trying to spin nostalgia for the era of GTL and lady lumps. What could sum up quarantine-era alienation like the Peas yelling “let’s burn the roof and do it again” to canned applause in an empty room?
Will.I.Am and his crew were touchingly happy to be there, finally making their VMAs debut. As he explained on the red carpet, “You know when you’ve been around as long as the Peas, and you’ve sat in countless MTV seats, watching the days of Weezer and Green Day, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and all those eras? And you’ve always wanted to be on the stage?” Glad it meant so much to them. To the rest of us, it was bizarrely cheerful to remember how dismal music was in 2010, and how far we’ve come since then, in a ridiculously bountiful music year like this one. It was a welcome reminder that music, if nothing else, has gotten better — a thriving sign of hope in these grim times. Come back, Fergie — all is forgiven.