Given Miley Cyrus’ gig as the Video Music Awards‘ host, the MTV award show was filled with surprises and special guests. The show relied heavily on referencing the most controversial moments from its recent history, flashing clips of Cyrus dancing on Robin Thicke as well as Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift. Given the spectacle, it’s only natural that the performers would attempt to live up to the precedent made by many stars sitting in the audience, and most delivered both in the venue and on the outdoor stage.
Nicki Minaj kicked off the event with a Carnival-inspired performance of “Trini Dem Girls” before launching into “The Night Is Still Young.” As she did — Taylor Swift, a performer who had sparred with Minaj on Twitter over Minaj’s snub for Video of the Year — appeared onstage, singing along with the rapper. The two then performed the chorus of Swift’s “Bad Blood.”
The Weeknd commanded the stage during a spirited, pyro-enhanced performance of “Can’t Feel My Face.” His impassioned display had the audience on their feet, with the camera even panning to Kanye West dancing wildly to the R&B singer’s massive hit.
Outside the Orpheum, Demi Lovato provided a colorful performance of her new single “Cool for the Summer.” The singer invited Iggy Azalea to the stage and created a fake pool party as she danced in a kiddie pool.
Justin Bieber’s VMA comeback was explosive as he performed Jack Ü’s “Where Are Ü Now” and his own new single “What Do You Mean?” After the heavily choreographed, energetic performances, a brief, reflective narration served as an interlude before Bieber was hoisted in the air in a colorful tunnel of light.
Outside the Orpheum, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis reenacted the video for their new single “Downtown,” complete with appearances from the song’s guests Eric Nally, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz. During the commercial breaks, it was shown that Macklemore continued giving the outdoor audience a full concert.
Newcomer Tori Kelly gave the night’s only guitar-driven performance as she performed her pop-rock single “Should’ve Been Us.” Her solo rock show onstage was more subdued than the rest of the night’s more action-packed pop and hip-hop moments.
Back outside, Pharrell had the tough responsibility of following up Kanye West’s lengthy Video Vanguard Award acceptance speech. The singer-producer performed a red, white and blue take on his new single “Freedom,” appearing to channel Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock.
In one of the night’s oddest pairings, A$AP Rocky and alternative hip-hop duo Twenty One Pilots performed a medley of their respective tracks, including the duo’s “HeavyDirtySoul” and “Lane Boy” and Rocky’s “M’$” and “L$D.”
Host Miley Cyrus wrapped up the night with a few big surprises. She played a new song on a glitter-covered stage with the help of a few RuPaul’s Drag Race friends before announcing a new album that would be available online to fans.