The year 2013 marked one of the MTV’s Video Music Awards most compelling (and baffling) broadcasts in the iconic awards show’s history. Over the course of three hours, Lady Gaga performed in a thong, Miley Cyrus twerked on Robin Thicke in latex booty shorts, One Direction got booed, Justin Timberlake reunited with NSYNC, Taylor Swift threw shade at her ex Harry Styles during an acceptance speech, and Macklemore won Best Hip-Hop Video. (Somehow a Kanye West performance was the least memorable moment of the night.)
Ten years later, the VMAs failed to live up to the chaos of its most viral ceremony. (This was most evidenced by a brief backstage clip of Justin Timberlake and Megan Thee Stallion, and audience shots of a seemingly lit Taylor Swift being the most talked-about moments of the night on Twitter.)
But compared to recent years, Tuesday night’s VMAs, held once again in Newark, New Jersey, attracted a wide variety of stars and hosted several noteworthy performances.
We had Nicki Minaj as an unreliable but decent host. A-listers and equally buzzy artists like Swift, Selena Gomez, Diddy, Mary J. Blige, Ice Spice, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion made appearances. A shocking number of celebrities even stayed throughout the entirety of the show, which, over the past decade, has become a place for singers to promote their latest singles and immediately dip. On that note, there was a refreshing lack of social-media personalities in attendance this year, so there’s a plus!
First, let’s start with NSYNC showing up to present Best Pop Video to none other than Swift, who pulled off another sweep—including Video of the Year—in predictable Swift fashion. Earlier in the day, rumors had swirled that the legendary boyband had something planned for the night. But it was hardly the reunion (or Home For Christmas 25th Anniversary Edition announcement) many of us hoped for.
The most interesting part was Justin Timberlake of it all, whose recently dug-up histories with Janet Jackson and Britney Spears have made him the most hated man in pop music currently. Appearing at VMAs alongside his former bandmates seemed like a safe way to drum up goodwill on the internet. Unfortunately, a video of him appearing to piss off Megan Thee Stallion backstage overshadowed the entire moment. While “sources” claim it was a friendly interaction, Twitter seems less convinced, given his sometimes grating personality. (This man can’t do anything right!)
The rest of the show lacked surprises but managed to host some performances that viewers will be revisiting on YouTube for years to come. It’s fair to say that Shakira, picking up this year’s Video Vanguard Award, stole the show with a medley that honored her earlier hits like “Objection (Tango)” and most recent chart-toppers like “BZRP Music Sessions Vol. 53,” all while giving us the exuberant stage presence and freakish body contorting she’s known for.
Second in terms of notable performances was definitely Doja Cat, who rapped several of her latest singles, including “Demons” while dressed like a naughty school teacher. As much as this woman complains about having to deal with her stans, she’ll always put on a well-choreographed, high-concept show for them.
Olivia Rodrigo showed out as well. The “Deja Vu” singer opened the show with “Vampire” and “get him back!” immediately after a much less exciting performance from Lil Wayne. Her audio-malfunction fakeout was arguably the most heart-stopping moment of the night. (We appreciate a good prank!) Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion also performed their latest collaboration “Bongos” early in the show. And while the ditty doesn’t seem to be as widely embraced as their megahit “WAP,” I’ll be surprised if their charismatic performance of the song doesn’t win over some early detractors.
Unfortunately, the rest of the night felt like watching a tedious livestream of a music festival with a few forgettable acceptance speeches scattered in between.
Clearly, the producers were feeling anxious about how many eyeballs would be tuned throughout the whole show, based on the sheer number of performances they packed into an almost four-hour broadcast. In addition to the aforementioned artists, Minaj, Anitta, Future, Stray Kids, Demi Lovato, Karol G, Måneskin, Metro Boomin, Swae Lee, Tomorrow X Together, Peso Plumo, and Kelsea Ballerini also took the stage. Maybe the biggest indicator that this show could have been more selective with its talent was a performance in the last hour by Fall Out Boy of their heavily mocked and deeply unserious take on “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
The show’s most disappointing segment, though, was its heavily teased yet lazily executed tribute to hip-hop in light of the genre’s 50th anniversary this year. (Although, it was certainly a treat to watch Nicki Minaj perform “Itty Bitty Piggy” immediately after a Doug E. Fresh performance. What a hilarious timeline of rap history.)
There’s just no comparing this very uneven medley—which featured LL Cool J, DMC, Lil Wayne, Grandmaster Flash, and The Furious Five—to the genuine surprise of seeing multiple generations of iconic rappers come together at this year’s Grammys. Even the tribute to Jersey rappers during the 2019 VMAs felt more special than this year’s attempt to celebrate the genre.
But all was not lost regarding the show’s acknowledgements of hip-hop. Before picking up the Global Icon Award, Diddy performed some of his greatest hits, including “Last Night” with Keyshia Cole, who predictably sounded better than every person who previously stepped onstage without breaking a sweat. She certainly made up for Diddy’s son King Combs, who tried his best as a Mase’s stand-in during several songs. Overall, the music mogul’s self-tribute was far more entertaining—and seemingly practiced— than his previous attempt at last year’s BET Awards.
All in all, this year’s VMAs was fun until it wasn’t. While MTV’s attempts to appeal to every type of music consumer were admirable, curation is key. And thanks to this year’s bloated list of performers, the show’s more notable moments—particularly who took home the awards!—nearly escaped my memory by the end of the night. Still, it was certainly an upgrade from last year’s ceremony—the biggest highlights of that night being a surprise performance from Fergie and several jumpscares provided by Johnny Depp. The VMAs are slowly but surely making a comeback.
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