There were some strangely mixed messages in the opening minutes of the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. Taylor Swift kicked things off with all the rainbow flamboyance she and a troupe of drag queens could muster for her tolerance-and-pride anthem “You Need to Calm Down.” This was immediately succeeded by host Sebastian Maniscalco, inspirer of about a hundred million Google searches, doing a monologue about the silliness of millennials and their newfangled scooters, influencers, safe spaces, triggers, support animals and general wokeness. There could, conceivably, be some good jokes to be had in an opening routine that reactionary, but they sure weren’t within half a continent of New Jersey Monday night.
The less said about Maniscalco’s hosting stint, the better — but we’ll get back to him later anyway. In the meantime, consider some of the less blatantly contradictory juxtapositions the VMAs had to offer, like how the show was really all about modern pop and classic, not-so-modern hip-hop, with a pretty striking nostalgia imbalance.
The pop domination this year is something that’s reflective of the top 10 itself, studies have shown — with Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande momentarily owning everything forming a perfect storm with some of the biggest urban artists just being between projects. As for the hip-hop throwback emphasis, it surely had to be hard to deny Missy Elliott her Video Vanguard moment at a time when she’s released her first new collection of music in 14 years. Just as it would have been a lost opportunity to not use the VMAs’ first-ever trip to New Jersey to close out the show with a succession of historic heavyweights of the region like Naughty by Nature and Queen Latifah.
So maybe MTV got that one right, if they wanted to be reflective of the moment and of this year’s chosen geography. Another thing they nailed, at least in terms of setting the cultural sails, was the amount of Latin pop booked onto the show. It was a win to have a duet between Rosalia and Ozuna followed by a collaboration between J. Balvin and Bad Bunny (even if, when it comes to whatever was being smoked during the production designing for the latter teaming’s “Que Pretendes,” you might want to tweak the THC content before taking any yourself).
The show was maybe less political than expected. Is everyone saving the big guns for the 2020 VMAs? Perhaps. But there were certainly a couple of flare-ups for the Hollywood-bashing crowd to get riled up about, or progressives to cheer. One came early in the show when French Montana and Alison Brie were presenting the award for best Latin video. Montana, however admirable his intentions may have been, did not appear to be on his most sober behavior, which could explain why, when he stooped over to lean into the microphone (are we really this far into the 21st century and show-biz professionals still don’t the mic is designed to pick up good posture?), he appeared to be giving Brie a chest exam. “As an immigrant,” he said, “I feel like we are the people that make this country, and I feel like I want to be the voice.” Brie kind of rescued him at the same time she was considerably upping the provocation ante: “What’s happening to immigrants in this country is unconstitutional and frankly disgusting,” said the actress, boldly ensuring she’d be the No. 1 troll magnet for the rest of the night.
The other political moment came during an acceptance speech by the most outspoken activist of our time: Taylor Swift. (This exaggeration has been brought to you by the need to point out that the pop superstar who was formerly criticized for not saying anything now seems to be about the only one saying anything.) “I just want to say that this is a fan-voted award,” Swift pointed out while accepting for video of the year for “You Need to Calm Down,” “so I first want to say thank you to the fans, because in this video several points were made — so you voting for this video means you want a world where we’re all treated equally under the law, regardless of who we love, regardess of how we identify. At the end of the video was a petition, and is a petition, for the Equality Act, which basically just says we deserve equal rights under the law.”
Swift further said that her pro-LGBTQ-rights petition has picked up a half-million signatures, “which is five times the amount it would need to warrant a response from the White House.” If you checked out from the show early, just think, you could have been getting down to this… sick… burn.
Nothing says ripped from today’s headlines, meanwhile, like Miley Cyrus, singing her kiss-off to Liam Hemsworth, “Slide Away,” before the corpse of their marriage is yet cold. Is it a case of “too soon”… or, if we like our singer/songwriters on the confessional side, is it hypocritical of us to imagine there needs to be a decent interval between personal debacle and commercial delivery? It’s all right to be of two minds about these things, but really, Cyrus’ performance was good enough to make you want to err on the side of immediacy. The static black-and-white imagery nicely framed the elegance of Cyrus’ crescendoing delivery, and even her wet-head look somehow fit the lyrics of a woman who just stepped out of somebody else’s ocean and says she’s headed for the city for good.
Normani, who had the most athletic and sexual performance of the night — qualities that were in surprisingly short supply, after being a staple of most modern VMAs shows — won the award for most expertly predicted comeback. Last year, Tiffany Haddish threw some shade, talking up Camila Cabello’s nominations and taking a cheap shot at “those of you watching at home: hi, Fifth Harmony!” Later in the 2018 broadcast, Nicki Minaj piped back at Haddish, saying, “Don’t be coming for Fifth Harmony, because Normani is that b—-.” This year, doing the splits and a backward cartwheel, Normani was that b—-.
Of course, if you must rank ex-Fifth Harmony members — a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it — Cabello did still rule the roost this year, joining Shawn Mendes on an are-they-or-aren’t-they duet of “Señorita” that had them seeming to narrow in on each other for a kiss. They mostly just nuzzled noses, in what could have been a teaser for “Lady and the Tramp,” but they are adorable noses. Mendes was the only performer afforded two slots this year, having gotten a solo spotlight earlier for “If I Can’t Have You,” which makes great use of the young singer’s descending falsetto line in the chorus, something that always comes as a pleasant surprise no matter how many times you’ve heard the tune.
The 10th anniversary of Swift’s encounter with Kanye West went unremarked upon. But you could almost imagine that there was a 10th anniversary tribute to Swift’s strolling subway performance from that same telecast, in the remote bit that had the Jonas Brothers starting to play “Sucker” inside New Jersey’s Stone Pony club and then ending up doing “Only Human” outside with dusk fireworks going off. Incidentally, the Jonases were the only “rock band” of the night.
Lizzo was almost literally overshadowed by what was possibly the world’s first, or at least largest, twerking inflatable. Seeing her made you wonder if we don’t live in a pretty good time after all, when Lizzo can be one of the two finalists for best new artist, and the other is Billie Eilish — both against-the-grain newcomers that no one would have thought to try to dial up in a lab if they hadn’t just both magically appeared. H.E.R. also reminded everyone that the music world is embracing different models of femininity and feminism now with her new “Anti” song; the list of conformities she’s against still includes removing her shades.
Pop star du jour Ellish did not perform on the telecast — tragically, perhaps, for the memorability of the show — but accepted her award via FaceTime, from a tour in Russia. “The VMAs have been something I’ve wanted to go to and be a part of my whole life,” she lamented. “It breaks my heart.” Less heartbroken, presumably, was Grande, who won the top award of the night, artist of the year … which was presented off-air because of her non-attendance.
Rosalia made a grand appearance, lit in a bare spotlight before the crane swept back what seemed like a thousand yards — one good reason to have moved from Radio City Music Hall to the Prudential Center — and the giant ramp beneath her lit up with rosy animation as her gown was ripped away to let her finish the medley in something a little more comfortable. Behind her was a bulb-malicious set that seemed to have been borrowed from remnants of the Main Street Electrical Parade. It worked.
Lil Nas X gave up the cowpoke drag of “Old Town Road” to sing a newer song, “Panini,” in what you could call “Tron” drag. Maybe he wants to be a celestial-and-Western artist. Accepting an award with Billy Ray Cyrus, he evidenced the same sense of humor he has on Twitter by declaring that he had a speech to give, unrolling a scroll as long as the length of his body, and then saying simply “thank you.” It was up to Miley’s dad to be a little more loquacious and Jesus-honoring.
Elliott’s comeback performance was unquestionably a highlight, although awkwardly edited and paced, for reasons that quickly became apparent. The medley had her in a big variety of settings in a short time — seeming to drift down on wires, seeming to fall back into the audience in an inflated suit, then appearing by seeming magic in an elevated cornfield, with a UFO zooming in — and the show’s director was forced to cut away to dancers for extended periods of time to cover for her moving from place to place and shedding costuming elements along the way. It was kind of a kitchen-sink conflagration, but it was Missy… and it was touching that the powerhouse rapper-producer, whose role as a dancer has been further down on that list, dedicated the close of her Video Vanguard speech to thanking the dance community. “Y’all are not props,” she said. God got a shout-out, and so did her mommy and Aaliyah and “sis” Cardi B and Madonna and — hey, she’s a student of video vanguard-ism! — Peter Gabriel.
For the award for transparency in awards presentation, let’s give it to John Travolta, who, when it came to declaring a winner, handed the envelope to his co-presenter, saying, “I shouldn’t do this because I’ll just mispronounce shit and f— it up.” (As if to prove that he was right to doubt himself, stories emerged during the show that Travolta had allegedly approached one of Swift’s drag queen companions, thinking it was her.)
And the award for audience participation goes to… a surprise finisher! Bebe Rexha seemed out to prove that she can get more excited about whomever is on stage than Swift is. It’s good to see a new contender in this category, so let’s hope Rexha didn’t completely burn herself out as an audience-cutaway cheerleader in the first heat.
Did we say we’d get back to Maniscalco? It feels like kicking a dead horse (sorry, Lil Nas X, if that was yours) to reiterate just how inexplicable a hosting choice this was. He came off as Andrew “Dice” Clay’s nicer nephew who’d found a gig on the G-rated comedy circuit, and who thus was restrained from topical commentary because there were jokes to be made about his mother’s zucchini cooking as the source of all that smoke on stage, or how, because of all the celebrity feuds, “coming up with the seating chart tonight was harder than arranging the table for my Uncle Luigi’s fifth wedding.” Ba-da-dum! It was all harmless and toothless enough, except when he was warning the snowflakes in the audience that “personally, I would remove you from the arena, put you in your car and send you home, but they went with the safe space.” Ba-da-dud. “Not everybody’s walking away with a participation trophy or ribbon,” he additionally warned. “If you don’t win this year, I have some advice for you: next year, work harder.” Well, that goes double for MTV’s emcee selection committee.