Before proceeding any further, let’s acknowledge the clear superstars of the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards: Lady Gaga’s mask designers. They should be given their own awards, at some point, for being keeping us on the edge of our seats during a show that has never drummed up much suspense about winners, even in its early glory days, let alone now. The best thing about this year’s telecast was how the pandemic has given Gaga an excuse to return to the slightly scary fashion of her early glory days, most particularly with a very au courant focus on what looked like avant-garde gas masks, sometimes with digital readouts.
The first outlandish visor in Sunday night’s ongoing series was a beautifully uninviting encumbrance by Cecilio Castrillo that was pretty in metallic pink, but the standout mask, credited to Lance V. Moore, was one that looked like it had operatic Viking horns sticking out of an “Alien” facehugger. Gaga’s many acceptance speeches during the two hours boiled down to variations on “love yourself,” but for all that self-care earnestness, be grateful that she’s still capable of showing up in costuming that almost makes you s— yourself.
In a way, Gaga’s performance and repeat trips to the virtual podium represented the tonal hybrid that the VMAs could have aspired to. With all that nutty fashion, Gaga managed to be as silly as most of the rest of the telecast intended to be, but the mask motif at least inherently acknowledged the reality around us, by sending out a warning: Until there’s a vaccine, we shan’t see her lovely nose, mouth and chin again.
But we’re a country largely in denial, and that’s a word that perhaps describes not only a partial national mindset but the VMAs themselves. This was a show strangely hellbent on denying what just about everyone viewing either knew ahead of time or could quickly suss: that it wasn’t live. There was that moment in the early minutes when the show first busted out a round of boisterous cheering, and it seemed to be setting up a punchline for host Keke Palmer, who would surely deflate the fake applause with a nudge or a wink as she acknowledged that this was nor a normal year for the VMAs… right? There would have been a good chuckle to be had in cutting away to some MLB-style cardboard cutouts in fake stands. But the VMAs were not kidding about clinging to the old normal as much as possible. Not even if that meant soundtracking the two-hour-plus show with what almost felt like a satirically loud equivalent of a badly canned laugh track.
The expectation was that at least a little of it would transpire in real time, even as reports emerged of noise-sensitive New Yorkers complaining earlier in the week about the riverside fireworks that accompanied performances by The Weeknd atop Hudson Yard’s Edge building or Maluma at a pop-up drive-in in Brooklyn. But those were the only two “real” locations left after MTV had to abandon its plan of broadcasting live from Barclays Center. Beyond that, everything was more green-screened than “Avatars 2-3” combined will be. In the pre-show telecast, hosts kept boasting of being “backstage” and asked stars which performances they were most looking forward to “seeing” “tonight,” constantly begging the question of which night was being referred to or where the supposed stage was, until all these things began to seem like loose existential constructs. The real tipoff that little or nothing we’d be seeing was live came at the very top of the main show, when Palmer came on to offer the expected dedication to Chadwick Boseman. It looked (and especially sounded, with the poor audio quality) like it might have been taped in a hotel bathroom, long after Palmer had departed whatever soundstage she’d filmed most of her segments on. The jump from that to pro-grade Keke made it clear that this would be the first VMAs ever not to be able to promise that anything-can-happen vibe, when whatever happened already had.
On the other hand, probably anybody who’s forced to do an awards show in 2020 should be granted one get-out-of-jail free card for producing results under ridiculous circumstances, to be little spoken of in a year’s time, right? Anyone determined to enjoy Sunday’s show had to agree to a good deal of pretending involved to get through it — not least of all pretending that a Black Eyed Peas performance constitutes a legitimate climax in 2020 — but we’re all suspending disbelief a little to get through this year.
The real world was allowed to infiltrate this happy-go-lucky alternate reality in appropriate intervals, via pro-masking and pro-BLM sentiments. The starkest and most striking of these were the two acceptance speeches by The Weeknd, who seemed almost embarrassed to be picking up trophies in a time of national upheaval. “It’s really hard for me to celebrate right now, so I’m just gonna say: Justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor,” he said in the first. His second speech: “Again, it’s hard to celebrate, so I’m going to say justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor.” This was a man with an admirably one-track mind, even if his reluctant manner did make you wonder if he’d followed through with his scheduled performance more as a matter of obligation than enthusiasm.
Said performance by The Weeknd did at least offer something to remember besides Gaga from the evening, though. In a performance apparently filmed three nights earlier, his “stage” consisted of a platform extended out from Hudson Yard’s Edge tourist-attraction building a thousand feet high, with The Weeknd still maintaining his signature beaten-up look from recent album imagery. Bruised and bloodied, on a precipice, with vertigo overtaking any possible sense of well-being… could there be a better metaphor for how we, as a nation, are feeling, when we’re off our national meds?
Miley Cyrus had one of the more visually arresting performances, at least initially, making “all washed out” seem like a good thing. Appearing in an orange-red circle at first, she looked like she’d stepped out of the bloody eye at the opening of every James Bond movie, and had the ‘60s shag and makeup to match. Red turned to deep blue as she blended in even more with the extremely monochromatic color scheme. The visuals only got disappointing toward the end when she slipped into full color and went astride a swinging mirror ball, to remind the world how much it loved “Wrecking Ball” possibly more than this “ciao, Liam” statement of independence.
DaBaby was introduced as “speaking directly to the times we live in,” so his performance was meant to be the Black Lives Matter moment of the show. It went some way toward that, with the rapper atop a police car, and a “Stop killing us” sign in the background. Yet the obviously effects-laden video felt oddly edited in its last stretch, as if we’d been meant to see what happened to the two officers inside the vehicle or how that graffiti got on it, and that part had been edited out for family viewing. (Collaborator Roddy Ricch had edited himself out, of course, bowing out of the show not long ago, citing coronavirus concerns, although some supposed it had to do with him being unexpectedly cut from the last round of best new artist voting.)
Maluma’s performance at the Skyline Drive-in in Brooklyn — a filming site that’s been put to use for movie screenings — was clearly not live, since the venue was showing a double feature of “Minions” and “Les Miserables” Sunday night. Yet after he performed, Palmer said, in giving him an award, “Let’s go back to the drive-in where Maluma literally just got off the stage!” Said he, “I can’t believe this!” (He probably could.) Later, Latin boy band CNCO performed from the same stages, amid cars that may or may not have had occupants, and it went well enough to make you wonder how effective the show might have been if the producers had traded Barclays as a base for this or some other drive-in setting, as an outright celebration of our current isolating-together ethos.
Then again, the drive-in would hardly have suited Gaga, or Doja Cat, who almost seemed to be attempting to out-Gaga Gaga in her own version of sci-fi strangeness. Unmasked, unlike her dancers, Doja Cat appeared in a nearly nude bodysuit, but for finger-like glowing appendages over her breasts and groin… not totally unlike the neon that seemed to have been stuffed down the pants of Black Eyed Peas and their guests in the show’s climax. If you had “glowing crotches, times two” on your VMAs bingo card, collect now. (Kudos, anyway, to Doja Cat for convincingly portraying a disaffected 1980s MTV VJ in her own introduction, a rare moment of old-school MTV cheekiness.)
In another interesting echo, Gaga began her performance sitting in an apartment and watching one of her old VMAs performances on a pre-LCD TV. Soon enough, she was caught up in a “Chromatica” medley that felt like an act of revivalism itself; even though the album is only three months old, it feels like three years. (Or maybe three days, depending on which stage of quarantine psychosis you’re in.) “911” gave way to “Rain on Me” as she was joined by Ariana Grande in a much simpler black mask. Almost as quickly as she’d appeared, though, Grande disappeared with Gaga into a tree stump, as if they were superstar Keebler elves, and Gaga came back out alone to sing the glories of “Stupid Love.” At first, she was alone, balladically, sitting at a piano in the form of a giant brain. (If you didn’t watch the show, you’ll swear we’re making this up.) Then it was time for the full-on group choreography, edited more eye-pleasingly than in her own video for the song. It kind of worked… even if, as Gaga later accepted an award for her duet with Grande without Grande, you had to wonder just how big a favor the star pulled in to get her younger counterpart to come onto a show she probably didn’t really want to be on.
Beyond Grande’s possibly half-hearted cameo (and was that really her? — with the mask, we’ll never be sure), the show was notable for a lot of no-shows. We’re talking not just Ricch and J Balvin, who committed to perform and then backed out, but the major nominees you can assume MTV begged to come on the show but didn’t, like Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish. You can see why anyone with her wits about her might have said no to putting in an appearance right now on a show that was always destined to seem incongruously light-hearted for the moment… but it’s also hard to second-guess Gaga or the Weeknd for not wanting to half-ass album campaigns that were already set well in motion before the pandemic.
In the end, no came off terribly badly for submitting to the VMAs’ “not live, from New York” way of getting through this thing. Yet it finally felt like a botched opportunity to either go serious or just go home. The show’s fundamental unsuitability to wax relevant at one of the most riven times in our collective history is something you just can’t put a mask on.