Everything being relative, the 2021 MTV VMAs represented a big rebound from the all-time low point of last year’s show, which ended up being pre-recorded without an audience due to pandemic conditions, yet which had everyone involved weirdly trying to pretend that the show was going out live, complete with canned laughter and applause. This year, it was back to “got live if you want it,” and sometimes the show was even lively as well as live, although there was nothing we’ll remember one-twentieth as long as we remember the Iconic Moments from decades past that were wistfully mentioned in passing. If Doja Cat wearing a chair on her head was the closest we were going to get to Britney wearing a snake around her neck, maybe we’ve been just starved enough for real-time irreverence at an awards show that we’ll take it.
There were definitely some moments that recalled Spears’ soul kiss with Madonna back in the day, if they hardly register as shocking in 2021. Lil Nas X has pushed the envelope so far with his recent videos that it was hard to gage whether his performance of “Industry Baby” with Jack Harlow really counted as provocative. From the moment he appeared on stage dressed in pink as a drum major, it seemed inevitable that there would be at least two layers of tear-away clothing and that he and his equally buff male dancers would be in pink briefs before we knew it. Lest the night feature only male homoeroticism, Normani had her own moment at the end of an otherwise fairly routine “Wild Side” routine when Teyana Taylor was wheeled out, tied up crucifix-style, and the singer nimbly mounted her. It wouldn’t have been that many years ago that these would have been the major water-cooler-talk moments — not an untelevised, pre-show squabble between Machine Gun Kelly and presenter Conor McGregor. Was it a sign of how far we’ve come, or how little, that dudes fighting was piquing people’s interest Sunday night more than dudes grinding?
It was not a night for peak social consciousness. When Justin Bieber is the only person in a three-hour show to even allude to something that’s killed more than 600,000 Americans since the last live Video Music Awards, it’s a special that has very specific designs on being post-pandemic, whether we’re there yet or not. But a few quick moments of sobriety crashed the party. Billie Eilish (a non-performer) accepted her award for the best socially conscious video for “Your Power” and, without using any phrase as cliche as “toxic masculinity,” said that writing the song about older men taking advantage of girls was “so satisfying and freeing, and also really [bleeped] sad. I want to say we need to protect our young women at all costs. For real.” And there was a more serious message embedded in Lil Nas X’s performance than might have been initially evident, though it required footnotes to suss it out. GLAAD put out a press release noting that Mardrequs Harris from the Southern AIDS Coalition was one of the on-stage participants in “Industry Baby,” wearing the number 433,816, “representing the universal color of awareness and support for HIV, and the number of people living with HIV in the South as of 2015.”
The 2021 VMAs could have used a few more nods toward the grave crises in the world that are making its target demo so anxious about their future. Yet it was hard to deny that the show was sometimes at its best when it was at its silliest — and wish for even more of that old-school MTV humor, too. For better or worse, there was no attempt at scripted comedy, so any laughs came in the acceptance speeches. Lil Nas X, not for the first or last time in his young career, may have had the punchline of the night: “First, I want to say thank you to the gay agenda. Let’s go, gay agenda!” (Billy Porter introduced Lil Nas’ performance in a similar spirit: “When I was first coming up in this industry, the people were not ready for all this Black boy joy.”) Meanwhile, Machine Gun Kelly had an amusing speech that strongly indicated that combativeness was not something he had just taken up within the last few hours. “I want to thank my label for putting [his winning video] out when I called them the day before it was released and said, ‘I hate it. Don’t put it out.'” Addressing the video’s director, MGK added, “I haven’t talked to you since we got in a fight on-set, but it’s a great video and I’m glad we won.”
The show’s host, Doja Cat, ironically strived to provide the night’s most serious and beautiful performance and its zaniest non-musical moments. “I look like a worm. That’s dope. I never thought I’d be dressed as a worm while accepting an award,” she said, accepting a collaborative award with SZA (who seemed to have her own wardrobe thing going, clutching at her bosom at the podium, possibly concerned about a malfunction). Later on, she wore that chair headdress, which was sturdy enough that she was able to take a seat on it while cheerfully waiting out a subsequent acceptance speech. (Maybe this costuming was part of what Doja Cat meant when she promised Variety earlier in the week that her VMAs hosting stint would be “cringe.” As she explained on the telecast: “We need to chair-ish this moment.”) Yet she also tried to bring a very different tone to her medley of “Been Like This” and “You Right,” at first floating on wires in the middle of a giant ring light, then being lowered to the stage to interact with two dancers in a more balletic modern dance routine she said was inspired by the choreographed work of FKA Twigs. Doja Cat was also seen covering “You’re the One That I Want” from “Grease” in a Pepsi ad, further ensuring that she won the unofficial award for greatest breadth in a single night.
A lot of the performers on Sunday night’s show gave us exactly what we expect of them, even if it involved something that seemed like a change of pace a couple of years ago — i.e., Machine Gun Kelly so completing his transformation from rapper to rocker that he ended his set by smashing a guitar, or Camila Cabello ramping up the Latin undercurrents of her music to the point of employing a flamenco scenario. For a serious level of of-the-moment reinvention, we had to look to Chloe — of half of Chloe x Halle fame — remaking herself, in her new solo guise, as Beyonce. At least there was a serious level of Bey energy in the TV debut of “Have Mercy,” with the words “Booty… so… big” flashing on the rear screen to underscore the -liciousness. Showing her support, Halle introduced her partner and congratulated her on “find(ing) her voice,” which would seem to suggest her formerly more laid-back contributions to the duo weren’t really her destiny.
Some of the performing choices were more curious, or more obvious. Bieber — who’s to be commended, as previously mentioned, for at least mentioning COVID — did his entire opening performance (joined by the Kid Laroi) withholding his face from the cameras by wearing an overbearing hoodie. Later, for his acceptance speech, he put on a formal brown jacket over the hoodie, but did pull back his head covering enough just long enough to assure us it was really him. Perhaps, for “Ghost,” keeping his actual features out of sight was for purposes of thematic resonance? Shawn Mendes and Ed Sheeran just presented the most earnest visions of themselves for “Summer of Love” and “Shivers,” respectively — not that Mendes could ever do things any differently, but Sheeran may have welcomed the chance to remind fans that he’s a lover, not a bloodsucking devil, after his out-of-character “Bad Habits” video. Rodrigo’s hit “Good 4 U” finally had its live TV debut, and was effective enough, although the dancers around her were choreographed so frenetically, it wasn’t easy to catch sight of them long enough to tell if they were supposed to represent high schoolers or some other concept.
Kacey Musgraves made her VMAs debut with the title song from the just-released “Star-Crossed,” which is not what you’d call a slow burner, since the tune lasts just over three minutes and wraps up after the chorus has been sung through just once. But burning was nonetheless involved, as a heart lit up in flames behind her. It was nice to see MTV take a chance on programming a more reflective song in the show — although benevolence may not have entirely explained it, as a commercial told us that a Musgraves film is currently airing exclusively on parent company Viacom’s Paramount Plus service. MIA on the show was anything from the similarly subdued (and great) recent albums from Taylor Swift and Eilish, although maybe it wasn’t for a lack of asking those two.
Toward the end of the show, Busta Rhymes and Alicia Keys stood out, for their mutual representation of New York City, but also for just seeming simultaneously relaxed and in command of the stage. His motormouth-iness and her melisma reminded us what we weren’t always getting from some of the fresher-faced, younger artists: a sense of being so kingly, or queenly, there’s no need to be trying too hard.
Of the many rumored surprise appearances by mega-stars on the show — like supposed turns by Mariah Carey and Kanye West that turned out to be false — only Madonna came through, not by performing, but by coming out in a dominatrix-style outfit at the top of the broadcast. Drawing parallels between her arrival in New York and MTV’s invention a few years later, she proclaimed: “They said we wouldn’t last, but we’re still here, mother[bleep]ers.” Why did she even come, for such a quick turn? Some time later, the answer became evident, as a commercial revealed Madonna has a Paramount Plus concert special coming next month.
Bookending the show at its other end was Machine Gun Kelly, who does not have a Paramount Plus show on the way but who did some how graduate to this special’s headliner somewhere over the course of its three hours on the air. He was scheduled to perform mid-show, and when he was suddenly taken off the stage right before his number was about to commence, fans angrily took to social media, outraged and blaming MTV for punishing him for the McGregor squabble by pulling his spot. In truth, the growing attention to that almost-fight may have helped him get pushed back to a more prominent show-closing spot… or maybe it was just technical difficulties that got him bumped to the end. When Machine Gun Kelly did finally appear in the closing minutes, he was positioned half-buried in a gravesite that he soon jumped out of, as if he were raising his chosen new genre, rock ‘n’ roll from the dead. That meant that, for once, Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters were on an awards show and not the only token rock act on it. He finished up by smashing a perfectly good guitar, proving that Phoebe Bridgers did not put a final cap on that rite of passage after all. I have seen rock ‘n’ roll future, and its name is Machine Gun Kelly, a guy who got in the door by hiding his rock inside the Trojan horse of hip-hop, to fool everyone about his true screamo intentions. That’s a thought fit for a climax: that in the end, despite everyone’s best efforts to bury it (including its own practitioners), rock will still be there, along with the cockroaches… and along with MTV airing 24/7 reality shows.