A buzz of anticipation and expectation surrounding this year’s MTV Video Music Awards was felt by fans behind their screens everywhere. One of the most-awaited nights in music took place Sunday, and this year it aimed for something even more spectacular than ever before: The VMAs treated audiences to a full-scale awards show in the middle of a pandemic. Live performances took place on top of New York skyscrapers, at drive-in theatres in Brooklyn and some were even broadcast live from across the world. And it was beautiful.
Television personality and actress Keke Palmer was the perfect host for a celebration that honored life, music and speaking up against injustice, mixing her experience, activism and comedic persona. As the first Black woman to host the VMAs, Palmer addressed the Black Lives Matter movement’s power, saying, “We’ve seen our generation step up, take to the streets and make sure our voices will be heard.”
Palmer also discussed the importance of speaking out against injustice and using music’s power to heal. Her speech was followed by cheers from what sounded like a live audience. Still, viewers never saw whether it was a group of fans behind the cameras or if their cheers were digitally added. Behind the host, an enormous digital stage was designed to make the experience feel as realistic as possible — there were even simulations of fans standing and cheering in booths.
The Weeknd kicked off the festivities with a performance of his hit single “Blinding Lights,” which later won him Video of the Year. As he belted the lyrics to the song from the top of Edge at Hudson Yards, viewers could see the New York City skyline’s backdrop. Surrounded by flashing lights, helicopters and fireworks, MTV really pushed the boundaries for this event.
Although there was no recipient for the Video Vanguard Award this year, MTV introduced the first-ever inaugural MTV Tricon Award to the star of the night: Lady Gaga, a singer, actress, dancer, designer and activist. MTV explained that the award “is in recognition of her talents as a global music superstar, award-winning actor and undisputed fashion icon.”
Besides being the queen of the night, Gaga stood out as she was one of the only artists to wear a mask at all times — even when singing and dancing throughout her performance of songs from “Chromatica,” which included her collaboration with Ariana Grande, “Rain On Me.” Accustomed to using awards shows for major fashion statements, Gaga continued to serve unique looks and incorporate masks within them. Some covered the whole face, others involved horns, and for her performance, it seems like she had created an electronic system within the mask that would better enable her to sing. “I might sound like a broken record, but wear a mask. It’s a sign of respect,” Gaga said.
For each acceptance, Best Collaboration (“Rain On Me” ft. Ariana Grande), Song of the Year (“Rain on Me” ft. Ariana Grande) and Artist of Year, Lady Gaga continuously thanked her fans and urged them to never give up on their dreams. “I want nothing more than to be your artist in 2020,” she remarked in one of her speeches.
The VMAs have always stood as a celebration of music. Many of the performers and nominees were popular on TikTok over the summer. DaBaby’s “Rockstar,” Doja Cat’s “Say So” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” were all hits of the night, with Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion bringing awards home for Best New Artist and Best Hip-Hop, respectively.
Filled with a blast of international music, Maluma, CNCO and BTS took to the stage. As South Korean pop phenomenon BTS performed its new hit “Dynamite,” the Latinx performers CNCO and Maluma did so on a drive-in stage in Brooklyn.
Although the night was filled with excitement and happiness, The Weeknd shared some of the heartache felt this year. In his acceptance speeches, the singer said that it’s hard to celebrate the night and asked for justice for Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake. Likewise, before the show’s opening, Keke Palmer shared some thoughtful words about the loss of actor Chadwick Boseman. “We dedicate tonight’s show to a man whose spirit touched so many,” Palmer said. “He is a true hero, not just on screen but in everything he did. His impact lives forever.”
Other great performances of the night included Miley Cyrus, the Black Eyed Peas and DaBaby. Cyrus and the Black Eyed Peas surprised audiences by adding a little nostalgia to their performances. Cyrus rode a glittery disco ball, which reminisces her “Wrecking Ball” era and the Black Eyed Peas performed their 2009 hit “I Gotta Feeling.” Following rumors of possible surprise appearances, viewers were disappointed by the absence of artists such as Harry Styles, Dua Lipa and Justin Bieber (although Bieber did receive Best Music Video From Home for “Stuck With U” ft. Ariana Grande).
The MTV VMAs achieved the impossible and conducted a massive production while following health and safety guidelines. To introduce categories, presenters Bella Hadid, Joey King, Drew Barrymore, Jaden Smith and many others stood on stage alone and moved aside when the winners would give their speeches. It is speculated, however, that some of these introductions were pre-recorded and that the event was not an entirely live performance. It was clear to see the importance of social distancing on stage and backstage. In between breaks, viewers were shown a significantly small number of crew members shuffling between acts, always wearing face coverings.
Sunday night was a success, not only bringing joy to people’s homes but also being an example of innovation during the challenges presented by the pandemic. MTV showed the world that it is still possible to carry on with one of music’s biggest nights while remaining mindful.