Around 11 p.m. on Thursday night in New York, near a particularly dark and disturbing segment of Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention and amid nationwide unrest in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting, a series of loud, seemingly endless rumblings echoed throughout the city.
Once it became clear that the intense noise was lasting far too long to be thunder or a passing truck, panicked New Yorkers ran to their windows trying to see what the hell was going on. Explosions? Shootings? An occupation? An uprising? Alien invasion?
It turned out to be a fireworks display set off in the Hudson River for a performance filmed for Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards, pyrotechnics that were delayed late into the night because of rainy weather earlier in the evening. Specifically, it was for The Weeknd’s show-opening performance of “Blinding Lights,” belted from a terrace 1,100 feet over the city at the Edge in Hudson Yards.
Filmed using helicopters to capture sweeping shots of The Weeknd performing from overhead, the firework show in the background as the song climaxed was legitimately stunning. But was it worth Thursday night’s city-wide heart attack?
That dissonance between refreshing, impressive ingenuity—staging a music-driven award show during a pandemic—and a failure to read the room defined Sunday night’s VMAs telecast.
It was ambitious and reassuring, polished in ways we haven’t seen on TV in so long because of the pandemic shutdown.
Glancing at the harsh realities of the current moment, but confusingly opaque about how it pulled this production off given quarantine and social distancing safety and rules, the show seemed to make something worthwhile almost in spite of itself. That still may be high praise for the Video Music Awards, following years of plummeting ratings and buzz.
The show was repeatedly billed as “live from New York,” making headlines in the weeks leading up to it for controversial accommodations being granted to the celebrities and their teams so that they wouldn’t have to quarantine for the mandatory 14 days otherwise required of people traveling to New York.
Yet as you may have gathered from the harrowing tale of Thursday night’s fireworks show, The Weeknd’s performance was not live, but pre-recorded. Reports are that Maluma filmed his show Wednesday at a drive-in in Brooklyn.
Then, despite the insinuation that performances were going to happen at venues all over New York City, it was revealed that most of the acts never came to New York at all. Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Doja Cat, and more recorded their performances from sound stages in Los Angeles, while some presenters filmed their segments in Brooklyn and elsewhere.
The show that MTV put on was remarkable given the circumstances, and they deserve credit for the creative ways they had to go about executing it. But it was confusing not to be upfront, in fact actively deceptive, about it.
It was unpleasant and disorienting to not really know where any of these performances were happening, with many of them edited so as to give you no sense of space at all.
Social media reactions to the big moments were dominated by distracted viewers attempting to figure out what was shot where and when, what was actually performed live and what was glaringly pre-recorded, and when a Los Angeles soundstage was embarrassingly attempting to stand in for New York City. (Or in the case of BTS, just performing in front of pictures of New York City.)
That said, after so many months of Zoom and grainy remote TV productions, there is no denying the immense comfort in the visual of Miley Cyrus straddling a disco wrecking ball. Serving sexy mullet realness, her “Midnight Sky” performance was gorgeously shot and staged.
If the goal of the production was to suggest somewhat of a return to normalcy, then the annual end-of-summer contemplation of MTV’s waning relevance is just that. It’s heinous to think of how long ago the show’s most iconic performances were. It’s the 20th anniversary of Britney Spears’ “Oops!...I Did It Again” striptease performance. It’s been 30 years since Madonna’s Marie Antoinette-themed “Vogue.”
And that’s not to mention the watercooler moments born from decades of the show hosting a space for celebrities to act out and act up. It’s a show that used to poke, prod, trigger, and bait, in which the intent was to set the cultural conversation on fire. This year’s VMAs sprinted in the opposite direction. If there was one goal, it was healing.
Seeing Lady Gaga perform alien-themed group choreography made life seem normal again.
Gaga didn’t so much steal the show as she strutted in, gathered it up, threw everything in her spaceship, and completely transported it to Chromatica. Winning more televised awards than any other artist—including the never-quite explained Tricon Award—being there to accept them all in person, and performing the night’s longest set, she dominated the telecast.
Her “911,” “Rain on Me,” and “Stupid Love” medley is the closest the show came to producing something that ranked alongside past legendary VMA moments, with Gaga, Ariana Grande, and a troop of backup dancers pulling off the entire set while wearing masks—sending a message to Karens everywhere who claim to be unable to weather 10 minutes in a grocery store with one on.
Coming out in a new look every time Lady Gaga accepted an award, an elaborate mask accessorizing each one, she turned the night into her own pandemic fashion show. And just when it seemed conspicuous that she hadn’t spoken about the current cultural and political moment, Gaga’s Tricon speech trumpeted the “wrath of pop culture” and “rage of art” that is to come, while also taking a rather firm stance against ordering California rolls during business meetings. (Mother Monster is always profound, but that doesn’t mean she necessarily makes sense.)
Loud and clear, however, was her closing statement: “Wear a mask. It’s a sign of respect.” Travis Barker then, like all the presenters, walked out on stage without wearing one.
The telecast began with host Keke Palmer delivering a heartfelt dedication to Chadwick Boseman, just 48 hours after his passing. (More touching was a commercial that aired later in the show revisiting Boseman’s past MTV Movie Award win for Best Hero, which he handed off to a real-life hero who fought off a gunman in a Tennessee Waffle House.)
Palmer is a radiant, irresistible screen presence. She boasts an easy, natural sense of humor—on display in the popular “Sorry to this man” meme—and a gripping, captivating gravitas, which became apparent earlier this summer when a speech pleading with a National Guardsman to join her in a Black Lives Matter march went viral.
Few people would be able to pull off hosting duties that had her performing comedy skits in which she acted against herself while also speaking to the pandemic, police brutality, systemic racism, the events in Wisconsin, and voting. By the time she showed off her own singing and dancing skills while performing her own single later in the show, she cemented the resounding collective feeling that Keke Palmer deserves the world.
I’m not sure who thought fake audience cheers and screams were a good idea during performances clearly shot on closed sound stages, or why the weird fans that appeared to be CGI when Palmer filmed her hosting segments needed to be there. In fact, the nicest thing about a pandemic award show is that, by circumstance, it renders impossible the irritating habit of constantly cutting to audience members instead of showing whatever is happening on stage.
Maluma, CNCO, and BTS respectively repped an encouraging embrace of global music diversity from the show. DaBaby performed in handcuffs from the back of a police car, one of the more powerful images from the night. Doja Cat did her weird thing. (Covering music award shows over the span of years, especially ones on MTV, means a certain surrendering to not knowing or understanding a solid half of the lineup.)
Despite Lady Gaga’s omnipresence during the telecast, it’s actually The Weeknd who took home the Video of the Year trophy for “Blinding Lights,” one of two televised awards he won, using his time at the microphone in both cases to demand justice for Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor.
It’s a message that would have been a fitting and affecting end to the show, one that would have made a great case for the resonance still, after all these years, of a program like the VMAs. Instead, we were assaulted by the Black Eyed Peas.
Having the audacity to appear without Fergie, the remaining members first performed a new song called “Vida Loca” before transforming the stage into a circa 2010 wedding reception and doing “I Gotta Feeling” as a UFO appeared above and beamed a light on them, which I’m sure is a metaphor for something.
Maybe the whole abomination was an appropriate end. There’s something very 2020 about things seeming like they might be getting better—an actually pretty great VMAs— then something catastrophic happening and everything coming tumbling down again. Will.I.Am thrust his glowing penis at the camera for three minutes. That happened, and it can’t be unseen.