It wasn’t always easy to tell what was live and what had been pre-recorded — or what was real and what was CGI — at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Originally scheduled to take place at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the annual production lost its venue this month amid safety concerns related to COVID-19, which left the cable network scrambling to reconfigure the VMAs for an era of social distancing and audience-free spectacle.
Sometimes you could tell where in the world a performance was happening, as when the Weeknd opened the show with a seemingly real-time rendition of his song “Blinding Lights” from atop a Manhattan skyscraper. Other times it was less clear, as when the members of BTS did their brand-new “Dynamite” in the middle of a virtual Times Square.
Yet the VMAs still sought to offer a snapshot of pop music even as the form has largely migrated to the smaller screens of TikTok and Instagram. Here are seven takeaways from the show.
1. Lady Gaga brought the pizzazz
The pop superstar didn’t quite do the kind of sales numbers she once did with this year’s coolly received “Chromatica,” which heralded a return to dance music after her splashy Hollywood turn in “A Star Is Born” and her hit-or-miss flirtations with vocal jazz and roots rock.
But you wouldn’t have known it from the airtime she got on the VMAs, including acceptance speeches for an assortment of trophies (each featuring a different couture face covering) and a nearly 10-minute showcase of material from “Chromatica.”
Fortunately, Gaga lived up to the billing, singing and dancing with an old-fashioned razzle-dazzle that can seem like a lost art among today’s hitmakers. “911,” about her reliance on antipsychotic drugs, was snarling and intense; “Rain on Me,” for which she brought out Ariana Grande, had an exuberant thrust.
She finished the performance with her album’s lead single, “Stupid Love,” served two ways: first as a slow-and-low wine-bar ballad, then as a full-on disco explosion. Both sounded good enough to make you wonder whether “Chromatica” might be better than we remember it.
2. BLM mattered
Sunday’s show didn’t shy from the Black Lives Matter protests that have roiled the nation this year along with the pandemic. As he did at June’s BET Awards, DaBaby staged his performance of his No. 1 smash “Rockstar” as a commentary on police violence.
Keke Palmer, who hosted the VMAs, told viewers in her welcoming monologue, “It’s our time to be the change we want to see.” And when the Weeknd accepted the award for video of the year, he insisted he wasn’t in the mood to celebrate.
“Justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor,” he said. Then he quietly walked offstage.
3. COVID’s effect
The canned applause MTV piped in throughout the night? Yeah, we probably didn’t need that. But if COVID lent the VMAs a certain uncanny-valley quality, it also seemed to encourage some acts to indulge their hey-why-not? tendencies, as when Miley Cyrus finished up her take on “Midnight Sky” by climbing aboard a glittering wrecking ball.
4. Faux Fergie
Then again, hey-why-not? is also what led the Black Eyed Peas to install light-up crotches in their pants during their rendition of “Vida Loca.”
Speaking of the Black Eyed Peas! The internet lit up following their performance (which thankfully included a bit of the deathless “I Gotta Feeling”) with folks wondering who the woman playing Fergie’s role was.
Her name is J. Rey Soul, and she joined the band last year after Fergie decided to step away to focus on raising her son.
5. Big Apple business
One organization that likely wasn’t sad to see the show leave Barclays Center was the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, which no doubt reveled in Palmer’s name-checks of tourist-friendly locations like the Skyline Drive-In theater (where Maluma and CNCO performed) and Hudson Yards (where the Weeknd did his thing).
6. Taylor Swift, auteur
Taylor Swift has a long history at the VMAs, any accounting of which must begin with the infamous 2009 run-in with Kanye West that’s still reverberating more than a decade later. On Sunday, though, she achieved a personal VMAs first, winning the best director award for having helmed the clip for her song “The Man” — a song almost certainly shaped in part by Swift’s continuing friction with West.
7. The masked singer
We should talk about Gaga’s masks again. Actually, we should just look at them.