The 7 Best and Worst Parts of the 2021 MTV VMAs

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Last year’s MTV VMAs was one of the first major events after the COVID outbreak, and its embrace of extreme safety measures—pre-taped, green-screened performances beamed in from outdoor locations, computer-generated audience members, Lady Gaga’s Fury Road-style facemasks—made for an accidentally interesting telecast with lots of dystopian ambience. This year’s show, which took place live last night in Brooklyn’s fully attended (and presumably mostly vaxxed) Barclays Center, was a return to the usual nonsense. Doja Cat was the host. Performers included Justin Bieber, winner for Artist of the Year; Lil Nas X, whose “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” took the award for Video of the Year; and Olivia Rodrigo, winner of Best New Artist and Song of the Year (“Driver’s License”). Here are the best and worst bits of the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards.

The Best

Doja Cat reinvents award-show hosting

Producers of recent awards shows have struggled with the decision of whether to hire a host or not. But last night, Doja Cat showed us a third way with her charmingly casual non-performance as the VMAs’ nominal emcee. “If you like famous people, keep watching!” she said while ignoring the teleprompter during what could loosely be described as an opening monologue. Later, she dressed up like a worm (“Uh, I look like a worm. That’s dope”), and then put a chair on her head and wished viewers a good night. (Her mid-show performance of “Been Like This” and “You Right,” which began with an aerial routine and ended with a martial arts demonstration, was pretty good, too.) –Lane Brown

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Normani bridges the past and future

The night’s most exciting performance came from Normani, who underlined her status as one of her generation’s most promising stars. The cutout silver moon suits. The core-crushing choreography. The elegantly stark backdrop. All of it was on point during “Wild Side.” The song contains an interpolation of Aaliyah’s 1996 hit “One in a Million,” and the sensational finale of Normani’s performance threw back to another important influence. When she gave Teyana Taylor, who was strapped to a kinky cross/ladder contraption, a lap dance, Normani was channeling Janet Jackson, who used to do the same thing to awestruck fans in concert. Now more than ever, Normani’s long-awaited debut album can’t come soon enough. –Ryan Dombal

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Kacey Musgraves gets heartburn

Just Kacey Musgraves, a classical guitar, and some symbolism in the form of a giant prop heart lit on fire (have you heard that she recently got a divorce?). This dramatically spare version of “star-crossed”—the song’s live debut and Musgraves’ first-ever VMAs performance—was a welcome breather from pretty much everything else that happened at Barclays last night. –LB

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The Worst

MTV’s history lesson

Anybody who’s old enough to remember MTV’s golden age probably knows better than to tune into the VMAs these days. Nevertheless, the network celebrated its 40th birthday with a series of clumsy tributes to its own history, delivered by the artists who were there. “And they said we wouldn’t last,” joked Madonna during a surprise cold open, an ominous callback to Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley’s infamous 1994 appearance. Then, instead of giving an acceptance speech for the newly made-up Global Icon Award, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters just ticked off the names of as many VJs of the ’80s and ’90s as they could remember. Confusingly, Busta Rhymes performed a lifetime-achievement medley in the time slot traditionally reserved for winners of the Video Vanguard Award even though no such award was given. Cyndi Lauper, Ja Rule, Tommy Lee, and David Lee Roth were all there, too, among other luminaries who the Kid Laroi has definitely never heard of. –LB


So many missed opportunities

Technically, a lot of things happened at the VMAs last night. But while watching the show, I couldn’t help but think of all the things that should have happened but, for whatever reason, didn’t. Such as:

 

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