It was a night of triumph for teen stars current (Olivia Rodrigo) and former (Justin Bieber) at the MTV Video Music Awards, in a show that strayed from the pandemic markers and political gestures that have defined most award ceremonies since early 2020.
Bieber, the teenage pop phenom of the early 2010s coming off a several year hiatus from touring, kicked off the night with a duet with 18-year-old Aussie rap phenom the Kid Laroi. Now 27 and appearing at the VMAs for the first time since 2015, Bieber took home two of the night’s top awards: artist of the year and best pop video, for Peaches, featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon. Nominated in every category beside him, and taking home best new artist, was 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo, whose single – and best song winner – Drivers License became the most streamed song ever in January.
“This has been the most magical year of my life and it is all because of you guys,” said Rodrigo while accepting song of the year, dedicating the award to “all of the other girls who write songs on their bedroom floor. There are a lot of people who will try to dim your light, but speaking your mind and sharing your heart are the most beautiful things in the world.”
The night’s top and final award, video of the year, went to arguably the most boundary-pushing star of pop’s vanguard: Lil Nas X, given name Montero Lamar Hill, the 22-year-old rapper who skyrocketed to fame in 2019 with one of the first ubiquitous hits of the TikTok music era, Old Town Road. Accepting the award for Montero (Call Me By Your Name), a video in which he descends to hell on a stripper pole and grinds with Satan, Lil Nas X thanked “the gay agenda – let’s go gay agenda!” and added, “I do not take this for granted.”
The three-hour, product placement-filled ceremony at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center marked a return to form, of sorts, for a program that was the first major show to air during the pandemic last year. While that socially distanced ceremony bopped between host Keke Palmer’s base at an unnamed New York studio and performance locales throughout the city, this year’s event, hosted by 2020 best new artist Doja Cat, featured a full live audience and elaborate spectacles of live performance beneath a giant VMA moon man. (In a sign that everything has not returned to normal, many in the crowd and even some backup dancers wore masks.)
Gone were last year’s pandemic tributes and calls for racial justice, save for a few gestures to sexism and reproductive healthcare rights by artists such as presenter Cyndi Lauper (“Girls still wanna have fun, but we also want to have funds, equal pay, control over our bodies – you know, fundamental rights”) and video for good award winner Billie Eilish (“We need to protect our young women at all costs,” she said while accepting the award for Your Power, off sophomore album Happier Than Ever).
Instead, the evening was mostly focused on live music, with short speeches for fan-voted awards and presenter segues that hinted at MTV’s 40 years of zeitgeist-y coverage. First-time host Doja Cat, given name Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini, mostly served to introduce an array of presenters from Jennifer Lopez to Simone Biles and increasingly absurd outfits (including a chair-as-hat and a get-up that might best be described as a bejewelled head quilt, or as she put it while accepting best collaboration for Kiss Me More with SZA: “I look like a worm, that’s dope. I never thought I’d be dressed as a worm while accepting an award.”)
The host hyped the crowd – and the network, celebrating its 40th birthday – with a nod to the VMAs’ more iconic moments: Britney Spears’ dance with a snake, Kanye “needing attention” when Taylor Swift won video of the year, Beyoncé’s on-stage pregnancy reveal in 2011. In a nod to MTV’s heyday, New York rapper Busta Rhymes stole the show’s final half hour with a five-minute-plus mastery of flow.
But the 2021 VMAs still delivered on the show’s longtime appeal: daring live performances high on sex appeal, from Lil Nas X’s striptease in sparkly pink briefs during Industry Baby, Chloe Bailey’s twerking (and impressive live mic) for debut single Have Mercy, Doja Cat’s aerial acrobatics for Been Like This and You Right, and Normani straddling a backup dancer on a tilted gurney to Wild Side, in a return to the VMA stage since her show-stealing performance of Motivation in 2019.
Other awards included Travis Scott featuring Young Thug and MIA for best hip-hop video (Franchise), BTS for best K-Pop, and Machine Gun Kelly’s My Ex’s Best Friend for best alternative. Eilish, 19, presented 26-year-old rock band Foo Fighters – Dave Grohl, Nate Mendel, Pat Smear, Taylor Hawkins, Chris Shiflett and Rami Jaffee – with the inaugural US global icon award.
Bieber entered the evening tied for most nominations with Megan Thee Stallion, who left empty-handed. In his acceptance speech for artist of the year, the now-veteran star evinced the difficulty of bridging the trauma of the last year and a half with a light-hearted pop awards show. “We are in unprecedented times right now, with this Covid thing that’s happening,” he said, adding “It’s a big deal … music is such an amazing opportunity and an amazing outlet to reach people and really bring people together, and that’s why we’re here right now.
“We have a lot more in common than we don’t,” he continued. “I really do believe the best is yet to come.”