Social media put award shows into ongoing crisis years ago, and the VMAs—once a reliable source of zany scandals and career-crowning moments—have been especially snoozy and pointless lately. Their relevance remains questionable; the ratings stink, and it’s quite clear that they mostly give big awards only to artists who show up. But last night’s event did have a pulse, despite the bland, befuddled comedy of the emcee Sebastian Maniscalco and an odd thematic emphasis on the host state of New Jersey. Partly the show benefited from exciting rising voices—Lizzo, Rosalía, H.E.R.—getting the mic. Partly it appeared emboldened by an epiphany: The VMAs should embrace the possibilities of music as videos. The performances shouldn’t look like the Grammys; they shouldn’t try to be concerts. They should be vertigo-strange. They should trick the camera. They should defy reality.
Swift’s opener didn’t really gel: Blame rote choreo, shoddy sound, and the way the word art underscored that she was marketing the kids-meal stuff from a relatively mature album. Still, she gave rise to one of the most lovably surreal moments of the night. Both times she won awards, she brought up the “You Need to Calm Down” cast of LGBTQ celebrities, and even went so far as to cede her first turn at the mic to her co-producer Todrick Hall (she’s been reading the ally playbooks, and good for her!). When the team came to the stage the second time, the presenter John Travolta—already legendary for one awards-show mix-up—appeared to try to give the trophy to Jade Jolie, the drag queen playing Swift, rather than to Swift herself.
Later attempts at play-school fantasy worked better than Swift’s opener. The Latin pop-rap titans J Balvin and Bad Bunny wore proportion-distorting costumes and bobbed around in a Day-Glo desert with emoji-like characters milling about and 3-D cartoon icons rotating overhead. Yoshi’s Story isn’t just a story! Lip-synching was even more flagrant than usual, but that’s what visuals are for: The new superstar Lil Nas X’s Tron army looked credible, and Normani—the Fifth Harmony singer/dancer amid a solo-career launch—shimmied across a powder-pink basketball court while her name popped above her like the Looney Tunes title.
Even the more “traditional” performances benefited from treating the venue not as a concert stage but as a movie set. Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” took cues from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s time-stopping Oscars performance and had the camera press in, in, in as the two rumored lovers came within millimeters of kissing. More convincing drama still: Miley Cyrus’s gorgeous new single, “Slide Away,” was filmed in black-and-white, with her hair styled to look as if it’d just been dunked in the ocean of sorrow she sings about. The best special effect, however, was her voice, which she used in a way that suggested the lane once occupied by Aerosmith’s power ballads has been empty for way too long.