MTV used Sunday night’s Video Music Awards to celebrate the year’s top music, and to mark its own 40th anniversary — a milestone that was mentioned at least 40 times over the course of the three-plus hour show.
This year’s awards were split pretty evenly with Olivia Rodrigo, Justin Bieber and Lil Nas X taking home two Moonmen apiece — with Lil Nas X tweaking some folks by giving thanks to “the gay agenda.”
Madonna, one of MTV’s earliest staples, opened the show by stripping down to a skimpy leather outfit to drop an F-bomb and surrender the stage to Tha Kid Laroi. The Aussie ripped through a rowdy “Stay” before giving way to Justin Bieber, who pushed through “Ghost” in a hoodie that completely obscured his face.
There was no mistaking Olivia Rodrigo, who took the stage for one of the night’s most powerful performances — a fired up “Good 4 U.” that exploded with punky energy (and plenty of confetti). Bonus points for the fully-masked dance team.
Kacey Musgraves completed her evolution from sensitive country singer to sensitive pop star with a moody take on the title track to her Star-Crossed album. Anyone who didn’t get the point of the lyrics got that driven home by the burning heart onstage.
Twenty One Pilots changed the mood quite a bit with the upbeat “Saturday,” their bid to join the realm of party anthem classics, with singer Tyler Joseph announcing his wife is pregnant with their second child.
Ed Sheeran took the party a couple miles north of Barclays Center to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where he and a full band debuted his new single,”Shivers,” in front of a spectacular skyline view.
Lil Nas X found yet another way to showcase his stuff for “Industry Baby,” donning, then stripping off. a drum major outfit. Jack Harlow ducked in for a verse before Nas brought on a dozen or so buff male dancers to drive home the song’s hook.
Camila Cabello channeled the variety shows of 1970s TV for her choreographed take on “Don’t Go Yet,” which led directly into her main squeeze Shawn Mendes kicking it with his new single, “Summer of Love.” Shawn and duet partner Tainy came through with a subtle, sweet version of the song.
Doja Cat, who was billed as the host of the show, made her first real appearance of the night 80 minutes in, channeling Pink with a spinning, mid-air lip-sync of “Bless Your Heart.”
The most surprising performance of the evening came from Chloe Bailey of Chloe x Halle, who turned up the volume for her solo debut, a hard-rocking, stage-humping “Have Mercy.” Never fear, fans of the duo: Halle was on hand to introduce her.
Normani, who campaigned hard for a slot on the show, finally got her way when MTV announced her as the replacement for Lorde, who dropped out due to strict COVID protocols. She came through with a steamy “Wild Side” that made up for the absence of Cardi B with a little extra raunch.
Ozuna took things back to a family friendly space by bouncing through “La Funka” with a stage filled with life-sized teddy bears — and one of those cool arcade claw machines.
Foo Fighters took home what might be the night’s biggest honor — the Global Icon Award — and delivered a medley of some of their biggest hits, including “Learn to Fly,” “Shame Shame” and “Everlong.”
Producers sent Alicia Keys to Liberty State Park in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty for a taste of her new single “La La,” with a feature from Swae Lee. Since the Big Apple was still marking the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, Alicia also hopped on the piano for a bit of “Empire State of Mind.”
Brooklyn icon Busta Rhymes kept the local vibe going with a super high-energy medley of “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” “Touch It” and “Hey You” — mixed in with a bit of A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Scenario.”
In an odd finish, Machine Gun Kelly ended the evening by thrashing through his hit “Papercuts,” then smashing his guitar in classic rock star mode — before the P.A. played “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first video ever aired on MTV four decades ago.
2021 MTV Video Music Awards Winners
- Video of the Year – : Lil Nas X: “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
- Song of the Year – Olivia Rodrigo – “Driver’s License”
- Artist of the Year – Justin Bieber
- Best Group – BTS
- Best New Artist – Olivia Rodrigo
- Best Pop – Justin Bieber– (feat. Giveon and Daniel Caesa) “Peaches”
- Best Hip-Hop – Travis Scott (feat.Young Thug and M.I.A.) – “Franchise”
- Best Alternative – Machine Gun Kelly (feat. Blackbear) – “My Ex’s Best Friend”
- Best K-Pop – BTS – “Butter”
- Best Collaboration – Doja Cat (with SZA) – “Kiss Me More”
- Best Direction: Lil Nas X: “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
- Best Cinematography – Beyoncé, Blue Ivy, SAINt JHN, WizKid – “Brown Skin Girl”
- Best Choreography – Harry Styles – “Treat People With Kindness”
- Video For Good – Billie Eilish – “Your Power”
- Global Icon Award – Foo Fighters