On Sunday evening, Brooklyn welcomed some of the biggest names in music to Barclays Center for the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards. The special event, which was held for the 36th time since the launch of the network, coincided with the celebration of 40 years of MTV. Like most years, the MTV VMAs were a reminder of the network’s music-driven past, prior to its turn towards reality television.
But this year’s ceremony, hosted by singer and rapper Doja Cat, helped to introduce a new era of young artists who are prioritizing the visual elements of their music and the veteran musicians who are passing the torch to them.
Olivia Rodrigo opens the 2021 VMAs with a bang
In January, Olivia Rodrigo kicked down the door to pop music with the first major music event of the year when she released her record-breaking monolith of a debut single “Drivers License,” so it was only right that she be slotted in as the first performer of the night at this year’s Video Music Awards. In the few months since the song was released, the 18-year-old singer has already established that she isn’t the kind of pop star who opts to play it safe, rather she’s a bigger fan of defying expectations. Rather than rehashing “Drivers License,” which won for Song of the Year, for her performance Rodrigo descended from the venue’s ceiling into a thundering performance of the Sour pop punk anthem “Good 4 U.”
Rodrigo blazed through the track and its accompanying choreography while adhering to the prom theme of the set, echoing the performances found in her live concert film Sour Prom which positioned her debut album in a high school setting with a haze of nostalgia. All the while, the MTV VMAs audience present at Barclays Center became entranced by the singer’s captivating presence on stage.
When Rodrigo arrived at the thrilling final chorus of “Good 4 U,” the volume of the audience screaming “Like a damn sociopath” back at her with all the emotion they could muster rivaling that of the Best New Artist winner herself. The opening performance, complete with confetti blasts and sparklers, made for a promising preview of what it’ll be like to be at an Olivia Rodrigo concert in the future with devoted fans reciting the entirety of Sour in the presence of their new pop princess.
Lil Nas X brings the perfect pop spectacle
One thing you can always count on the MTV VMAs to deliver is a visual spectacle and as anyone following the pop music scene of the last few years can attest to: no one does pop spectacle quite like Lil Nas X. The 22-year-old rapper and singer took the stage on Sunday to perform his hit single “Industry Baby” featuring Kentucky rapper Jack Harlow, bringing the song’s fictional Montero State Prison setting to life outside of the hit music video.
Having blurred the line between pop and rap more than he’s straddled it, seeing the musician boast “Tell a rap n___a, “I don’t see ya” / I’m a pop n___a like Bieber” while the prince of pop himself sat just feet away felt like a defining moment from a groundbreaking artist who is only just getting started.
Normani and Chlöe Serve unmitigated excellence in respective performances
For an award show that honors visual performance over everything, the meticulous detailing of a performer like Normani will always be a highlight. The former Fifth Harmony member turned pop and R&B star performed her latest single “Wild Side.” The 25-year-old singer’s performance felt both nostalgic and futuristic – paying homage to the trailblazing Janet Jackson and expertly hitting every move of the music video’s choreography.
Normani had previously taken the MTV VMAs stage for the first time in 2019 when she performed her debut solo single “Motivation,” creating one of the most memorable moments the show has yielded in recent years. This year’s ceremony offered a similar moment when Chlöe x Halle’s Chlöe made her solo debut with the infectious anthem “Have Mercy.”
Black women in the music industry at large, but especially in the realm of pop music, have historically been held to a higher standard of expectations for their performances. Chlöe and Normani are no strangers to this notion and while their performances are bound to be more heavily scrutinized, anyone looking for a single misstep or vocal stumble will come up empty-handed in their search. With nods to artists like Janet Jackson and Beyoncé in their respective performances, it’s clear that not only is excellence written into the DNA of these two young musicians, they’re also students of some of the greatest performing artists the industry has to offer.
Kacey Musgraves makes an undeniable case for country in VMAs debut
Kacey Musgraves took the stage for an intense performance of the title track from her recently released studio album Star-Crossed. The theatrical single, rooted in Shakespearean themes, was performed under the warmth of candlelight as the singer set the scene of the devastating end to a relationship that simply couldn’t be saved. The performance marked Musgraves’ first appearance on the MTV VMAs, which notably has rarely awarded country musicians and still does not have a specific country category. Standing in the center of the stage facing the audience, the “Rainbow” singer turned the summer warmth of her album Golden Hour into the fiery emotion of Star-Crossed as the outline of a heart behind her went up in flames.
As a song, “Star-Crossed” errs on the side of minimalism with its largely acoustic production and sparse variation within the lyrics. The true narrative of the track came from Musgraves’ somber delivery as she pulled from deeper depths of emotion as the song progressed. The performance could have easily gone over the top, pulling from the anger and drive for revenge depicted in the singer’s recently released visual album film Star-Crossed: The Film, now streaming on Paramount+. But the stripped-back performance focused on Musgraves’ vocal performance and mere presence on stage made for a stunning moment during the show that didn’t have to sacrifice star power or quality in its simplicity.
Foo Fighters and Busta Rhymes reimagine the VMAs medley
It has been two years since the MTV VMAs last awarded its coveted Video Vanguard Award (once known as the Lifetime Achievement Award) which honors the reach and impact of an artist’s visual output on popular culture. After awarding Missy Elliot in 2019, a long-overdue recipient, MTV opted to not issue the award in 2020 and instead presented Lady Gaga with the first-ever Tricon Award celebrating artistic accomplishments across three disciplines. However, the Tricon Award was short-lived and absent from this year’s ceremony.
In its place came a new accolade, the MTV Global Icon Award, awarded for the first time to the Foo Fighters with a career-spanning introduction courtesy of Billie Eilish. The Foo Fighters performed a medley of “Learning to Fly,” “Shame Shame,” and “Everlong” similarly to the traditional Video Vanguard performance arrangement. In the band’s acceptance speech, Dave Grohl reflected on the band’s 26-year history and went on a hopeful note of celebrating another two and a half decades from now.
Rapper Busta Rhymes also performed a medley of hits at last night’s ceremony, running through decades of hits with Spliff Star at his side. The Brooklyn native brought high energy to the Barclays center stage with a grouping of “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” “Scenario,” “Touch It,” “Pass The Courvoisier” and “Look At Me Now” – all in under eight minutes. Titles and accolades aside, the ability to bring an entire arena of music fans to their feet on the force of talent and skill alone speaks volumes to the legacy of an artist.