Ten years ago, in arguably the most famous MTV Video Music Award moment ever, Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for Female Video of the Year, claiming that Beyoncé actually deserved the win for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." For a network and an awards show that's struggled to maintain relevance as the music industry has shifted to streaming and the internet, the fact that the most ubiquitous event from its entire history might be its biggest disaster seemed to indicate a grim future. But the 2019 iteration of the awards wasn't so much a trainwreck as it was a pointless, multi-hour marathon that celebrates the best-selling artists, songs, and music videos of mainstream pop culture, with no surprises along the way.
This year, Taylor Swift's "You Need to Calm Down" beat Lil Nas X for Video of the Year, but he won Song of the Year for "Old Town Road," so it's fine. Given the predictability of who's nominated, who performs, and who wins, it's impossible to really care. Does anyone remember who won anything last year? How about in 2014? Or even earlier in the broadcast? At this point, the Moon Man—or, uh, Moon Person—represents nothing substantial about the music itself, only a tally of Instagram followers and accrued YouTube views.
But at least Lil Dicky didn't win the "Video For Good" award. It could always be worse.
Even the featured performers had trouble proving they were actually excited to be there at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Enduring an awkward pre-show interview, Taylor Swift said that it was particularly special for her to be at the VMAs because she's never released an album the week she also had to perform an awards show, which is only notable if you think about it for too long. Before the awards even started, there was a sense that even the paid red-carpet-host hype people were giving up, after one too many "can you believe we're all here in New Jersey?" small talk icebreakers didn't quite land. (Only Diplo said he was excited to be in Newark unprompted.)
The 2019 VMAs kicked off with a particularly bright Taylor Swift medley of "You Need To Calm Down" (think if the makers of Candy Crush were tasked with set-designing an awards show performance) and a more stripped-down rendition of "Lover." The latter, as on the album, was the highlight of the two. Swift is already one of the most famous pop stars in the world and doesn't need the credibility boost of attending or performing there. Her appearance, due to both her own stature and MTV's declining relevance, kind of felt like she was doing the network an unnecessary favor. Ariana Grande, who matched Swift with an event-topping ten total nominations, didn't even attend.
Let's talk about Sebastian Maniscalco, who hosted the entire event and who, in promotional photos, looks as confused as most people about why he got the gig. Somehow yet mercifully still not a household name, he's one of 2018's top ten highest-paid comedians in the world. He co-starred in the Oscar-winning film Green Room and co-hosts the podcast The Pete and Sebastian Show on Sirius XM's Raw Dog Comedy channel, two things that MTV's target demographic of Gen Z's and millennials love. There's something very jarring about a 46-year-old man from Arlington Heights, Illinois start his opening speech by poorly recreating JB Blocboy's shoot dance and attempting to floss. If that sounds bad, his actual monologue was much worse. His opener mentioned that he was Italian before he could even finish his first sentence. He took on Bird scooters (which he said would happen in a Hollywood Reporter interview); another joke said that if anyone in the audience feels triggered, he's provided a safe space backstage. How daring! He sucked, and MTV should be embarrassed by making him the emcee.
Shawn Mendes also performed. He seems like a nice boy. He did his 2018 single "If I Can't Have You," which is fine, but people were really there to see him play the number one song in the country, "Señorita," which is a collaboration with Camila Cabello, another pop superstar with whom Mendes was recently revealed to be in a relationship. As Entertainment Tonight's accidentally published pre-draft of the show expertly predicted, "killer choreography" was on display, and the two twentysomething pop stars did "get flirty" during the "spicy" performance. It was the first time they've played the song together and their onstage chemistry felt so major-label focus-grouped you could hardly tell! The track, which unseated Billie Eilish's bedroom pop ballad "Bad Guy," which itself had dethroned "Old Town Road" on the Billboard charts, is a return to power for pop music's hit-making apparatus.
If there's one takeaway from tonight's show, it's that the Jonas Brothers are from New Jersey. The broadcast took pains to mention this dozens of times over the course of the broadcast, including in a Toyota commercial moonlighting as a vessel for the brothers to make a state-centric playlist for fans making the trek to Asbury Park, NJ to see them play the VMAs via satellite from the Stone Pony. This is an obvious nod to Bruce Springsteen, who cut his teeth at the iconic venue. But where Jon Landau once wrote, "I saw my rock 'n' roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock 'n' roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Here, MTV viewers got a glimpse into the future of automobile marketing funneled through rock 'n' roll's past. When the trio won the award for Best Pop Video of the year for "Sucker," even getting presented the prize from the cast of The Sopranos, New Jersey hasn't been this well-represented since the first season of Jersey Shore.
Missy Elliott won the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, but you wouldn't know the deserved prize was actually titled that, given the hosts' night-long hesitance to call it by its full name. The hip-hop icon's career-spanning medley was the highlight of the night, proof of the unquestionable fact that Elliott has so many hits and is so essential to the shape of the pop music landscape. Given the performers and presenters attending the VMAs tonight—like Cardi B (who presented the award), Lizzo, Normani, Queen Latifah, and Megan Thee Stallion—Elliott's influence is deeply felt and her win feels incredibly overdue.
Other highlights in what was probably an hour-or-so-too-long broadcast included a revelatory performance from Lizzo. Her medley of "Truth Hurts” and “Good As Hell,” which she played in front of a giant prop of a butt onstage, was an optimistic glimpse of a better future. Lil Nas X's Tron and Blade Runner-inspired rendition of "Panini" was also a whole lot of fun, proving that "Old Town Road" is hardly the only thing that makes the year's breakout star easy to root for.
Midway through the broadcast came Miley Cyrus, who did a heartfelt and raw string-assisted take on her new breakup single "Slide Away" in what was billed as her first public appearance since her split with husband Liam Hemsworth. It was fine! (Love is fleeting.) Later, Rosalía, H.E.R., Normani, J Balvin, and Bad Bunny slayed, too, in their respective performances, but everyone who has even a passing familiarity with those artists knew they would. Same goes for the closing hip-hop medley, which boasted a welcome but perplexing roundup of Redman, Fetty Wap, Wyclef Jean, Naughty by Nature, and Queen Latifah. It was nice to see Fetty Wap look happy in 2019 and great to hear Latifah perform "U.N.I.T.Y."
Before his debut as the host, Sebastian Maniscalco told the Hollywood Reporter that like his comedy, the VMAs would be "absent of politics." That's unfortunate given the state of the world and also patently untrue given his regressive and hackneyed "participation trophy" and "trigger warning" jokes in his opening routine. There was one saving grace where presenters French Montana and Alison Brie went off-script to shout out immigrants and criticize the administration, but that was pretty much it.
While MTV should be applauded for trying to ostensibly focus on the music and avoid the groan-inducing internet culture pandering, this, unfortunately, all feels pointless when there are no risks taken and nothing truly feels at stake. If it's going to top its flagging ratings (it's a quarter of what it once was as recently as 2013, and currently its in the fifth year in a row with the lowest all-time totals), the VMAs have to properly engage with what its artists, like Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Rosalía, Bad Bunny, and more represent. Which is to say, fearlessness.