Lady Gaga dominated an unusual year for the MTV Video Music awards, winning five awards in a strange and disconcerting evening.
The singer, who led the evening with nine nominations and wore a variety of masks through the night, accepted awards for artist of the year, song of the year, best cinematography and best collaboration for Rain on Me and the inaugural Tricon award, which recognizes an artist who is highly accomplished across three or more disciplines.
“Just because we’re separated right now, and culture may feels less alive in some ways, I know a Renaissance is coming,” she said during her final acceptance speech. “Stay safe, speak your mind, and I might sound like a broken record, but wear a mask — it’s a sign of respect.”
The VMAs was the first major awards broadcast to air since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered production in America. The hybrid program mixed video acceptances, audience-less performances, and an unearthly, unidentifiable studio base in New York City and leaned heavily on video effects and star enthusiasm.
An ebullient Keke Palmer hosted from an outdoor set somewhere near the Empire State Building (“They’ve got me on top of every building,” she joked) before an “audience” whose reality was difficult to discern (“crowd noise” tracks were almost certainly used). The multi-hyphenate host kicked off the ceremony with a pre-recorded video honoring Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, who died at age 43 on Friday after a previously undisclosed, four-year fight with colon cancer. Boseman was “a true hero”, said Palmer, “not just on screen, but in every thing he did.”
Whereas last year’s VMAs were criticised for host Sebastian Mansicalco’s tone-deaf jokes about “safe spaces”, Palmer minced no words in addressing the present of Black Lives Matter protests; the nationwide response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have demonstrated that young people will “step up, take to the streets, and make sure they’re heard.” Palmer, whose video pleading with police officers to listen during protests in Los Angeles went viral, also directly addressed the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “We must continue the fight to end systemic racism,” she said. “It’s our time to be the change we want to see.”
Other winners included The Weeknd for best video for Blinding Lights, Taylor Swift for best direction for The Man, Maluma’s Qué Pena for best Latin, Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage for best hip-hop, On by BTS for best pop, and Doja Cat for best new artist.
Calls for unity and racial justice echoed throughout the evening – rapper DaBaby performed on a police car with the sign Stop Killing Us, R&B star HER won best video for good for her song I Can’t Breathe – in a show which continued last year’s celebration of Latin music as a dominant cultural force. The night featured two Spanish performances from Colombian star Maluma and the Latin group CNCO, both at a drive-in theater in Brooklyn, as well as a retro-themed rendition of Dynamite by K-pop superstars BTS, whose music video set the record last week for most YouTube views within 24 hours.
But the main throughline was the ongoing pandemic and the show directly spoke to the tragedy and resiliences of the past six months – Palmer introduced a segment in which frontline healthcare workers danced and sang, cameras cut frequently backstage to reveal masked stars walking along taped distancing guidelines. Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande and their backup dancers wore masks for the performance of Rain on Me. MTV introduced two distinctly 2020 categories – best music video from home (Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande for Stuck with U) and best quarantine performance (Latin supergroup CNCO for De Cero / Honey Boo) – as a nod to strange times.
Perhaps nothing captured the tone of the ceremony quite like the last five minutes, when The Weeknd accepted the night’s capstone award for best video with a brief, subdued speech – “like I said, hard to celebrate, so I’m just going to say: justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor” — that cut quickly into the finale performance by the Black Eyed Peas. The band closed out the night with 2010’s I’ve Got A Feeling – an ode to better times.
“I know it’s tough right now, but we’ve gotta keep the love alive,” said the group’s frontman Will.i.am, adding as the night’s final words: “Wakanda forever. Black lives matter.”