VMAs Recap: Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, and More


As late as this month, the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards were still scheduled to be staged in person at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, though little to no audience was expected because of the ongoing pandemic. Instead, the network announced on Aug. 7 that outdoor performances would be “more feasible and safer than an indoor event,” scrapping the central location but forging ahead with a makeshift show.

The result, which aired Sunday night, combined disparate, green screen-heavy segments, piped-in crowd noise and soundstage performances, most of which were reportedly pretaped — many in Los Angeles, despite the New York theme — joining the BET Awards, held remotely in June, in the strange project of making a virtual collage appear like a communal celebration.

The issues of the day, from Covid-19 and police brutality to the upcoming election and the death of the actor Chadwick Boseman, were alluded to repeatedly, but did not dominate the messaging as performances from BTS, the Weeknd, DaBaby, Doja Cat and Lady Gaga attempted as much pop maximalism as they could muster. Below are some of the night’s most notable moments.

For much of their existence, the MTV Video Music Awards have seemed to operate by an unspoken rule: Give the awards to the most famous people who show up. (A locked-suitcase, PricewaterhouseCoopers-audited affair this is not.) That has become all the more obvious in recent years, as ratings decline, the show slips further from relevance, and the majority of music’s A-listers make other, less ambitious Sunday-night plans. Those household names who do deign to grace the V.M.A.s with their presence, though, tend to be handsomely rewarded with ample Moon Person awards and uncut centerpiece performance time. Think Beyoncé’s 15-minute “Lemonade” extravaganza in 2016, or Taylor Swift’s rainbow-brite “Lover” medley last year.

Or, now, Lady Gaga’s complete and total takeover of the show in 2020. Because while others Zoomed in acceptance speeches from home (was Swift in … a model-home’s walk-in closet?), Stefani Germanotta showed up. As she accepted four televised awards — the most of any artist Sunday night — she may not have been in the same place as the host Keke Palmer or any of the “Blade Runner” replicants cheering in the “audience,” but at least she was on a stage, treating the whole uncanny-valley’d charade as though it were a semi-meaningful awards show. It, like so much of what Gaga does, was strangely, even beautifully, sincere.

Gaga’s four acceptance speeches were all disarmingly earnest and involved dramatic costume changes (each look with its own couture face mask.) Accepting the V.M.A. for artist of the year in a white feathery cape and sequined mask, she told a lengthy story about being wined and dined by label executives early in her career, ending with a quotable punchline: “I didn’t come here for the California roll.” It felt like a throwback to the great “there can be 100 people in a room” awards campaign of 2019. Whether it’s an Oscar, a Golden Globe, or a new V.M.A.s category seemingly tailor-made for the fact that you actually attended this year’s ceremony (last night’s “Tricon Award”), the woman certainly knows how to accept an accolade.

Where Gaga truly showed up, though, was in her ambitious nine-minute performance, a medley of songs from her latest album, “Chromatica.” She opened with the segue from an instrumental track into the robotic pop of “911” — a self-aware nod to the year’s most joyous meme — and then a face-masked-and-pigtailed Ariana Grande joined her for their thumping house duet “Rain on Me.” The performance had a bittersweet undercurrent, given that the Power-Rangers-on-MDMA sets and electro-ninja outfits conjured what Gaga’s postponed Chromatica Ball tour might have looked like, in a world where live indoor concerts still safely existed. (It’s now scheduled to begin in August 2021.) But for an energetic, bonkers and wholly cathartic nine minutes, Lady Gaga was so committed to a good old-fashioned awards-show performance that you almost forgot that it was anything less than business as usual. LINDSAY ZOLADZ

The Grammys tend to be the least politically and socially engaged of the big four awards shows, but as the host Keke Palmer made clear in her opening monologue, Black Lives Matter was on artists’ minds at the V.M.A.s this year. DaBaby danced atop a police car during a medley of his recent hits. The video for good award went to H.E.R. for “I Can’t Breathe,” a protest song the singer and guitarist released in June with a video that includes the names of victims of police violence. The Black Eyed Peas concluded their performance with the words “Wakanda forever — Black Lives Matter.” And the Weeknd used both of his acceptance speeches at the podium to send a message: “It’s really hard for me to celebrate right now and enjoy this moment, so I’m just going to say, justice for Jacob Blake, and justice for Breonna Taylor.” CARYN GANZ


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