It has been a special (read: terrible) year, one in which the MTV Video Music Awards were rightfully roasted before they even began. What was supposed to be a questionably safe return to Barclays Center became a remote celebration of New York's five boroughs, with a dizzying carousel of maybe-live-maybe-taped-really-who-knows performances to break up the kudos. It was our first real look at How We're Doing Awards Shows in a Pandemic, and it was... unreal. Read on for the most memorable moments from the 2020 VMAs:
The VMAs pre-show got off to a slow start—not for lack of trying. It's just… COVID presented unavoidable challenges that were hard to ignore. First, there was all the awkward (but necessary) empty space created thanks to socially distanced hosts and correspondents. Then there was the weirdness of many of the interviews themselves, perhaps best exemplified by Machine Gun Kelly's "how do I celebrate?" moment, as he waited to receive his Best Alternative award from a disembodied hand. Thankfully, the Bailey sisters (aka R&B duo Chloe x Halle) beamed in a flashy, instant-classic iteration of "Ungodly Hour," which saved the pre-show and left viewers and critics alike demanding primetime honors next year.
Like other live events we've seen return during COVID, the VMAs struggled with how best to involve attendees, fake and otherwise. Staying true to its word—that there would be "limited to no audience"—the show employed a faceless CGI crowd, an at-times deafening faux-applause track, and a move from the NBA's playbook: broadcasting virtual fans' faces onto the surroundings. The trifecta of artifice, combined with a dark recreation of New York City, felt like the kind of unsettling awards show you might see in a Black Mirror episode. Credit to MTV for trying to deliver during a pandemic, but the dystopic mood was ultimately at odds with a night that repeatedly tried to inspire hope. The dark clouds looming over the stage didn't help.
As challenging as the show's atmosphere was, host Keke Palmer brought much-needed energy. She gave new definition to "hostess with the mostest" with character bits peppered throughout the telecast and an impressive VMAs-tailored rendition of her catchy single, "Snack." But perhaps most noteworthy were her thoughtful dedication to late actor Chadwick Boseman and her intro: "With the Black Lives Matter movement, we've seen our generation step up," she said. "Enough is enough. What we just witnessed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is yet another devastating reminder that we can't stop, that we can never tolerate police brutality or any injustice. We must continue the fight to end systemic racism."
"Get your popcorn, because you're dealin' with Baby," the Charlotte-based rapper had teased in his VMAs pre-show interview. He didn't disappoint. Accompanied by members of the hip-hop dance crew Jabbawockeez, DaBaby performed a potent mesh of "PEEPHOLE", "Blind," and "Rockstar." The narrative set saw the Artist of the Year nominee get arrested, ride in the back of a police cruiser, and then dance atop said car in front of a burning New York cityscape. Next to the cops was a sign with a message for police departments across the nation: "Stop killing us."
As part of the show's remote celebrations of New York's five boroughs, we saw Maluma and Latin American boy band CNCO deliver sets from Brooklyn's Skyline Drive-in. Turning the venue into a concert space was a cool idea, and the real-live (!) attendees sitting atop their cars seemed to enjoy the opportunity. But as the camera swooped into the front two rows, where concertgoers were less visible, it was hard to shake the notion that the artists were serenading a parking lot of sentient cars. Fortunately, the strangeness of the night didn't faze Maluma, who would go on to win the Best Latin category for "Qué Pena" and give a genuinely affecting speech in Spanish, because, as he said, "I feel very proud to be Latin."
After kicking off the telecast with a dazzling performance at The Edge at Hudson Yards, The Weeknd earned two awards for his hit "Blinding Lights." He used both acceptance speech moments to call attention to recent racist atrocities. After scooping up the Moonperson for Best R&B, he said, "It's really hard for me to celebrate right now and enjoy this moment, so I'm just gonna say, 'Justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor.'" He'd repeat the sentiment at the end of the night, when he received the honor for the most coveted award, Video of the Year. "Again, hard to celebrate" he said, "So I'm gonna say, 'Justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor.'"
Feeling nostalgic? So was Miley. The former Disney Channel star recalled both the '80s of solo-era Stevie Nicks and the wrecking ball that was 2013 with a moody performance of "Midnight Sky." Red light doused her soundstage, and then blue, before Miley climbed a stairway to straddle a giant disco ball hanging from the ceiling. In other words, it was Wrecking Ball: The Sequel.
BTS gave their rabid fanbase numerous reasons to celebrate. First was their explosive performance, filmed via green screen from South Korea, in which the seven-member, three-piece-suit-clad boy band danced to "Dynamite" in front of iconic Big Apple locations. It proved exactly why they would go on to win the Moonperson for Best Choreography, and the BTS Army was happy to point out that their boys later swept the night, ultimately going four for four and winning in their other categories (Best K-Pop, Best Group, and Best Pop).
If it was anyone's night, though, it was Gaga's. The Chromatica singer was very busy, receiving a bespoke award invented just for her—the inaugural Tricon Award, which came in place of the usual Vanguard distinction and honored her triple-threat work in entertainment, fashion, and activism—returning to the stage time and time again to take home five other trophies, and performing an unforgettable medley of hits (which notably included pseudo-social distanced dancing with "Rain on Me" partner Ariana Grande and a solo at a freaking BRAIN PIANO). But most memorable of all was Mother Monster's arsenal of masks. There were almost too many to count, each more outrageous and inventive than the next. And they weren't just for show; they came with a vital reminder: "Wear a mask," she told the audience, referencing the ongoing coronavirus outbreaks and the importance of, you know, medical advice based on science. "It's a sign of respect."
Since the whole vibe of the show was kind of "Dr. Seuss meets the apocalypse," as so many people—including this blogger—couldn't figure out what was real, what was fake, what was when, and what was there, one of the bummers was there weren't many truly unscripted moments. You know, the "Miley, what's good?"s or the Kanye-esque interruptions, the things that make the VMAs really memorable. The closest thing we got was when Doja Cat won for PUSH Best New Artist, delivering a speech that seemed genuinely off-the-cuff. After a show-stopping performance of her own, Doja thanked a litany of collaborators before remembering: "I think that I probably missed one of the biggest thank-yous so far. [Expletive], I'm rambling now. I just want to say thank you to my fans," she said, trying not to cry. "I love you and thank you and stay safe. Um. And thanks, Mom."
If you're sitting there thinking, "Wait, why did the Black Eyed Peas close out the 2020 VMAs? Isn't that kind of… random?" I regret to say I don't have a good answer. But I can tell you something even more random: As soon as BEP (with new member J. Rey Soul filling in for Fergie) stepped onto the dimly lit stage, the cameras mercilessly zoomed in on their crotches, which were lit up like the surprise glow-in-the-dark cocktails nobody asked for. "OK. But… why?" you might be thinking again, wanting an answer. Please don't. I can't help you. The only thing I can say is that as the luminescent members began bouncing to the persistent beat of "VIDA LOCA" and "I Gotta Feeling," one thing was underlined: This year's ceremony was thoroughly unreal.
Sean Fitz-Gerald is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Thrillist, Vulture, Los Angeles Magazine, The Denver Post, and Variety. Follow him @srkfitzgerald.