Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards "gave the impression that they were happening in a collective imaginary place, a computer-generated nothingsville," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "Sometimes it looked like The Matrix, sometimes like a Star Trek holodeck, and sometimes like the inside of Janet’s mind in The Good Place. Miley Cyrus swung on a giant disco ball suspended from nothing, above nothing. Her endlessly long mic cord disappeared off into the ether somewhere. Announcers and performers strode out onto what must’ve been empty green screen soundstages, but on TV it looked like they were all standing on the same surreal, VMAs–flavored CGI balcony. It was a balcony in front of nothing, overlooking nothing (except more VMAs branding). Gaga’s several performances and acceptance speeches had the most 'this is happening in a specific place' vibe of the entire show, but because that specific place was 'in front of a piano sculpted to look like a brain,' it didn’t exactly feel grounded in reality. In all, the VMAs felt like a dislocated, floating nothingness, and I’m honestly still not sure how I feel about it. It was distracting, and the New York–specific images felt off. It was like watching a show set in an airport I-heart-NYC kiosk. And yet, there was something about the cloud of nothingness that also convinced me — we’re all nowhere, but we’re all nowhere together. Or rather, we’re all pretending to be together, which is as good as it’s safe to be right now."
Lady Gaga saved a show that was unsure how to go on in a pandemic: "We’re a country largely in denial, and that’s a word that perhaps describes not only a partial national mindset but the VMAs themselves," says Chris Willman. "This was a show strangely hellbent on denying what just about everyone viewing either knew ahead of time or could quickly suss: that it wasn’t live. There was that moment in the early minutes when the show first busted out a round of boisterous cheering, and it seemed to be setting up a punchline for host Keke Palmer, who would surely deflate the fake applause with a nudge or a wink as she acknowledged that this was nor a normal year for the VMAs… right? There would have been a good chuckle to be had in cutting away to some MLB-style cardboard cutouts in fake stands. But the VMAs were not kidding about clinging to the old normal as much as possible. Not even if that meant soundtracking the two-hour-plus show with what almost felt like a satirically loud equivalent of a badly canned laugh track."
The pandemic made the VMAs relevant again: "It was ambitious and reassuring, polished in ways we haven’t seen on TV in so long because of the pandemic shutdown," says Kevin Fallon. "Glancing at the harsh realities of the current moment, but confusingly opaque about how it pulled this production off given quarantine and social distancing safety and rules, the show seemed to make something worthwhile almost in spite of itself. That still may be high praise for the Video Music Awards, following years of plummeting ratings and buzz."
MTV's fake crowd noise was jarring: "While viewers are well used to green screens, pre-recorded speeches, remote performances, and even award honorees not turning up on the night -- the pretend crowd was something new, and more than a little bit unsettling," says TooFab. "The set-up saw presenters and winners taking to a physical stage with a heavy dose of computer-generated trickery providing bells and whistles, which didn't feel that unusual. But similar to the pre-recorded canned laughter that provides the backing tracks to sitcoms, cuing audiences when to laugh along, MTV simply played the sound of a screaming, cheering crowd in the background."
VMAs winners and losers: Host Keke Palmer was a winner thanks to her signature energy and irrepressible cheer, but the overall ceremony was a loser for being shockingly watchable.