Taylor Swift, Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish and Missy Elliott were the big winners at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, which aired from the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. on Monday night.
Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” was named Video of the Year. Song of the Year went to Lil Nas X’s record-breaking remix of his breakout hit “Old Town Road.” Eilish and Ariana Grande, both of whom were absent from Monday’s show due to tour commitments, won Best New Artist and Artist of the Year, respectively.
However, the biggest victor might have been MTV, which managed to pull off a telecast that not only offered frothy spectacle but showed the network still had something to say, by booking a show that celebrated the diverse talents currently changing the look of pop music.
For much of the past 30 years, the VMAs were must-see TV, both a celebration of the music video as commercial art form and a brash, youthful celebrity gawkfest. This was where Kanye West became a lifetime meme for crashing the stage and where Britney Spears reigned supreme (and fell apart). The VMA stage is where Beyoncé tested her ambitions as a performer and where Lady Gaga became a superstar. For years, audiences watched with bated breath to see what their favorite pop star would do next.
Over the past decade, though, the network’s fortunes have fallen, and like many award shows, the VMAs hemorrhaged viewers in an era of peak TV and streaming.
But despite a cringeworthy hosting performance by popular comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, the 2019 VMAs felt more assured and purposeful than any in recent memory.
Taylor Swift opened with the queer-empowerment anthem “You Need to Calm Down,” transforming the stage into a literal meme, equipped with bubble letters that popped from a video wall. While collecting the trophy for Video for Good (given to clips that promote a message), Swift surprisingly ceded the stage to the queer artists she featured in the vibrant visual for “You Need to Calm Down.”
Rosalía, J Balvin and Lizzo had adventurous, scene stealing performances (the last of which was flanked by an voluptuous, inflatable rump) that showed the payoff of paying attention to what’s powering the charts and, more importantly, Spotify playlists.
Normani performed a nearly frame-for-frame recreation of her viral, star-making “Motivation” music video. Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello milked their relationship with a G-rated take of their steamy duet, “Señorita” — sealing things off with a nose kiss. And Lil Nas X kept his massive year going with a heavily choreographed performance of “Panini” that showed the rapper could also lip-sync and dance like a 2000s boyband member going solo.
After being feted by Ciara, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake via video, Elliott was awarded the Video Vanguard Award for the innovative and eccentric visuals that disrupted hip-hop when she emerged over 20 years ago.
Elliott’s honor came after years of online petitioning from fans asking the network to consider the eye-popping and vibrant work that defines the Virginia-born rapper-singer-producer’s artistry.
During her 7-minute performance, Elliott — who dropped her first collection of music in 14 years last week — offered a reminder of her genius with a hits-filled medley in which she danced amid mirrors and special effects, recreated the fisheye lens look of her debut single “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and changed costumes numerous times.
“I’ve worked diligently for over two decades and I never thought I would be standing here receiving this award,” Elliott said.
Other winners included Cardi B, Normani, Rosalía and J Balvin, the Jonas Brothers, Cabello and Mendes, and fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who was the first recipient of the MTV Fashion Trailblazer award.