MTV made an inordinately big deal that this year’s Video Music Awards went down in New Jersey.
Broadcast live Monday night from Newark’s Prudential Center, as opposed to its usual home in New York or Los Angeles, the annual show included a painfully awkward bit built around three former cast members of “The Sopranos.” It had the Jonas Brothers dressed up like Bruce Springsteen for a remote performance at the Boss’ old clubhouse, the Stone Pony.
This thing even closed with an ungainly (if exuberant) Garden State free-for-all featuring a bunch of rappers — among them Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature and Redman — who hadn’t been on MTV since before A.J. Soprano was born. Wyclef Jean, clearly excited to be back, did a handstand for some reason.
All the Jersey stuff felt like the network’s obvious attempt to impose some kind of order on its flagship production. But pop music in 2019, a decade after “Jersey Shore” pumped some life back into an ailing MTV, isn’t easily mapped; digital streaming has decentered the industry, pulling focus away from the established stars toward the action at what used to be the margins. And that reflects shifts in a larger cultural discourse in which more diverse voices are being heard than in the days when MTV and other gatekeepers set pop’s relatively narrow agenda.
To some extent the VMAs actually understood this (or at least affected an understanding to avoid being roasted on Twitter): Beyond the Jonases, Shawn Mendes and Taylor Swift — the last of whom opened the show and won video of the year for “You Need to Calm Down” — the night’s performances were rightly dominated by the type of hip-hop and Latin-pop acts once challenged to find a home here. (Other big winners Monday included Billie Eilish, named new artist, and Cardi B, who won hip-hop video for “Money.”) Look at the numbers: Of the more than 20 acts onstage, only two consisted of straight white men.
And yet MTV is a top-down behemoth struggling to make sense of a bottom-up era, which is how the show ended up with a host, comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, whose stale jokes about trigger warnings and safe spaces seemed designed as a wink-wink inoculation against the wokeness to come.
If the network was determined to put us in the hands of a comforting white guy, it should’ve asked Billy Ray Cyrus to do the job. Accepting the award for song of the year alongside Lil Nas X, whom he’d praised earlier for having the courage to come out, the grizzled Nashville veteran told viewers “Old Town Road” belonged to them. “Y’all took this song and made it your own,” he said wisely of the viral country-rap phenomenon — proof that the old guard can adapt to new ways of thinking.
Swift, who’s been criticized for turning gay allyship into a kind of theater of self-aggrandizement, displayed a similar evolution when she stepped aside to let Todrick Hall, one of her creative partners on the pro-LGBTQ “You Need to Calm Down” clip, accept a VMA meant to honor the best video with a social message. (Accepting the video of the year prize later, Swift took the mike to criticize the White House for not responding to an online petition in support of the Equality Act.)
Yet the VMAs were best when showcasing the fresh talent currently reshaping pop, as in Normani’s vivid and athletic R&B jam “Motivation” and in a delightfully weird rendition of “Qué Pretendes” that had J Balvin and Bad Bunny bopping around the stage like living cartoon characters. Another pair of Spanish-language stars, Rosalía and Ozuna, teamed up to perform their slinky “Yo X Ti, Tu X Mi,” while Rosalía and Balvin won Latin video for “Con Altura.”
“I’m super proud of being Latino right now,” Balvin said as they accepted their trophy. The Colombian singer then urged members of the audience not to ignore the fires in the Amazon rainforest — an implicit dig at President Trump, as was presenter Alison Brie’s comment that immigrants’ treatment here is “frankly disgusting.”
Lizzo, radiant in a canary-yellow leotard, brought the house down early in the show with a riotous medley of “Truth Hurts” and “Good As Hell,” two years-old empowerment anthems finally seeing mainstream recognition thanks to the skilled singer’s indefatigable energy.
“It’s so hard trying to love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back,” she told the crowd after taking a slug from a bedazzled tequila bottle, and this was the moment that laid bare the foolishness of Maniscalco’s young-people-are-weak rap.
Nearly as moving as Lizzo’s performance was an appearance by Missy Elliott, who led a large crew of dancers through a lively survey of some of her groundbreaking hip-hop hits — including the deliriously funky “Get Ur Freak On” and “Work It” — as part of her being presented MTV’s lifetime-achievement Video Vanguard Award.
In her acceptance speech, Elliott echoed Lizzo (one of many admirers featured in a warm tribute package) in emphasizing the role that hard work had played in her success as an artist committed to realizing novel ideas. It was another warning that, in music at least, those in need of a safe space now are the lazy.