2021 MTV VMAs: See the 5 highlights, from Lil Nas X’s flair to Madonna’s cheeky cameo

A man in curly hair and a glam purple outfit with a half-skirt bottom
Lil Nas X arrives at the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday in Brooklyn.
(Evan Agostini / Invision/Associated Press)

The 2021 MTV Video Music Awards went on as planned Sunday night in Brooklyn with COVID-19 looming a little less large, thank goodness, than it had the previous year.

Yes, masks were all the rage among those in the audience, but at least there was an audience at the Barclays Center this time around. And, you know, it was at Barclays Center. That’s a change from 2020, when the show went on as a weird blend of live and taped performances from venues all around New York City.

For those who missed this year’s show, which marked the 40th anniversary of MTV itself, here are five not-to-be-missed moments. The appearances ranged from new firebrands including Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X to older stalwarts Foo Fighters.


Even Madonna showed up.

Before winning Song of the Year for her 2021 hit, ‘Driver’s License,’ the Disney Channel actress performed a single off her debut album, ‘Sour.’

Sept. 12, 2021

Olivia Rodrigo delivers the goods

Oh-em-gee, Rodrigo sang her angry anthem “Good 4 U,” backed by the punk fury of her all-female band, and man, did the audience get into the accompanying fist pumps. Before the performance, at a preshow ceremony, the 18-year-old was named best new artist for 2021. Soon after, she got song of the year for “Drivers License.”

Justin Bieber returns to the VMAs stage

Bieber returned to the VMAs six years after his emotional breakdown during the 2105 show, where he wound up overwhelmed by tears following a live performance of “What Do You Mean?” This time around he teamed up with the Kid Laroi for a “Stay” duet before rolling into a solo performance of “Ghost,” which closed with him singing from a mountaintop.

As this year’s VMAs nominations leader — he had seven nods — Bieber went home with the trophies for artist of the year and pop video, for “Peaches” featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon.

Foo Fighters take their place in VMAs history

Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters have been everywhere in recent months, whether it was contending with antivax protesters at a small show in Agoura Hills or rocking live with 11-year-old drumming phenom Nandi Bushell at the Forum. On Sunday night, they ruled the 2021 MTV VMAs as they performed a medley including “Learn to Fly” and “Everlong” and sprinkled in a new song, “Shame, Shame.”

Foo Fighters receive MTV Global Icon Award at VMAs and pay homage to late Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

Sept. 13, 2021

“An entire generation of music fans grew up with this band. They’ve carried the torch for rock ’n’ roll for 26 years,” declared Billie Eilish, who presented the band with the VMAs’ inaugural Global Icon Award. Grohl joked upon accepting the honor that the band would “see you in 26 years.”

Lil Nas X puts on a show all night long

The rapper took home the night’s top honor, for video of the year, after putting on a show that started on the red carpet and continued all night long. Rocking a Rick James-style wig on the carpet in a glam purple outfit that was semi-masc up top and semi-femme on the bottom, Lil Nas X then moved to an energy-packed performance of “Industry Baby” (with Jack Harlow) and “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).”


Finally, he thanked “the gay agenda” as he happily accepted his Moon Person statue from former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth.

Lil Nas X grabbed the top prize for his controversial music video ‘Montero (Call Me by Your Name)’ — which sees the MC descend into the underworld via stripper pole and give a lapdance to the devil.

Sept. 12, 2021

Surprise! It’s Madonna!

A blond woman in a leather hat and bodysuit opens her trench coat.
Madonna wished MTV a happy 40th birthday Sunday night.
(Charles Sykes / Invision/Associated Press)

Though Doja Cat was the night’s host, the 63-year-old queen of music videos appeared as a surprise opener and wished MTV a happy 40th birthday.

Leather-clad from top to bottom — literally, just to her bottom, with only fishnets showing past that point — Madonna left the audience with a good look at what decades of working out will do to a person’s derriere.