At the end of June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo anounced that the VMAs would go on at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn with either a limited or no audience. But on August 30 (August 31 in Australia), the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards exited that plan and took a different route.
The VMAs has historically given us some of pop culture's most controversial moments but this year, the outdoor event was much more subdued. The socially distanced occasion featured the usual cavalcade of celebrity appearances, but this time also included a number of dystopian masked looks and an eerie digitally rendered crowd.
Though, the question on everyone's lips was whether the red carpet would be rolled out for the attendees. The VMAs team got their first win of the night, by ushering presenting and performing celebs on the first red carpet event since the global pandemic started. Everyone form Bella Hadid, Nicole Richie and Machine Gun Kelly to Madison Beer, Jaden Smith and Da Baby showed out, obeying protocols by posing alone in cordoned off areas in COVID-safe arenas across New York City's five boroughs.
Keke Palmer was the glue that held the show together. The charismatic presenter stood in front of a green screen perched on the Empire State Building and somehow performed for an animated crowd that clapped and cheered for her zeitgeisty jokes.
The show opened with a performance from The Weeknd. His theatrical performance of Blinding Lights set the tone for the rest of the show. Instead of traditional on-stage renditions of songs, everyone from Miley Cyrus to BTS delighted the at-home audience to fresh performances of their latest singles.
Conceptually, it felt like something dreamt up in 2001, enacted with 2020 technology. Dark rooms void of sporadic cheers and frenzied screams was the primary makeup of the awards show. But artists who opted out of highly stylised, pre-recorded performances took to the rooftops of New York City's high-rise buildings.
For Doja Cat, it was her VMAs debut, and for an artist as joyfully quirky as the Say So singer, it felt oddly perfect. And to top it all off, she won the PUSH Best New Artist category. Dressed in a magnificent iridescent outfit, Doja performed Say So and Like That with a swathe of tentacled dancers.
Even though the VMAs lacked people, there was plenty of humanity. While most artists rehearsed lines about what strange times we live in using veiled language, The Weeknd spoke directly from the heart.
"It's really hard for me to celebrate at this moment, so I'm just going to say justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor,” the singer exclaimed during his acceptance speech for winning best R&B single. He doubled down on this sentiment when he won Video Of The Year for Blinding Lights.
Though the moment everyone was waiting for was Lady Gaga's performance with Ariana Grande for her hit comeback single, Rain On Me. And as always, the New York native didn't disappoint. But it was her masked, cybergoth dystopian looks that stole the show.
MTV had to get creative this year, but they may have just pulled it off. The tastefully curated show was as awkward and as clumsy as you might expect, but for those stuck at home it provided a sense of normalcy, if nothing else. And as always the show gave us something to talk about, whether it was Gaga's outfits, Nicole Richie's strange Quibi persona Nikki Fre$h or the dystopian faceless crowd. Once again, music proved to have the power to bring us together, even if we have to stand six feet apart.