After last year's COVID-19-forced jumble of outside live shots and taped productions, the annual music awards show took a crack at award-show normalcy by returning to a traditional setting at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
And it paid off. Pyrotechnics, arena-sized sets and a live audience (wearing face masks) combined for the most invigorating awards show in recent memory.
Between the number of artists making long-awaited returns – including Bieber, Sheeran and Keys – and debut performances from Rodrigo, Chlöe, Kacey Musgraves and show-closer Machine Gun Kelly, the VMAs maintained a level of watchability absent for years.
Here's a look at the performances from worst to best.
The complete VMAs winners' list including Justin Bieber, Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo
16. Doja Cat, ‘Been Like This,’ ‘You Right’
The hostess of the night went skyward for her performance, which was part Sia wackiness and part ridiculous performance art. While it can always be argued whether an artist is lip-syncing, there didn’t seem to be much evidence that Doja was singing live as she floated above the stage in her fashionable red ensemble, “singing” in an indiscernible whisper. Sometimes coy is appealing. Other times it’s just irritating.
15. Twenty One Pilots, 'Saturday'
Starting with a stripped vibe highlighted by singer Tyler Joseph playing the ukulele, the ditty that already marked a 180 from the band’s usual fare sounded airy and, well, forgettable. As crashing (video) waves surrounded the stage, Joseph dabbled in some footwork with the duo’s backup singers as live horns added some depth and Josh Dun attacked his drum kit. The blond frontman also used his stage time to mention that his wife is pregnant, a weirdly appropriate announcement given the levity of the song.
14. Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker, ‘Papercuts’
In 2012, the rapper-turned-rocker sent a tweet that one day he’d perform at the VMAs. On Sunday night, his moment arrived – and apparently, he walked through a forest of thorns on his way to the stage, given the crown on his face. But MGK soon ditched the costuming and continued cranking out serrated riffs on his pink guitar while singing the rock-rap-punk song in a faux British accent. His buddy Barker slammed his drums while surrounded by fire, but alas, those poor tom toms would soon get tossed off the riser while MGK destroyed his guitar against the stage in the most mundane, predictable ending to any rock performance. Ho. Hum.
13. Camila Cabello, ‘Don’t Go Yet’
Injecting some sassy Latin pop into the evening, Cabello embraced her Cuban heritage with a full production number complete with a sexy one-shouldered, leg-showcasing dress. The combination of the song’s shout-along chorus and ace dancers ably masked Cabello’s limitations as a singer. Yes, she’s a perfectly pleasant performer, but not quite the “iconic legend” she was introduced as by Charli XCX. Let’s save the hyperbole for artists who have been around at least a decade, cool?
12. Chlöe, ‘Have Mercy’
Performing without her sister Halle Bailey (who introduced her), Chlöe flaunted her acting instincts at the start of her performance by emitting a guttural scream. Her sassy presentation in a pink leotard and matching ankle boots also showcased how much she has learned from mentor Beyoncé as she imbued her performance with drama, twerking and most importantly, actual vocal talent.
11. Justin Bieber, 'Stay' with the Kid Laroi; 'Ghost'
The Kid Laroi, who looked ready to pilot a flight in dark aviator glasses, offered a caffeinated opening with Bieber – making his first appearance in six years – as they bopped around the stage in unison in front of fake mountains. But after their warm embrace, Bieber, in overalls and a hoodie, pondered the meaning of the lasers surrounding him for his new single, “Ghost.”
10. Shawn Mendes and Tainy, ‘Summer of Love’
Always the romantic, Mendes strolled the stage in wide-legged pants that looked as if he raided Harry Styles’ closet as he crooned the dreamy song. Running his hands through his luxurious locks and flashing his billion-dollar grin at the outstretched hands in front of him, Mendes is an effortless heartthrob – and looked even more the part ensconced in clouds of dry ice. That he also possesses such a pure voice is a bonus.
9. Olivia Rodrigo, 'Good 4 U'
Surrounded by mask-clad dancers, one of the darlings of this year’s VMAs followed the rollicking snare drum of her female drummer as she cooed and raged through her No. 1 hit. Balloons, confetti and pyro backed her performance as she snarled the song’s hook, “Maybe I’m too emotional,” with the kind of middle-finger attitude that told viewers, no, she’s just fine, thanks.
8. Normani, ‘Wild Side’
In her silver outfit that gave more than a nod to Janet Jackson, the onetime Fifth Harmony singer sexed up the stage with her sultry R&B ballad. On a set that flipped from bright white to red, Normani offered vocal runs in the midst of her slinky finger-snapper. But the end of her performance is what will make the internet rounds as she performed an upright lap dance (is that a thing?) on Teyana Taylor, strapped to a ladder contraption.
7. Kacey Musgraves, 'Star-Crossed'
For her debut VMA performance, the country chanteuse took the classy route. Surrounded by candles and a lone guitarist, her warm voice delved into the achingly personal song heartbreak ballad. As a heart statue behind her blazed and the rest of her band leaned in, Musgraves was still the undeniable focal point of a brief but poignant performance.
6. Lil Nas X, 'Industry Baby' with Jack Harlow; 'Montero (Call Me By Your Name)'
Borrowing from Beyoncé and Taylor Swift with his marching band entrance, the headline-grabber soon stripped to bare his ripped torso. Bouncing with a troupe of dancers clad in hot pink, the Atlanta native unfurled “Industry Baby” in front of a “Montero Prison” set complete with “prisoners” lining the walkways. The song’s featured guest, Jack Harlow, popped in midsong, wearing a glamorous version of a Hefty bag, but soon departed to allow Lil Nas X more time to strip down even more. He didn’t sing much more than the chorus of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” but the setup provided him the opportunity to gyrate in glittery fuchsia hot pants amid a pack of underwear-clad dudes.
5. Alicia Keys, 'LaLa (Unlocked)' with Swae Lee; ‘Empire State of Mind’
Beamed in live from Liberty State Park for her first VMA performance since 2012, Keys, in a form-hugging gold sequined dress, first seduced duet partner Swae Lee as they circled each other on the outside stage, cooing the lyrics of their new song. But the highlight came when Keys headed to her piano and said “Welcome to the Empire State” as she remained standing to play her unofficial hymn for the city, “Empire State of Mind.” The timing of the song – one day after 9/11 – coupled with panoramic shots of the city combined for a particularly resonating version of the anthem.
4. Ed Sheeran, 'Shivers'
Playing live from Pier 3 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the beloved ginger stood atop a triangular stage for his first VMA appearance since 2017 to debut his catchy pop tune. Slimmed and grinning – fatherhood and marriage apparently suit him – Sheeran sounded note perfect. While it was odd seeing him backed by a band (Sheeran and his looping device are a longtime happy couple), the addition of background singers and surges of electric guitar indicated how this song is already custom-built for the inevitable tour to follow his upcoming new album, “=” ("Equals), due Oct. 29.
3. Busta Rhymes ‘Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,’ ‘What’s the Scenario’ and more
A late addition to the performance lineup, the native New Yorker injected some old school dynamism with an exhaustively thrilling medley. His gruff rapping style is still incomparable, exemplified on the jaw-dropping, rapid-fire lyrical spitting at the end of the set. Even with frantic green and red lasers spinning around the arena, it was apparent that all Busta needs to command a room is his undiminished rap skills. Kids, take note.
2. Foo Fighters, ‘Learn to Fly,’ ‘Shame Shame,’ ‘Everlong’
The recipients of MTV’s Global Icon Award lived up to their award status with their bracing, sweaty rock unleashed in front of stacks of amplifiers. Segueing from the crunch of “Learn to Fly” to the slinky funk undertones of “Shame Shame” to the galloping guitar of “Everlong,” the band offered a taste of their consistently fiery live shows. Frontman Dave Grohl throttled his guitar, his mop of hair falling in his face and his energy matched only by drummer Taylor Hawkins’ ferocious playing. Always quick to honor their influences, Hawkins paid tribute to Rolling Stones legend Charlie Watts with “Charlie R.I.P." etched on his bass drum – a class act, as always.
1. Ozuna, ‘La Funka’
And the award for Performance Most Resembling An Acid Trip goes to...the Latin superstar who shared the stage with the cutest co-stars of the show: dancing bears who marched down ramps and runways, following Ozuna’s every step during the effusive song. As the backdrop turned to neon palm trees and lasers, the Moon Person looming above the stage throughout the show morphed into a gigantic bear hoisting the Puerto Rican flag before turning back into the Moon Person, now holding a flag of the Dominican Republic – a proud tribute from Ozuna to his heritage.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: VMAs 2021: Brutally honest ranking of every performance