Taylor Swift, not known for political jeremiads, took a small swipe at President Donald Trump at Monday’s VMAs.
Unlike Robert De Niro at the 2018 Tony Awards or Busta Rhymes at the 2017 Grammys, though, Swift didn’t mention Trump by name or give him a pejorative nickname. Instead, she referenced the administration’s stance on the Equality Act during her acceptance of Video of the Year honors for “You Need to Calm Down.”
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A petition supporting the legislation, which is in sync with the LGBTQ-supporting message of “Calm Down,” has now elicited 500,000 signatures, Swift said. That’s “five times the amount that it would need to warrant a response from the White House.” She then mimed checking her watch as a way of underscoring the delay.
Shots fired? Not quite, but Swift’s comments weren’t the only sprinkling of spice among the cotton candy. Queer Eye co-host Jonathan Van Ness declared, “It’s 2019, and not caring is not cute!” Host Sebastian Maniscalco, conversely, did everything but use the word “snowflake” in a riff complaining about the instinct to provide “safe spaces” to anyone offended by comedians, musicians or others. If it were his call, Maniscalco jabbed, “I would just put you in your car and send you home.”
For the audience at Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center, these few pointed moments caused only the barest of ripples. Instead, a spirit of celebration and entertainment prevailed. (Not for nothing did MTV designate the dress code as “cocktail chic.”) Sitting in the arena, it was impossible not to notice how starkly the atmosphere of the VMAs contrasts with that of most other awards shows with comparable TV tune-in. While it has been said before, Monday’s edition offered the latest reminder that the Emmys, Oscars and everyone else in the kudos game could learn a few lessons from MTV. With the accelerated Oscar season effectively kicking off this weekend in Venice and the Emmys barely three weeks away, now is the time to pay at least a little heed.
First among the takeaways: Performances dominate. They were the main takeaways from the night, not what anyone said or who they kissed or at whom they threw shade (little of which, in fact, was thrown on Monday). Swift delivered a one-two punch at the top of the show with two songs from her new album, Lover. Other memorable stage moments came from Missy Elliott, Lizzo, Normani and Miley Cyrus, the last of whom completely banished the ghosts of twerking past.
Presenters of the actual handful trophies handed out (among the 22 official categories) stepped through a narrow chute in a corner of the arena. The setup looked like a version of the elevator-like contraption that disgorges guests on Jimmy Kimmel Live. After a two-second graphic appeared on the stadium screens running down the nominees and the winner, the screens went dark as the winners spoke. It was often easy to forget who was accepting what during the 45-second span of their speech. And then it was on to the next performance. Fashion Trailblazer Award honoree Marc Jacobs illustrated the compressed tempo when he fumbled for his notes in his jacket pocket (maybe it wasn’t designed by such a trailblazer?) and then joked, “I had 30 seconds and I just used 10 of them.” At other shows, rushing a lifetime achievement winner would elicit howls from the Twitterati. At the VMAs, while no one was out to disrespect Jacobs, even he understood that his words ranked at the bottom of what people came to experience.
The small stage where hardware was exchanged (with recipients’ backs turned to the majority of the audience, in order to gain the most favorable camera angle) was dwarfed by the performance stages. Along with a small, round area at the opposite end of the arena, the triangular main stage offered versatility and depth that the broadcast could never quite capture. Lizzo’s bracing set – punctuated by her urging the crowd to “love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back!” – was accompanied by a giant, inflated bottom bedecked in a thong. J Balvin and Bad Bunny also got inflated, donning cartoonish suits during their performance of “Que Pretendes” that made them tall and puffy as bulbous, blow-up animals bounced among giant cacti. (While it’s hard to imagine Emma Stone or Timothée Chalamet slipping into the kind of augmentation suits worn by Balvin, Bunny and Elliott, it’s also hard to turn the channel once you see it.)
Of any of the “established” award shows (though let’s remember that the Video Music Awards date to 1984), perhaps only the Grammys come the closest to the kind of performance-centric sugar-rush of the VMAs. Even so, “music’s biggest night” is also often its most weighed down by industry grievances or the undending struggle to reconcile genres and agendas. And obviously there is a lot of important terrain covered by the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes that cannot be supplanted by extra perfornances. (“In memoriam” segments, for example, are a tricky tightrope for producers but can have a hard-to-match resonance.)
Perhaps no other figure on the VMA stage personified the mood of the night more than Missy Elliott. In accepting the night’s career achievement trophy, she matter-of-factly noted being excited to receive the “Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.” Jackson’s name remaining attached despite newly amplified charges of child abuse against the late pop star had recently prompted protests. When Elliott name-checked Michael’s sister, Janet Jackson, but also MTV video pioneers like Peter Gabriel while dedicating her award to “the dance community,” it all felt spot-on. Inclusion riders and anti-Trump diatribes certainly have their place on the awards circuit and are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. But it also can be a blast to remember the crowd-pleasing prowess that brought everyone to the show in the first place.