Awards shows are about selecting winners. That—as this year’s “Not-everyone-can-get-a-trophy” VMAs host Sebastian Maniscalco pointed out early in the show—leaves those who have fallen short as losers. MTV’s Video Music Awards are unlike the Grammys, the Oscars, and the other major awards shows, though, in that the winners and losers are largely self-selecting. Sure, trophies are awarded throughout the night—and those trophies (some chosen by committee, others by fan voting) are far more representative of contemporary music than the stodgy Grammys—but the show itself is where artists really claim victory or suffer defeat.
MTV's VMAs are essentially a free-for-all. Young artists can use the show to elevate their profiles, old artists can use it to reclaim their legacies, and anyone can use it to make a statement or shift a narrative. Clothing is optional. Getting drunk is practically mandatory. A week, a year, and especially a decade after a given show, it’s the wild moments—Fiona Apple calling bullshit, Britney and Madonna kissing, Miley twerking—not the award recipients that stick.
This year’s show took place at New Jersey’s Prudential Center. It was a trippy spectacle, but by the show’s standards, it was relatively uneventful. Like the outfits, the show was sparkly and flamboyant, but not particularly risky or revealing. Nothing in it is dominating today’s tabloids; no one’s had to issue a big apology. For all the artists who woke up hungover today, it seems like there should be very few regrets.
It was probably a sign of what’s to come. The VMAs are built around rising superstars—artists who stand to gain something from showing up—and today’s crop, with social media in their DNA, are experts at getting attention without committing gaffes.
And so, this year there were a lot of winners and not many losers. Young superstars like Lizzo, Bad Bunny, and Rosalía brought their vibrant live shows to a wide cable audience, perhaps giving a final group of culture stragglers a taste of their unique flavors. Veterans like Missy Elliott (who was given the much-deserved Video Vanguard Award) and New Jersey native Queen Latifah provided forceful reminders of their influence and dynamism. Cardi B, wearing a red dress that looked like it had battled a shredder (a compliment, I promise), essentially played Cardi B karaoke; she didn’t perform, but as a presenter, she showed why she should be given a talk show, or at least a Chatty Cardi doll (coming from her mouth, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” and “Ah, ah, ah” are the rare catch phrases that never get old). And each time Lil Nas X appears on a public stage, he gives fans (and maybe himself) a bit more of a glimpse into what he’s up to and where he’s aiming. Camp—in the form of his sparkly and bright outfits, his Tron-inspired “Panini” performance, and his thank you scroll gag—suited him.
There weren’t any career-threatening belly flops. But there were some members of the old guard who seemed like they couldn’t keep up. When he tipped his hat and quoted a letter from Johnny Cash, Billy Ray Cyrus gave the impression that he, not Lil Nas X, was the novelty act within “Old Town Road.” Alison Brie mispronounced Rosalía’s name. In handing out the Video of the Year award, John Travolta mistook the drag queen Jade Jolie for Taylor Swift. And while host Sebastian Maniscalco certainly gained some name recognition, he didn’t win many new fans. At times, his jokes felt antagonistically bad, at other times he just seemed like an overmatched open mic comedian. His punchlines were stiff (what was that about mom’s zucchini?), his kids-these-days premises unoriginal, and his slow pace and grumpy tone was at odds with the youthful show. (Also, as a friend I watched with commented, “Hot take: The mic is too low.”)
The most interesting arc within this year’s VMAs, though, was Taylor Swift. By far the biggest star in Jersey last night, Swift opened the show with a bright, bubbly rendition of the LGBTQ anthem “You Need to Calm Down,” followed by a more minimal, acoustic performance of her rootsier new single, “Lover.” She took home several awards, she gave a socially conscious speech, and a camera was trained on her for reaction shots.
Swift, of course, has a fraught history with the VMAs, having been blindsided by Kanye West’s impromptu interruption in 2009 and then having their 2015 reconciliation later subverted by West’s subsequent “Famous” video (which imagines Swift as one of several naked celebrities lying in a bed). This year, she was determined to bend the show to her will. The show was a natural stop in her Lover roll-out, but Swift also seemed to use it as part of a more sweeping PR campaign—one to establish her allyship, her political opposition, and maybe also, more simply, that she’s a good hang. She made all the right moves, be they ceding the mic to Todrick Hall in accepting the Video for Good award or calling out the Trump administration for failing to acknowledge the Equality Act petition for LGBTQ rights. But, fairly or not, it all gave the impression of being rehearsed. Swift didn’t pull a Kanye and announce that she’d eventually run for president, but her performance throughout the night left me certain she eventually would. She wasn’t the victim of any hiccups this time around, but with full control, she was the show’s lone enigma; whether she came away with a big win or a soft loss is uncertain, and will probably vary widely.
Originally Appeared on GQ