Welcome to a surreal VMAs happening in the middle of a global pandemic and the biggest American civil rights uprising in decades. It might feel like a strange time to think about pop music, but then again, part of surviving these surreal conditions is finding a moment to care for your heart and spirit, and that’s what the lighthearted feel of pop has always been about. This year’s show wasn’t all escapism, the realities of what’s happening in our country were necessarily brought into the show, but it was still nice to see a glimpse of the performers who previously seemed so easy to see on tour, at festivals, or popping up as surprise guests at other people’s concerts. Here’s a rundown of the best pop moments at an admittedly strange night — but MTV kept trekking on and so will we.
BTS perform their already record-breaking single “Dynamite” live for the first time
Though it was only released a few days ago, BTS have shattered countless records with their addictive new pop hit “Dynamite.” Of course, the VMAs offered the perfect platform to debut it live for the first time, and the Korean boy band didn’t disappoint in dapper suits and flawless choreography, set against the backdrop of New York City. Assuming these guys have been quarantining together for a while now, there was no need for masks as they skated through the song’s high trills, signature key change, and retro dance moves.
Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga perform their anthem “Rain On Me”
Lady Gaga is well-known for her incredible live shows, so the fact that she hasn’t been able to tour behind her brand new return-to-form pop classic Chromatica has been a disappointment not just for fans, but surely, for Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta herself. So, she showed up in full force for the VMAs with a retro throwback opener, an interactive mask that was hard to look away from, and a medley of fan-favorite “911” that led directly into her collab with Ariana Grande, “Rain On Me.” As one of the biggest singles off the album, the first time these two modern pop icons have collaborated, and a song that went No. 1 in a year of rap-dominated chart-toppers, “Rain On Me” set the pace for VMA performances that sizzled even without a massive audience present. And that whistle note Ari hits at the end? Chef’s kiss.
Lady Gaga face masks, period.
Though it might be strange that anyone have a resistance to wearing a mask given the life-saving power they have repeatedly been shown to have when it comes to a disease like COVID-19, there has been an ongoing debate in America about their use. After seeing Lady Gaga’s multiple, stunning masks at the VMAs last night, I’m assuming that debate is now over. She showed up a number of times throughout the show, each time wearing a stylish, jaw-dropping, incredible face covering. It served as a reminder for all the little monsters out there that staying safe and protecting others doesn’t mean giving up an ounce of personal style. And I’m guessing most Lady Gaga fans are shopping for look-alike masks right now.
Miley Cyrus is a wrecking ball, yet again
Though she isn’t quite the cultural lightning rod she was back in 2013, it’s still a special moment when she shows up to debut new music. Her latest single “Midnight Sky” pulls in influences like Stevie Nicks and Heart, hearkening back to strong rock and roll ’70s icons, and her new haircut is definitely pulled straight from that era, too. But there’s nothing like a little self-referential moment to spice up a live performance, and as she debuted the new single live for the first time at the VMAs, Miley climbed a staircase in the dark, dropped the skirt of her dress, and wrapped her legs around a disco ball to bring back her old “Wrecking Ball” look. It was a touch of dramatic flair that nodded to her past while this bold new sound kept pulling toward her future as a single woman.
Doja Cat is a star in the making with a medley
The ever-controversial Doja Cat brought everything back to the music on Sunday night by remixing and reimagining two of her biggest hits, “Say So” and “Like That” with a crew of dancing aliens and space explorers. With a self-deprecating jab at the beginning of the clip that no one knows who she is, let’s not forget that “Say So” went No. 1 earlier this year. Though that recent jab from Nas undoubtedly left a mark, she still brought it for a high-energy performance.
Chloe x Halle are ungodly excellent
It took me a moment to warm up to the new Chloe x Halle album. Ungodly Hour was already getting rave reviews the moment it dropped, but I wasn’t in the mood for upbeat pop music about relationships in June. Given a few months to simmer with their electrifying mix of pop, hip-hop, and R&B, I have fully become a fan of these two incredible performers, and if any doubts were left, their rendition of their debut’s title track “Ungodly Hour” at the VMAs last night eviscerated them. These two are going to be full-blown pop stars who might even have the potential to eclipse their mentor Beyonce one day.
The Weeknd calls for justice for Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake in his acceptance speech
In pop years, “Blinding Light” happened approximately four centuries ago, so while The Weeknd was gloomy and fascinating as ever in his live performance of the still-sparkling hit, it was his acceptance speech that really hit home last night. One of the few stars to get political during the night, despite the intensity of unrest felt around the country this summer, Abel Tesfaye laid it out as straightforward as possible when he won for Video Of the Year: “It’s hard to celebrate, so I’m just going to say justice for Jacob Blake and justice for Breonna Taylor.” While that’s a sentiment that’s probably echoed by most of the people featured on this list, Abel was the one to say it. And though the escapism and joy of the music made the show special, his decision to simply take a stand and address what’s happening with police brutality in America was one of the most inspiring moments of the whole night.