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Justin Bieber showed up to accept the artist of the year prize Sunday night at the MTV Video Music Awards wearing baggy jeans and a three-sizes-too-large sport coat that made him look like Tom Hanks’ character after he turns back into a kid at the end of “Big.”
Which made a weird kind of sense — even if Bieber’s win (and his speech about “this COVID thing”) didn’t — given that this year’s edition of the cable network’s annual bash was all about old people and young people trying to find some common ground.
Broadcast live from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the VMAs served as MTV’s prime-time chance to celebrate its 40th anniversary — an occasion it marked right at the top with a surprise welcome from one of its foundational stars, Madonna, who strutted onstage in a black-leather meter-maid costume to inform everyone that both she and MTV are “still here, motherf—.”
But not here to sing a song! Almost as soon as she’d arrived, Madonna took her leave from the VMAs stage so that Bieber and the 18-year-old the Kid Laroi could do a peppy rendition of their streaming smash “Stay.”
That’s pretty much how it went all night, with various figures from MTV’s past — Cyndi Lauper, Tommy Lee, Wyclef Jean, David Lee Roth — turning up just long enough to elicit looks of confusion from the teenagers in the audience before throwing to performances by acts whose videos MTV would play today if MTV still played music videos.
Some of the oldsters were livelier in their quick hits than some of the youngsters were at greater length: I’d much rather have watched Cool Aunt Cyndi spend a few more minutes talking about reproductive rights than sit through Twenty One Pilots’ grim church-camp funk.
And who exactly was Ed Sheeran trying to reach with the soulless, plasticky pop-rock of his new song “Shivers”? If ever there were a moment for this skilled balladeer to go full Elliott Smith, it’s now, with his pal Taylor Swift’s 2020 acoustic two-fer having faded and left an opening for another such bedroom-folk sob story. Instead, Sheeran evidently saw Maroon 5’s latest LP brick then felt inspired to pull a hold-my-beer.
For the most part, though, Sunday’s three-hour show put the focus where it should have been — a smart move since MTV no longer creates new stars but can only seek the heat sparked on TikTok and Instagram.
Olivia Rodrigo, who won best new artist and song of the year with her instant-classic “Drivers License,” thrashed her way through “Good 4 U” like she’d spent the summer on Warped Tour. Chlöe and Normani did sexed-up R&B two ways, the former fierce yet precise in “Have Mercy,” the latter sultry and ethereal in a “Wild Side” that climaxed with the singer climbing onto a cross to grind against Teyana Taylor. Doja Cat went uncharacteristically dramatic for a stirring medley of “Been Like This” and “You Right” — but maybe that was just because she used her gig as the VMAs’ host to flex her eccentric side in a series of increasingly wacky outfits.
“I look like a worm — that’s dope,” Doja Cat said accurately when she and SZA picked up the award for best collaboration for their slinky “Kiss Me More.”
Other Gen Z faves in the mix included Machine Gun Kelly, who smashed his guitar during “Papercuts” and shouted out “the emo kids” as he took the best alternative prize, and Lil Nas X, who re-created his delightful “Industry Baby” video in a prison-shower scene featuring dancers in bedazzled pink boxer briefs. Accepting the evening’s biggest award, for video of the year with the satanic-panic-inducing “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” Lil Nas X thanked “the gay agenda” — just the latest sign that pop has never known a smarter, friendlier troll.
A couple of veterans actually did get to perform Sunday, including Busta Rhymes — as growly and kinetic as ever in a medley of his turn-of-the-millennium hip-hop hits — and the Foo Fighters, who sounded taut and muscular in a propulsive take on their deathless “Everlong.”
The Foos were at the VMAs to receive something called the Global Icon Award, and as they issued their thank-yous, frontman Dave Grohl took a second to shout out “all of the people at MTV past and present” who’d supported the band over its 26 years in business.
“We’ll see you in 26 years,” he added.
Looks that way, yeah.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.