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The Winners and Losers of the 2020 MTV VMAs

A remote version of the ceremony meant better production value and less chaos, which is both a good and a bad thing

MTV/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the people demand to be entertained, and it seems that Hollywood has finally figured out how to make that happen once more. Award shows appear to be back—see: Sunday night’s remote, carefully pretaped 2020 Video Music Awards. Since the halcyon days of [checks notes] 2013 when Miley Cyrus twerked the world into chaos, the VMAs had diminished in cultural magnitude and entertainment value, but unexpectedly, the restrictions forced by the pandemic seemed to inject life into the ceremony. The show touched heavily on current issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and the lives lost to COVID, but it also provided a spark of fun thanks to a kind of high-quality “live” music America hasn’t seen in months. From Lady Gaga’s countless Chromatica costume changes to BTS’s peppy performance, here are the (many) winners and (few) losers of the 2020 VMAs.

Winner: Keke Palmer

Hosting an award show is a tricky task in the best of times—this year’s remote, socially distanced VMAs seemed even more doomed for failure. But Keke Palmer, making history as the first woman of color to host the VMAs solo, powered through thanks to her signature energy and irrepressible cheer. She didn’t get much screen time throughout the tight, two-hour show, but she made her appearances count. Keke kicked off the show with a heartfelt, home-taped tribute to Chadwick Boseman, and then used her opening monologue to support the BLM movement and condemn police brutality. She committed just as hard to her comedic moments, including several sketches in which she showed off her underrated accent work—I didn’t know I needed to hear Keke Palmer say “Tim-Tim Chalamet” until it happened. And finally, she threw in a peppy performance of her single “Snack” for good measure. If anyone can be trusted to charm an empty room, it’s Keke Palmer.

Loser: The Red Carpet

MTV gets some credit for attempting to give us a red carpet this year by interviewing and photographing presenters and nominees ahead of time, but the lack of attendees limited the network’s options. Yes, seeing Bebe Rexha try to deploy bike shorts on a “red carpet” scratched a specific sort of itch, but it’s just not the same. I found the DIY at-home photoshoots provided by nominees like Ariana Grande and K-pop group (G)I-DLE more endearing.

Winner: Creative, Pretaped Performances

It was impossible to tell how much, if any, of the VMAs show was actually live—most of the performances were pretaped at locations ranging from New York to L.A. to South Korea. Some utilized creative outdoor locations, like the Weeknd’s performance of “Blinding Lights,” which kicked off the show from the top of a skyscraper in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. (If you asked people from NYC what is the VMAs-iest skyscraper in the city, 100 percent of them would say the one in Hudson Yards.) Others went all in on green screens, including DaBaby rapping from the back seat of a cop car driving through a CGI city. Either way, everyone sounded great and looked even better. There were no sour notes, no awkward moments, no missed bits of choreography. Can we pretape every music-related award show from now on?

Loser: Social Media

I have to say: As someone who has spent years live-tweeting award shows for both business and pleasure, there was something disappointing about logging on to see everyone talking about … nothing except how smoothly the show was going. If an award show happens and no one is on Twitter to dunk on it, did it really happen?

Winner: Lady Gaga

“I was wearing face shields before it was a thing,” Gaga joked on Twitter just before the show, during which she preached the importance of masks early and often. Every time she appeared to accept an award, which was several times, she was in a new ostentatious outfit and matching mask. There was no raw meat to be seen, but Gaga’s array of feathered headpieces and gravity-defying capes were still the fashion highlights of the night. Her performance, a Chromatica medley that was the longest of the show, also saw Gaga and Ariana Grande belting through face masks—they don’t impede those whistle notes at all, as it turns out. Gaga then wrapped up her fashion show by accepting the first MTV Tricon Award in a chrome space cape and crown, as you do.

Loser: Reaction Shots

Not to sound like a broken record, but the lack of an audience also deprived us of the real bread and butter of a modern-day award show: the reaction meme. There were no Taylor Swift audience shots; no flashes to Lizzo and her bottle of tequila; no confused reactions as with Alyson Stoner’s 2019 dance solo. And perhaps most devastating to me personally, there were no BTS crowd shots. In this economy?

Winner: Disco

If 2020 had not been the year of the actual apocalypse, perhaps we would consider it the year of the disco renaissance. From Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia (devastatingly snubbed at this year’s VMAs) to the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” which received the award for Video of the Year, disco is officially back. And BTS—who handily and unsurprisingly swept all four of the categories they were nominated in—wasted no time in getting in on the action with their funky new single “Dynamite,” performed for the first time at the VMAs. If bell-bottoms are trending this fall, you know who to blame.

Loser: That Sweet, Sweet VMAs Chaos

OK, so the VMAs were shockingly watchable this year. And that was really nice. I had a rather lovely Sunday evening. But who wants watchable from the VMAs? Of all the award shows, this is the one we come to for chaos—for moments like Kanye rushing the stage, Miley twerking, Madonna and Britney making out, or Lady Gaga wearing cold cuts. Even as someone with crippling second-hand embarrassment, who would love for award shows to go as smoothly as this until the end of time … it just feels a little wrong that there wasn’t a single, life-affirming, cringeworthy moment to be had. Oh well, maybe next year.