It was telling that at the MTV Video Music Awards this Monday (Aug. 26), the video of the year award — long held as the climax of the evening’s festivities — was instead presented to VMAs legacy artist Taylor Swift smack in the middle of the broadcast. Rather, the final award of the evening focused on the future: best new artist, accepted remotely by an away-on-tour Billie Eilish.
At the VMAs’ mid-’10s peak, they were routinely still drawing the biggest veteran pop A-listers to the ceremonies. In 2016, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Rihanna all performed — Bey doing an epic five-song Lemonade set and Rihanna doing a career-spanning hits medley, spread out over four separate performances — while Drake stopped by just to present and Kanye West popped in to premiere a new video. It was a huge investment in classic star power, one that occasionally felt like it was strangling the pipeline of new talent who might one day have to follow them as future MTV icons.
Unsurprisingly, that star power dried up a bit towards the end of the decade, as most of those major stars stopped regularly showing up — none of Rihanna, Drake, Beyoncé or Kanye have appeared since 2016 — and their absence started to feel more and more conspicuous. As it became obvious that MTV could no longer rely on that class of stars to bolster the show’s marquee, it became more and more incumbent on the channel to produce a new generation of big names to succeed them, lest the VMAs lose its footing as perhaps the most vital award show to youth culture.
That’s why it was something of a relief that the show seemed to approach 2019 as something of a rebuilding year. A handful of old stars appeared — Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, two of the most regular presences of the VMAs’ last decade, anchored the show in its recent past with stellar performances — but most of the main attractions were breakouts of the last couple years: Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Rosalía, Bad Bunny, H.E.R., Normani. Even the Jonas Brothers, the oldest act to get their own full performance, reinvented themselves and scored the biggest hit of their career this year, while Shawn Mendes — something of an old salt by 2019 VMAs standards, having played the show each of the past three years — just notched his first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. It was the first VMAs in a couple years to not feel like it was playing catch-up.
And truthfully, the results of the youth movement were resounding. Normani brought the viral energy of her choreo-heavy “Motivation” clip to the stage, proving herself one of the most visceral, exciting live performers in pop. Lizzo continued her award-show performance winning streak with an absolutely ecstatic “Good as Hell,” perhaps the most fresh-sounding performance of the evening, despite the song now being over three years old. Rosalía established her crossover star power with a wave of her hand, performing her Ozuna collab “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi” with effortless grace and magnetism. Lil Nas X’s performance of “Panini” might not have convinced about the relatively slight song being an enduring follow-up to the longest-reigning No. 1 in Hot 100 history, but his impressive dancing showed a previously unseen new dimension to the young rapper as a live performer. The show even did a capable job of tying video vanguard recipient Missy Elliott’s legacy to the current work of these younger artists — Lizzo was near tears in a pre-recorded video raving abut how much Missy meant to her — showing a commitment to modern-day relevance even in their lifetime achievement awards.
Which is not to say that such commitment was complete. The VMAs put a stumbling block in its own way with the selection of 46-year-old, avowedly apolitical comedian Sebastian Maniscalco as host, whose opening routine poking fun at the “triggered” younger generation’s need for “safe spaces” couldn’t have felt much more at odds with the prevailing vibe of the rest of the show. And while MTV can’t be blamed for playing into the show’s New Jersey setting, putting big bets on a Sopranos mini-reunion and an extended closing medley of mostly-’90s hip-hop hits from NJ rappers who are no longer a part of the pop mainstream was a strange strategy, given the show’s largely Gen-Z audience. (Oddly, the cast of Jersey Shore — a fixture in recent years, and certainly the most 2010s-relevant New Jersey-related property of MTV’s — was almost entirely absent from the proceedings.) The channel would be well-advised to stop forcing such awkward cross-generational moments when they don’t feel natural — as they did with Missy’s triumphant and rapturously received medley performance.
Still, the overall trends were encouraging for the VMAs. It’s been a full decade now since Kanye crashed the stage on Taylor and largely revitalized the show in the process, and it’s time for MTV’s biggest night to find a newer identity than the show that just assembles as many stars as possible and hopes they bounce off each other in combustible ways. That recipe wasn’t sustainable forever, and more and more of those A-listers have found that they didn’t need the VMAs (or perhaps any award shows) as much as the VMAs need them. It was time for the show to look to its future rather than continuing to milk the past. An to the 2019 awards’ credit, the show’s future — led by dynamic, still-rising stars like Lizzo, Shawn Mendes, Rosalía, Lil Nas X, and Billie Eilish (hopefully fully present next time) — is finally looking bright again.