MTV Celebrates Its Own Legacy in Unexpectedly Retro-Minded 2021 VMAs, But Newest Stars Bring Biggest Thrills

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And they said we wouldn’t last.”

That was Madonna, breakout star of the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, kicking off the 2021 VMAs by referencing Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley’s iconic moment of cringe at the 1994 VMAs. It was certainly a clever way to draw a quick through-line between four decades of MTV history in just six words — though whether or not the full joke was grasped by the Gen Z-ers in attendance, most of whom weren’t even born for MJ and Lisa Marie’s awkward ’94 kiss (let alone Madonna’s ’84 cake-bursting), remained unclear.

There’s been a lot of looking-back on MTV’s behalf in recent months, due to the channel celebrating its 40th birthday on Aug. 1 of this year. “Celebrating” may be something of a misnomer, however, because the one media institution that seemed to have remarkably little interest in commemorating the milestone was, indeed, MTV itself. While the brand’s website and some of its secondary channels paid obligatory lip service to the anniversary by rerunning some classic fare, many on Twitter were quick to point out that the channel itself refused to deviate from its regularly scheduled programming of Ridiculousness reruns. Meanwhile, the VMAs of recent years have been similarly unmoved by history; the lone top-of-mind noteworthy example of the show acknowledging the past was an ill-advised last-second tribute paid to the recently passed Aretha Franklin in 2018 — again, courtesy of Madonna.

Going into this year’s VMAs, then, the question wasn’t how the channel would honor its 40th birthday, but if it would bother alluding to it at all. It was something of a surprise, then, to not only see the show open with that Madonna moment — following a pre-recorded video of her being driven to the awards, narrated by the pop icon, telling the story of her and MTV’s simultaneous arrival to New York in 1981 — but to see it spend most of its three-hour runtime with one foot still squarely in the past, even as most of its best moments tried to drag the show back to the future.

Host Doja Cat teased early on in the night that due to the VMAs also doubling as a 40th birthday party this year, viewers would get “more famous people” than a normal award show. She was right, though she probably should’ve added an older in there somewhere — the celebs in attendance were of a much greater median age than your average VMAs, with the list of presenters whose commercial breakthrough is now at least two decades in the rearview including Jennifer Lopez, Fat Joe, Ashanti, Avril Lavigne, Wyclef Jean, AJ McLean, Lance Bass, Nick Lachey and Tommy Lee. Madonna was only one of three Class of ’84 alums in the house: Cyndi Lauper presented the trophy for best pop, while David Lee Roth (then of Van Halen) gave out the night’s climactic award, video of the year.

MTV’s hand wasn’t particularly heavy in throwing out this cavalcade of former channel stars. Outside of the show’s opening and Doja’s early hint, little attention was drawn to the retro-ness of the guest list, and — aside from a Foo Fighters video collage paired with the band’s global icon performance — no video montages replayed clips from the glory years of the channel or its marquee show. At times, the nostalgic slant felt almost too inconspicuous: rapper Busta Rhymes delivered a six-song medley performance spanning his 30-year recording career with no accompanying award, and no real context or explanation given for why he was being granted such an extended look. The thinking on MTV’s part seemed to be that they believed they could get away with giving its younger viewers a healthier dose of history than usual, long as there was no lecturing as part of the lesson.

Meanwhile, as stacked as the evening was with veterans, the real headline-grabbers were still the relative newcomers. Olivia Rodrigo made her VMAs debut with a blistering “Good 4 U,” earning the loudest audience singalong of the evening. Lil Nas X was as brash as fans could’ve hoped for, taking his all-male choreography back to the showers for his first “Industry Baby” award show performance, and shouting out the “gay agenda” when accepting his video of the year win (for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” Normani called back to Janet Jackson by grinding on Teyana Taylor for “Wild Side.” Chlöe, whose official solo debut had come all of two days prior, looked well on her way to stardom while twerking and glitching all over the main stage. And Doja Cat, host and performer on the night, was weird and wonderful throughout, the closest we’ve gotten to true left-field pop star energy at the VMAs since Lady Gaga dominated the awards at the turn of the ’10s.

The whole thing made for a fun, if occasionally jarring contrast between the kids and the oldsters in attendance — and if that’s all the show was, it could’ve made for a brisk and enjoyable (though not particularly revelatory) two-hour viewing experience. At three hours, though, the show was padded with less-exciting or gratifying performances from quasi-veterans — no one needs to still play up the novelty of back-to-back performances from real-life partners Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes in 2021, thanks — and repeat detours to short Extended Play Stage performances by SAINt JHN and Latto, who seemed more perplexed each time as to what purpose they were supposed to be serving. The glut of performers also resulted in some getting short shrift; MTV cut so quickly between the opening trio of performances that nobody bothered to intro or even identify Olivia Rodrigo, an odd handling of the first VMAs performance by the year’s biggest breakout star.

And far more overwhelming a presence than any MTV nostalgia was the avalanche of corporate tie-ins. The VMAs (and other award shows) have long been a hotbed for cross-promotion and advertorial opportunities, but this year really went beyond the pale: Dolby Atmos commercials starring Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and J Balvin; Burger King commercials starring Anitta, Nelly and Lil Huddy (as well as their “alternate identities”); Ed Sheeran in a Toyota spot featuring his “Bad Habits,” Troye Sivan in an Extra gum spot featuring his “Angel Baby,” GEICO ads with Lavigne, Apple ads with Rodrigo, even distracting narrator callouts during the actual show of “Pepsi applauds Doja Cat” or “Doritos thanks Machine Gun Kelly.” You hate to begrudge any artist for doing what they must to get money in 2021, but the VMAs have traditionally been an award show defined by spontaneity and surprise — neither of which you can get much of in a show where everyone involved has corporate partners and/or overlords to answer to for every second.

Still, trim away some of the extraneous performances and sponsor-smothered moments, and this three-hour VMAs could’ve been a tight two-hour trip through past, present and future, one that acknowledged some of the artists and moments that made the last 40 years at the network what they were, while still properly showcasing some of the newer names who might be picking up the baton from here. Not on MTV itself, of course — the channel reverted to Ridiculousness reruns as of 5:00 a.m., and we likely won’t hear much about music or videos again there until next September — but in the larger culture, which the VMAs have so often reflected and defined since 1984. As the Buggles played over the show’s closing credits (another if you get it, great, if not, moving on wink), it was one more reminder that the legacy is one that’s worth both remembering and continuing.

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