MTV’s VMAs Bring the Booty, but Not So Much Bounty, With Most of Pop’s A-Listers MIA: TV Review

·8-min read

The 2022 MTV Video Music Awards were all about that bass Sunday night, and Flea didn’t have a lot to do with it. “VMAs, did you think I wasn’t gonna shake my ass tonight?” asked Anitta, very rhetorically, in the middle of her routine — and while most viewers were probably grateful for her concern for our concern, there was no need to fear she’d be the show’s outlier. Even the rock bands that were booked seemed to want to go into the show ass-forwards; hello, Måneskin cheek skin. (The cameras seemed to want to cut away from that singer’s pasty bottom; as you could almost hear the editors channeling Lisa Kudrow’s Aunt Sassy.)

The only thing surprising in this regard, really, was the amount of robot ass in the show. Digital effects were sometimes used to bolster the supply of background dancers, or to provide giant setpieces, like the Attack of the 50-Foot Twerker that all but literally overshadowed J Balvin and Ryan Castro. When MTV is having to outsource butts to Silicon Valley, maybe it’s a sign we need to better allocate our natural supply.

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Sometimes a show just has to use what God gave it. And what God didn’t give the 2022 VMAs was an abundance of superstars who brought A-list creative teams in to create really memorable production numbers. Doja Cat and Lil Nas X, who can always bring some kind of visual pizzazz to their awards show appearances that usually sears its way into your brain at least till the next morning’s watercooler, were off-cycle after performing in 2021. In their stead, we got too many giant cartoons (sorry, “metaverse” segments), like the one with the avatars for Eminem and Snoop virtually roaming the stage, while the real dudes sat on a couch, pretending (?) to be stoned.

The show was by no means a disaster, but as it passed the three-hour mark, it sure felt like it’d been a lot of a little. It felt right, in a weird way, that the climax of the show was not one of the 10,000 or so performances that came to feel numbing in their breathless succession of OK-ness but the announcement of something that isn’t going to happen for another couple months, a new Taylor Swift album.

Johnny Depp VMAs
Johnny Depp VMAs

To the extent that the telecast gave ‘em something to talk about, it was more in its small missteps than grand flourishes. The much-rumored appearance of Johnny Depp turned out to be a couple quick cameos of his face and voice electronically pasted onto a floating Moon Person, making #humblebrag jokes about how he has no career anymore and is reduced to this. (He even posted an outtake on Instagram, offering one last kicker: “I just want you guys to know that I’m available for birthdays, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, weddings, wakes, any old thing you need.”) Depp’s turn on the show had promised to be divisive, in a way that would have been risky for a show like this, in an environment where a lot of people in the entertainment world remain more sympathetic to Amber Heard than Depp after the mutual allegations of abuse that got aired in their recent court case. By placing him in a jocular light so soon after that ugliness, the network could be seen as either outrightly siding with him or just considering the lingering bad aftertaste amusing —not a great look either way you read it. But then, as it turned out, it’s hard to take offense to something you blinked and missed.

Sensitivity to abuse wasn’t at any more of a premium in a bit in which Nicki Minaj tortured a bound and gagged woman, which may recreate a video that’s iconic to some but seems questionable out of context in 2023. But who’s going to say no to the deserving superstar who’s getting the Video Vanguard Award and has the No. 1 single in the country?The incongruousness was especially felt in the middle of an otherwise feel-good 10-minute medley that was capped by Minaj and her cast decked out in so many elaborate pinks, it felt like she’d raided her own warehouse and Arianna Grande’s besides.

The sadism glitch didn’t keep Minaj from being the unquestioned winner of the telecast. And without slighting her performance skills, what was most winning about her appearance was her two acceptance speeches, which provided a refreshing time-out from the revolving-door performances, and some of the humanness that wasn’t always at a premium in the night’s music. It began when she vamped and admitted that her speech was on a phone that was not on her person — some suspense, at last! It continued when, minutes later, she said, “I know they probably went to commercial” and kept going anyway. (If producers hadn’t nixed the torture, they were not about to play her off.) In moments before and later, she thanked everyone from her tragically murdered business manager to the entirety of the hip-hop world … to Swift, whom she credited with boosting “Superbass” after they had a mini-beef seven years ago. There was so much air being let back into the room, along with a spirit of mutual respect, that you might’ve found yourself saying, Don’t stop talking, Nicki.

As a matter of fact, while they might not be watercooler moments, several of the night’s best ones came as sweet asides during speeches. Seeing Blackpink’s Lisa win the K-pop award as a solo artist, against all BTS-sweeping odds, felt like a milestone for expansion of the genre, following the still-rising group’s appealing run-through of “Pink Venom” earlier. (Not that BTS was not missed; what an adrenaline boost one of their dazzling production numbers would have provided the show.) You could feel Anitta’s real delight in facilitating “the first time my country has ever won an award like that,” as a veteran of what she called the Brazilian ghetto.

BLACKPINK performs onstage at the 2022 MTV Video Music Awards held at Prudential Center on August  28, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey.
Blackpink performs onstage at the 2022 MTV Video Music Awards held at Prudential Center on August 28, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers had some eccentricities to their collective speeches accepting the Icon award — cockroaches figured in, somehow, along with Taylor Hawkins — but you could feel some kind of love in the room that only comes with a very extended collective experience.

And on the opposite end of the experience scale, Dove Cameron dedicated her best new artist award to “all the queer kids out there.” Not such a flex, maybe, for a popular upstart in 2022, but that moment wasn’t to be taken for granted at the end of a weekend that saw a lot of Americans on social media throwing their support behind the wife of a country superstar who considers trans teens a laughing matter.

Speaking of gay moments, how about Bad Bunny’s bisexual snogging? Whether that’s an expression of the real him or a calculated provocation, he’s bought himself the privilege to pull that off, as pretty much the most popular performer in the world right now. It would have been a boon for the VMAs to have the show’s artist of the year winner in the flesh, instead of simulcast from his second night headlining Yankee Stadium. (Harry Styles was also busy performing “down the street” from the awards show, but only phoned in a speech, not a song.) And yet there was a kineticism to the filming of Bad Bunny’s stadium performance that would have been harder to get in-house. Seeing all the reaction shots of fans filling the biggest local venue there is just for him, as opposed to extras in a corral who’d wave a glow stick for just anybody… it makes a difference in the way a televised performance feels.

The least touching acceptance speech? Lil Nas X, who, in his one turn on stage, admitted he wasn’t bringing his A-game to his speech: “Hopefully I’m back up here and I have something better to say.”

Fergie and Jack Harlow onstage during the 2022 MTV VMAs pre-show at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Fergie and Jack Harlow onstage during the 2022 MTV VMAs pre-show at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.

The award for most unintentionally amusing speech, meanwhile, goes to Jack Harlow, who brought on Fergie at the top of the evening to have her sing the 2007 hit that he sampled on his “First Class” single. Nothing against Harlow — he was speaking from the heart. But in thanking Fergie for clearing the oldie, he gushed that “Glamorous” “is one of the biggest songs and most important songs of my childhood.” That reference to the foundational significance of the late aughts served as a reminder that MTV is still sometimes capable of accomplishing its original mission, which is to make you feel old, even if you’re, like, 25.

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