2021 MTV VMAs Recap: 12 Best Moments From the Show

2021 MTV VMAs Recap: 12 Best Moments From the Show

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2021 MTV VMAs Recap: 12 Best Moments From the Show

From Doja Cat’s showstopping outfits to iconic performances by Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, and more.

From Doja Cat’s showstopping outfits to iconic performances by Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, and more.

Text: Luana Harumi

A little over a year after their pre-recorded, crowd-less 2020 edition, the MTV Video Music Awards brought it all back to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for a live spectacle celebrating some of music’s biggest fan-favorite hits and stars. The three-hour telecast was hosted by nominee and performer Doja Cat in front of a (partially) masked live audience and also served as the network’s 40th birthday party, with special appearances from personalities that have contributed to MTV history – including Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Avril Lavigne, David Lee Roth, and Busta Rhymes.

If last year’s event was punctuated by pandemic references and powerful performances that called for racial justice, this year’s show highlighted the fight for gender equity and diversity (though, as Justin Bieber pointed out, we still have “this Covid thing that’s happening”). And, because the event took place on the same weekend as the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, MTV also worked with the 9/11 Day non-profit to honor the victims and “promote awareness and positive action.” 

If previous editions gave us iconic performances, awkward interruptions, and surprising reveals, the 2021 MTV VMAs had their fair share of memorable moments, too. Take a look at some of our favorites below:

Madonna’s surprise appearance

Via GIPHY.

Madonna kicked off the festivities by drawing parallels between her own arrival to New York City and MTV’s beginnings while also nodding to their controversial relationship. “And they said we wouldn’t last,” she said, dressed in a full latex look by Atsuko Kudo. “But we’re still here, motherf—kers.”

Cyndi Lauper’s feminist speech

Via GIPHY.

Another icon to take the stage was Cyndi Lauper, who shared powerful words before presenting the Best Pop Moon Person to Justin Bieber, Giveon and Daniel Caesar for “Peaches”: “Yeah, girls still wanna have fun,” she said referring to her 1983 hit. “But we also want funds. Equal pay. Control over our bodies. You know, fundamental rights.”

Doja Cat’s triple duty

V alum Doja Cat not only did a great job hosting the show in some of the most amusing looks (with pieces that included a bistro chair hat that was sturdy enough for the singer to sit on and chicken feet boots) but also gave a breathtaking aerial performance of “Been Like This” and “You Right” – after accepting the award for Best Collaboration for “Kiss Me More” with SZA in a quilted Thom Browne Summer 2018 dress that made her “look like a worm,” as she put it: “That’s dope. I never thought I’d be dressed as a worm while accepting an award.”  

Olivia Rodrigo’s VMAs debut

Olivia Rodrigo proved this is her year and took the VMAs stage for a dynamic live TV debut of her smash hit “good 4 u” with a frenetic prom-themed set that ended with the singer smashing the camera lens. She was the night’s biggest winner along with Lil Nas X, taking home the trophies for Best New Artist, Push Performance of the Year, and Song of the Year for “drivers license.”

Lil Nas X, the true showman

Ahead of the release of his debut studio album this week, Lil Nas X was joined by Jack Harlow for a medley of “Industry Baby” and “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”. The “Old Town Road” singer took the stage accompanied by a marching band before gradually stripping his hot pink jacket and pants to reveal a pair of glittery boxer briefs with “MONTERO” written on the elastic strap. The performance also highlighted HIV awareness: Mardrequs Harris, from the Southern AIDS Coalition, participated wearing the number 433,816 in red, “representing the universal color of awareness and support for HIV, and the number of people living with HIV in the U.S. South as of 2015,” according to a statement by GLAAD

Lil Nas X’s music video for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” won the artist the Moon Person trophies for Best Direction, Best Visual Effects, and the coveted Video of the Year award – during the acceptance speech, the singer made sure to thank “the gay agenda,” in one of the best moments of the evening.

Kacey Musgraves’ tragically romantic set

Fresh off her newly-released album star-crossed, Kacey Musgraves made her VMAs debut with a passionate performance of the record’s ethereal title track on a warm-lit set that gave viewers Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet vibes. 

Chlöe’s fiery solo debut

Chlöe’s highly anticipated debut televised performance of her first solo single “Have Mercy” began with her sister, Halle, welcoming the singer to the stage for an electric show that made the audience roar in excitement. In a hot pink corset, Chlöe performed a torrid dance routine that had many viewers comparing her to “the next Beyoncé.” 

Normani’s jaw-dropping show

Normani’s bright performance of “Wild Side” paid homage to some of the biggest 2000s pop icons, with an even more sensual twist: towards the end, Teyana Taylor made a special appearance onstage strapped to a crucifix-shaped bondage stretcher. Normani then climbed the structure and performed a provocative grind number – a reference to Janet Jackson’s “Would You Mind” live act from 2002. 

BTS’s smooth win

After spending 10 weeks at the number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, it didn’t come as a surprise when BTS’s song “Butter” won the award for Best K-Pop, and the group delivered one of the sweetest acceptance speeches of the evening. The septet sang a snippet of their smash hit and thanked their ARMY fans, promising to “keep bringing great music for all of you guys.” BTS also took home the award for Group of the Year.

Billie Eilish’s brutally honest speech

Billie Eilish was awarded the Video for Good trophy for her socially conscious work on “Your Power,” from her sophomore album Happier Than Ever. In her acceptance speech, the singer candidly explained that she had been trying to write the song “for a really long time” and that, when she finally got to do it, it was somewhat liberating. “It was so satisfying and freeing, and also really f––ing sad,” she said. “I want to say we need to protect our young women at all costs. For real.” 

Alicia Keys’ tribute to New York City

Who better to sing about New York City than Alicia Keys? The artist paid tribute to her hometown with the One World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty in the background while she performed a strong rendition of “LaLa” and, of course, “Empire State of Mind” with Swae Lee. 

Megan Fox and Kourtney Kardashian’s “future baby daddies”

Following a brief red carpet altercation with UFC fighter Conor McGregor, Machine Gun Kelly closed the VMAs with a vigorous performance of “papercuts,” with pop-punk icon Travis Barker behind the drums. The duo was introduced by their partners, Megan Fox and Kourtney Kardashian, with Fox asking: “New York, I need you to get extra loud for our future baby daddies.” We have no option but to stan. 

Credits: Cover photo by John Shearer/MTV VMAs 2021/Via Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS.

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