The 2019 MTV Video Music Awards aired live from the Prudential Center in Newark on Monday night – and producers were clearly psyched to pay tribute to the Garden State, complete with a brief “Sopranos” reunion. However, outside the venue, several people were arrested during a protest to put the spotlight on Newark’s water crisis.
“We don’t want no MTV, we want our water lead free!” the protesters reportedly chanted; the city recently started distributing bottled water after the amount of lead in the drinking water was deemed unsafe.
Yet on-air at the VMAs, there was no mention of Newark’s struggles. Instead, celebrities gave cheerful shout-outs to New Jersey; the Jonas Brothers performed at their favorite home-state venue, the Stone Pony in Asbury Park; and five more Jersey natives (Wyclef Jean, Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature, Fetty Wap and Redman) closed the telecast with a grand finale medley of their hits.
While most stars avoided current events, a few weren’t afraid to bring up politics. Here are 10 things to know from the three-hour show:
1) Taylor Swift won big and got in a dig at the White House.
Taylor Swift tied with Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish for three wins, the most of any artist – including video of the year for her recent single, “You Need to Calm Down,” which champions LGBTQ rights. Swift invited the video’s cast onstage and reminded everyone it was a fan-voted award: “You voting for this video means that you want a world where we’re all treated equally under the law, regardless of who we love, regardless of how we identify.” She thanked people for signing a petition for the Equality Act (“which basically says we all deserve equal rights under the law”) that is featured at the end of the video.
“It now has half a million signatures, which is five times the amount that it would need to warrant a response from the White House,” Swift said, pretending to impatiently tap a wristwatch. (It’s true, you need 100,000 signatures on a petition in 30 days to get an official White House reply.)
2) John Travolta poked fun at his most famous award show blunder, then proceeded to make another one.
Queen Latifah and John Travolta presented the video of the year award, and Travolta (remembering his infamous “Adele Dazeem” moment at the 2014 Oscars) joked to Queen Latifah that she better announce the winner because he would probably mispronounce it. As Swift arrived onstage to accept the prize, Travolta appeared to try to hand the trophy to Jade Jolie, the drag queen and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star who impersonates Swift and was in the “You Need to Calm Down” video. The internet had a field day, of course.
3) Lizzo’s mash-up of “Truth Hurts” and “Good As Hell.”
Lizzo, as usual, brought down the house with a high-energy performance of two of her most popular hits, but the year’s breakout singer stopped in the middle of “Good As Hell” to give a rousing motivational speech. “It’s so hard trying to love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back! Am I right?” she said. “So I want to take this opportunity right now to just feel good as hell. Cause you deserve to feel good as hell!” The audience roared in response.
4) Normani’s epic dancing.
Speaking of breakout moments, Normani Kordei — the Fifth Harmony member who, embarking on a solo career, just goes by her first name only — wowed the audience with some incredible dance moves, inspired by her “Motivation” video. The video, which already has 47 million views in two weeks, is an homage to hits from the early 2000s (Normani wears a top in the video emblazoned with “1996,” the year she was born) including works by Beyoncé, Ciara, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and more.
5) Miley Cyrus’s ode to her ex.
As you might have heard, Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth are getting a divorce after less than a year of marriage and a decade of on-and-off dating. Shortly after they announced their split, Cyrus released a dark ballad called “Slide Away,” clearly inspired by the breakup. While an announcer teased that Cyrus’s performance would be the “most emotional of her life,” it was pretty standard awards show fare – though it aired in black and white to signify drama.
6) Missy Elliott’s lifetime achievement award.
Before Missy Elliott accepted the Video Vanguard Award, she performed a wildly entertaining medley (“Throw It Back,” “The Rain,” “Get Your Freak On,” “Work It,” “Pass That Dutch,” “Lose Control”) surrounded by backup dancers and aerialists. Afterward, her fellow music stars gushed about her influence. “She changed the music video artform completely with her style, humor and unforgettable creativity,” Cardi B said. “From the minute she stared into that fish eye lens in her video for ‘The Rain,’ the world knew she was a force to be reckoned with.” In an emotional speech, Elliott offered a special thanks to her dancers: “I want to dedicate the award to the dance community all around the world. Because when y’all get on a stage with these artists, y’all are not just props. Y’all are the icing on the cake, y’all are the beat to the heart.”
7) Rosalía’s VMAs debut.
Spanish pop-flamenco star Rosalía introduced herself to the VMAs audience with a medley (“A Ningun Hombre,” “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi” and “Aute Cuture”) featuring Puerto Rican singer Ozuna. Even before she took the stage, she and J Balvin won best Latin video for “Con Altura.” “It’s such an incredible honor... and also, thank you for letting me perform tonight, for allowing me to perform tonight singing in Spanish,” Rosalía said, as the audience cheered.
The Latin category led to the other political moment of the night: Presenter French Montana, who was born in Morocco, noted he was especially proud to announce the award because “as an immigrant, I feel like we are the people that make this country. And I feel like I want to be a voice.” Co-presenter Alison Brie added, “What’s happening to immigrants in this country is unconstitutional and frankly disgusting.”
8) Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’s speech.
The “Old Town Road (Remix)” video missed out on the bigger prizes, but Lil Nas X and Billy Cyrus won song of the year for the chart-topping, record-breaking smash. “This is my first award ever. ... I got a little speech,” Lil Nas X joked, pulling out a scroll roughly the length of a CVS receipt. While the song has been controversial in Nashville, Cyrus managed to work in the name of a country music legend: “One time, Johnny Cash wrote me a letter. And in the letter, he said, ‘It’s good to be reminded where all goodness comes from: Almighty God.’ So first of all, I’d like to thank almighty God for this moment.”
9) Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s duet.
They have a steamy duet. They just revealed they’re dating. So what would happen when they sang together for the first time?! Fans everywhere held their breath in anticipation as Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello performed “Señorita.” At first, Cabello circled Mendes, lightly touching his arm and back as he played guitar. Then he turned around and they shared the same microphone, staring longingly into each other’s eyes. So ... would they actually kiss onstage, and cause social media to explode?
Nope! And apparently celebrities in the crowd were quite disappointed.
10) Host Sebastian Maniscalco’s jokes fell flat.
Although there was a collective “WHO?” on social media when Sebastian Maniscalco took the stage as VMAs host, he’s one of the highest-paid stand-up comedians in the world. Perhaps hoping to appeal to a younger crowd, he came to the VMAs with a whole bunch of millennial cliches: About how we’re living in “ultra-sensitive” times and so if anyone was “triggered,” they could go backstage in a “safe space” and Lil Nas X’s horse would serve as an emotional support animal. “Personally, I would remove you from the arena, put you in your car and send you home, but they opted with the safe space!” he crowed. The audience didn’t seem impressed.