The most notable performances from the 2021 VMAs

The MTV awards returned with energetic performances, the hottest music — and a worm costume.


Manasa Gudavalli

This year’s MTV Video Music Awards returns to its live format to celebrate the channel’s 40th anniversary. The 2021 VMAs were held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on September 12. (Staff Illustration by Manasa Gudavalli)

Candace Patrick, Staff Writer

Making a grand return to a live format, this year’s MTV Video Music Awards celebrated the channel’s 40th anniversary with exciting performances from today’s top artists. Jam-packed with appearances from some of music’s biggest stars, including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, Camila Cabello and more, the night resembled a pre-pandemic awards show. The show demonstrated the ability of music to bring us back together — despite Justin Bieber’s not-so-eloquent acceptance speech regarding “this COVID thing that’s happening.” 

Held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, this year’s VMAs followed up on last year’s awkward, audienceless and partially pre-recorded format. Doja Cat served as the evening’s host. Always her quirky, unapologetic self, she sported a self-proclaimed “worm outfit” that had layers of colorful down-jacket coming up to her chin. The outfit immediately set Twitter talking, becoming the target of endless memes. The singer’s casual, offhand emceeing took a stab at reinventing an award show host’s typical role. Opting out of using cue cards, relying solely on her personality to carry the show, was an unconventional choice on Doja Cat’s part; but she was entertaining nonetheless. 

Kicking off the show, Justin Bieber and The Kid Laroi gave a lively performance of “Stay,” one of the summer’s biggest songs. Bieber then took the energy down a notch, performing “Ghost” from his most recent album “Justice.” Enveloped in a black hoodie and overalls, his face barely visible, he looked like a pop star version of the Grim Reaper, an amusing visual against the backdrop of colorful strobe lights.  

Olivia Rodrigo followed Bieber and Laroi, descending to the MTV stage on a cloud of mirror balls for her hit single “good 4 u.” The 18-year-old pop star led her backup dancers through an energetic, prom-themed performance. Her vocals were a bit shaky, but this was understandable considering her beyond-rapid rise to fame. Rodrigo’s dynamic performance culminated in a sea of confetti as she belted out the final line of her song. But her big night didn’t end there; she went on to win three awards: best MTV push performance, song of the year and best new artist).  

Puerto Rican singer Ozuna also hit the stage, performing his song “La Funka,” an infectious and fun anthem made more enjoyable by his signature giant teddy bear backup dancers. His performance served as a nod to the growing representation and appreciation of international music in the United States and got the crowd’s toes tapping.  

In perhaps the most touching moment of the night, New York native Alicia Keys put us into an “Empire State of Mind” during her performance at Liberty State Park, with Manhattan’s illuminated skyline serving as the backdrop. Just one day after the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, her stunning piano-driven performance reinvigorated the awards as she urged her outdoor audience to “celebrate the magic and strength of this beautiful city.” Dazzling in a gold dress, she truly managed to capture the glamour of the concrete jungle. 

But Sunday night’s hot pink elephant in the room had to be Lil Nas X’s performance of his single “INDUSTRY BABY” alongside rapper Jack Harlow. The singer made his grand entrance as the drum major of a vibrant marching band, leading his dancers across the stage in rhythm. A dancer then came behind Lil Nas to rip off his jacket, transitioning the performance into a prison yard setting with a group of backup dancers dressed in pink jumpsuits. After Harlow’s verse, Lil Nas X transitioned into a scantily clad and ultra-steamy performance of “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” which later won the show’s biggest award, “video of the year.” Simply put, it was everything you could ask for from a Lil Nas X performance. 

Despite a hopeful return to many pre-pandemic traditions such as full audiences, a rise in COVID-19 cases and stricter guidelines regarding social distancing and mask mandates forced Lorde to abort her scheduled performance. MTV cited “a change in production elements” as the reason for her cancellation. The removal of her name from the show’s list reminds us of the pandemic’s lingering effects, leaving the fate of scheduled and future awards shows up in the air.

Of course, there were plenty of other notable performances: Kacey Musgraves set her heart aflame singing songs from her new divorce-centric LP. Doja Cat showed off her trapeze skills, Chlöe — of Chloe x Halle — danced through her debut solo performance and Machine Gun Kelly delivered a guitar-smashing finale. All in all, as live music gradually returns, this year’s VMAs recalled the thrill of seeing our favorite performers live on stage.

Contact Candance Patrick at [email protected].