You can never know what to expect at the MTV Video Music Awards. There’s always a shocking moment, and this year’s VMAs were no exception. There were many firsts—Peso Pluma, Metro Boomin, and Kelsea Ballerini were among the performers who took the VMAs stage for the first time; Shakira became the first South American artist to take home the Video Vanguard Award and took the stage for the first time since 2006; and K-pop group Stray Kids got their first ever Moon Person for their hit “S-Class.”
The awards ceremony took place at the Prudential Center in New Jersey and was essentially one long (very, very long) concert with a handful of awards given out in between songs. Big winners included Ice Spice for Best New Artist and Taylor Swift, whose "Anti-Hero" won four awards including Video of the Year, the singer-songwriter's record-setting fourth time winning that award. Swift truly dominated the night; in addition to her awards, the producers frequently panned to her dancing or reacting to performances in her seat, never leaving her off camera for long.
The most surprising moment took place offstage when a viral clip seemed to show performer Megan Thee Stallion exchanging words with presenter Justin Timberlake backstage, though Variety reported that there was no fight to speak of.
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Here are the best, worst, and most dramatic moments from the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards.
Read more: Shakira’s 15 Best Music Videos, Ranked
Most Censored Performance: Lil Wayne
Rapper Lil Wayne is known for many things, and one of them is his profane lyrics. Still, he was chosen as the performer to cold-open the show as part of a tribute to the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. If you’re not a Wayne fan, you might have lost track of what he was saying after a while as he performed songs old and new including “Uproar” and “Kat Food.”
Most Timely Reminder to Listen to the New Album: Olivia Rodrigo
Olivia Rodrigo released her highly-anticipated sophomore album, GUTS, last week on Sept. 8, and she took the VMAs stage for her first award show performance for this album rollout. Rodrigo sang the lead single, “vampire,” against a backdrop of pyrotechnics that momentarily seemed to be malfunctioning but ultimately seemed to all be a part of the plan—or so we think. She returned with a legion of Olivias to do the fan-favorite track “get him back!” which she also released the official music video for today. When host Nicki Minaj shouted out Rodrigo, the cameras immediately cut to Swift enjoying the show with rapper Ice Spice, likely not a coincidence given much online speculation as to the state of the two singer-songwriters' friendship.
Most Anticipated Win(s): Taylor Swift
Swifties have been following Taylor Swift around the country (and now beyond) for her record-setting Eras Tour, which recently wrapped its first U.S. leg. Her presence at the VMAs is always hoped for, but given that she recently performed dozens of three-hour-plus arena shows, we would have understood if she’d sat this one out. That she would win tons of awards, though: never in question. Fans were excited to see Swift seated next to Ice Spice as she won the first Moon Person of the night for Best Pop for “Anti-Hero.” She went on to win Song of the Year, Best Direction, and Video of the Year for the same video. (Swift also had a millennial fan-girl moment, receiving the first award, and a friendship bracelet, from a reunited *NSYNC.)
Most Exhilarating (Bongo) Performance: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion have both receded from the spotlight recently, but they made their return together with an electric performance of their new collaboration, “Bongos,” the video for which dropped last week. The two previously teamed up on the provocative “WAP,” which they performed at the 2021 Grammy Awards, racking up over 1,000 FCC complaints, some of which alleged “pornographic content.”
Most Intriguing Offstage Drama That Allegedly Wasn’t Anything: Megan Thee Stallion and Justin Timberlake
Megan Thee Stallion exited the stage after performing her hit “Bongos” with Cardi B and backstage cameras caught a glimpse of an interaction between the rap superstar and Justin Timberlake, who made an appearance with his *NSYNC bandmates to present the night’s first award. The clip shows Megan exchanging some words with Timberlake as the group crossed paths. It’s unclear what was said, but fans surmised that the TRAUMAZINE rapper seemed upset. According to Variety, an unnamed source who was backstage said that there was “zero fight.” The source told the publication, “He said, ‘It’s so nice to meet you,’ and she said ‘No, no this don’t count, this don’t count. We gotta meet proper.’” Nevertheless, the Internet ran with it.
Best Rock Performance: Demi Lovato’s Revamped Hits
Though the night was light on rock—save for a legitimately pretty fun Fall Out Boy rendition of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” whose updated lyrics included Cambridge Analytica and Tiger King—Lovato gave her fans a taste of what to expect from her REVAMPED album, coming out Sept. 15. The former Disney Channel star demolished her set as she performed the rock reimaginings of her songs “Heart Attack,” “Sorry Not Sorry,” and “Cool For The Summer.” Her powerhouse vocals brought down the house down as she infused new energy into her well-known tracks.
Scariest, Blood-Soaked Back-Up Dancers: Doja Cat’s
As a callback to the cover art for her comeback single, “Attention,” Doja Cat rocked the VMAs stage with a mob of back-up dancers who seemed as though they had just jumped out of a fresh blood bath. They assisted the 27-year-old rapper as she performed “Paint the Town Red” and “Demons,” all of the singles for her upcoming album, Scarlet, due out later this month.
Most Hit-Filled Medley, Latin Pop Edition: Shakira
Shakira took the stage to prove why she is receiving this year’s Video Vanguard Award. Throughout her decade-spanning performance, she sang hits across her diverse musical catalog including early 2000 songs “Ojos Así,” “Objection (Tango),” and “Whenever, Wherever.” She was able to seamlessly transition into her new songs like her collaboration Rauw Alejandro “Te Felicito” and her Karol G feature, “TQG,” which went on to win a Moon Man. The Colombian superstar rocked the stage and ended on a high note, literally, as she ascended above the crowd during a stirring performance of the scathing “BZRP Music Sessions Vol. 53.” Hearts were warmed as she accepted the award from her “Hips Don’t Lie” collaborator, Wyclef Jean.
Best Tease of New Music: Nicki Minaj
Minaj, who was also the night’s emcee, started by performing her new single, “Last Time I Saw You,” a sparse ballad that showcases her singing abilities. Once the song was finished, she disrobed to reveal a lacy catsuit and strobe lights flooded the stage as she debuted a new unnamed, more rap-oriented song. The performance comes in the run-up to her forthcoming album Pink Friday 2, her first album in five years, due in November.
Most Surprising Win: Anitta
Anitta took home the Moon Person for Best Latin, going up against some of the most popular artists in the genre including the biggest artist in the world: Bad Bunny. She beat out the likes of Rosalía, Mexican rising star Peso Pluma, and Karol G. The Brazilian superstar delivered a stellar performance of her singles, “Used to Be,” “Funk Rave,” and “Grip” and later joined K-pop group TOMORROW X TOGETHER on stage.
Most Hit-Filled Medley, Rap Edition: Diddy
Before accepting the Global Icon Award, Diddy took the stage to remind the audience of all the hits he’s had a hand in—from his emotional 1997 hit, “I’ll Be Missing You” with Faith Evans and 112 to his collaboration with Keyshia Cole, “Last Night,” who joined him on stage. He also brought out his son Christian Combs, his rumored girlfriend Young Miami for her verse on the “Gotta Move On” remix, and his twin daughters, while longtime friend and collaborator Mary J. Blige presented Diddy the award with his eldest daughter, Chance.
Most Interesting Collab: TOMORROW X TOGETHER and Anitta
The K-Pop boy band TOMORROW X TOGETHER and Anitta debuted their collaboration, “Back For More” beautifully blending their sound with that of Brazilian funk. The artists delivered a lively performance with killer dance moves on both their parts. The Latin singer had a successful night overall, with two performances and a win for the Best Latin award for her song “Funk Rave.”
Least Authentic Vibes: Lip-Syncing Allegations
The night was filled with performers who executed some serious dance moves while singing vocally strenuous songs. As the artists took the stage, there was chatter among social media users that some of the musicians were lip-syncing. It's perhaps a losing battle—sing live and risk a pitchy note that listeners criticize, lip sync and get flak of a different variety.
Happiest Anniversary Celebration: 50 Years of Hip-Hop Medley
Every major music awards ceremony this year has given space for pioneers of hip-hop to honor the genre's birthday. At this year’s VMAs, the stage was graced by acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Doug E. Fresh, the night’s emcee Nicki Minaj who performed “Itty Bitty Piggy” for the first time in years, and contributions from Lil Wayne, LL Cool J, and Run DMC who closed the show as all the performers came out for a final bow with the audience, by this point, all on their feet.
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