Around 9:30 ET on Tuesday night (Sept. 12), you might have been ready to declare that the Video Music Awards were back. The awards thus far had been elevated by show-stopping performances from Olivia Rodrigo (cleverly pivoting from a dramatic “Vampire” to a captivatingly choreographed and thrillingly energetic “Get Him Back!”) and Doja Cat (executing at the highest level on a three-song run through her upcoming Scarlet era). Further star power was provided by winners Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, performers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion and nominal “emcee” Nicki Minaj. By the time Shakira blazed her way through her typically ass-kicking Video Vanguard resumé performance, the show was feeling fuller and more satisfying than any VMAs so far this decade.
Unfortunately, there were still two hours to go. Maybe more like two and a half.
Complaining about award show length in 2023 is, of course, about as scintillating as griping about there being too many previews before a movie, or too many TV timeouts during a football game — at this point, you should probably just accept it as part of the bargain going in or not even bother in the first place. Still, there’s a difference between an award show going a little bit over its scheduled 11:00 ET end-time and damn near crossing the border to midnight. Three hours would’ve certainly already been more than enough of these VMAs, but getting up to the precipice of hour four was Pearl Harbor Director’s Cut territory.
It also doesn’t help that the VMAs have clearly begun subscribing to the increasingly common data-dump approach to award shows, pacing their action like a streaming act’s new album: front-loaded with hits and fairly merciless on the back end. The biggest-name performers — at least domestically — were mostly out of the way in the first couple hours, leaving a hodgepodge of VMA first-timers and unexciting return guests to fill out the many remaining minutes.
That’s not to fault MTV for scheduling game late-evening performances from K-pop sensations Stray Kids and Tomorrow x Together — they were fine, and it was still late morning in Korea at that time, anyway. But Fall Out Boy, rocking through a sweaty and uncomfortable-looking outdoor-stage performance of their absurd “We Didn’t Start the Fire” redo? A Måneskin performance for the second straight year — without so much as a wardrobe malfunction this time? This is what we’re pushing into Seinfeld-rerun hours for? By the time the show got to veteran country hitmaker Kelsea Ballerini’s hard-earned VMAs debut, her legitimately arresting “Penthouse” was totally undercut by coming over three and a half hours in, its penultimate performance slot doing the intimate ballad zero favors.
And it was doubly unfortunate, in this year of 50th anniversary hip-hop celebrations, to find the show floundering a little when it came to representing rap from either a contemporary or legacy standpoint. Doja’s performance was a home run, and Cardi and Megan are always reliable, but the Metro Boomin-led performance of “Superhero (Heroes and Villains)” and “Calling” could not have been much lower-energy, with guests like Nav and A Boogie wit da Hoodie seemingly competing for who could be drowned out by their backing track the most. Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne are both all-time legends, but we didn’t need them both on solo performances of relatively unconvincing new tracks (Minaj’s “Last Time I Saw You” is actually a bit of a grower, but this wasn’t the stage for it) and as part of the obligatory show-closing medley. Meanwhile, still-rising MCs Ice Spice and GloRilla presented but didn’t perform; the show really could’ve used a little of their zip — or more than 30 seconds at a time of Extended Stage performer Kaliii.
And speaking of that show-closing medley: It wasn’t quite the disaster of Madonna’s Aretha Franklin tribute in 2018, but it was yet another fine example of how the next time MTV has internal “we have to do something for it, right?” discussions about a timely topic for the VMAs to cover, some intern really needs to pipe up, “Well…. do we, really?” Hip-hop’s 50th anniversary has been exhaustively covered by this point in 2023, and there was no way the VMAs were going to be able to compete with either the Questlove-curated history lesson at the Grammys in February, or the cavalcade of decades-spanning performers popping up throughout the BET Awards in June. So what could the VMAs even do?
If you guessed, “Basically use it as an excuse to have one of Run-D.M.C. perform ‘Walk This Way’ at the VMAs for the 25th time,” you would of course be absolutely correct. The closing hip-hop tribute was poorly organized, unhelpfully introduced — here’s hoping all the kids watching at home are already well-schooled in their Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, because no IDs were given — and ultimately purposeless, featuring six disjointed performers (two of whom had already been heard from) giving no remotely coherent representation of hip-hop history. With MTV already locking themselves into two extended medleys every year now via their Video Vanguard and Global Icon awards (the latter went to Diddy for 2023), they should maybe start rejecting any further pitches that involve squeezing a half-dozen songs and/or artists into the same flailing performance. We promise, no one will miss them — or be upset at MTV for not trying to elbow its way into a cultural moment nobody really needs its take on.
The reason all of this is even worth moaning about in the first place is because for the first half, these awards did seem like they were going to be MTV’s best in some years. Getting Olivia Rodrigo and Doja Cat — two legitimate pop A-listers, within a week of the former releasing a new album and the latter hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — was a huge win for the show, and both artists met the moment with the kind of thoughtful, artful and unforgettable performances that illustrated why the VMAs’ stage is still a meaningful one. Peso Pluma and Karol G are undeniably two of the most exciting artists in popular music in 2023; getting both of them for their first big English-language award show looks further demonstrated how the VMAs have actually been a little ahead of the game in recent years when it comes to going international. And of course, even without her performing, nothing makes an event feel like The Place to Be in 2023 like the attendance of Taylor Swift — especially when she’s reduced to a babbling pre-teen in the presence of a reunited *NSYNC, presenting her the best pop award, in the kind of indelible cross-generational moment of pop connection that was once commonplace at the VMAs.
By the fourth award she picked up for the evening, though — best video (for “Anti-Hero”), making her a winner in the VMAs’ premier category for the second year in a row and fourth time total — it even got to be a little too much Taylor, as it started feeling less like an artist in their peak moment of dominance and more like a channel in its peak moment of desperation. Indeed, as Swift ascends to a pop echelon only a handful of other artists in the VMAs’ now-40-year history have ever visited, her investment in the show as an institution worthy of her time and attention is perhaps the greatest reason the VMAs still has whatever cultural credibility it does. But when the show lasts a half-hour longer than an Eras Tour date and burns through all its biggest crowd-pleasers early in the setlist, the Swifties — like all other pop fans watching — are gonna end up wanting to skip the encore to beat the traffic.