The 2023 MTV Video Music Awards took over the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Tuesday (Sept. 12) night.
The show – which will turn 40 next year – is reliably one of the biggest music events of the year, and the 2023 VMAs held their weight with regards to the MTV staple’s storied past.
First and foremost, iconic boy band *NSYNC — Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Joey Fatone, Lance Bass and Chris Kirkpatrick — reunited on stage to present the VMA for best pop, which they handed off to Eras Tour juggernaut Taylor Swift. Swift seemed well chuffed to receive a Moon Person trophy from the pop royals (“to receive this from your golden pop hands is really too much” she noted). Later on, she ended up walking away with the night’s most prestigious award for video of the year, for her self-directed “Anti-Hero.”
But as it tends to go at awards shows these days, performances took the spotlight even more than awards and speeches. And this VMAs had a lot of live music. Two collaborations saw their live TV debut (one from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, the other from TOMORROW X TOGETHER and Anitta), while #HipHop50 was feted once more this year with a legend-stuffed run-through of the genre’s past. Plus, Olivia Rodrigo had a fun fake-out moment; Shakira killed a career-spanning medley; Stray Kids flaunted choreography with laser precision; and Demi Lovato rocked the hell out.
It was a long night filled with a ton of performances – and when you have a nearly four-hour show with well over a dozen sets, some are going to stand out more than others. From our least favorite to our pick for the evening’s best, here are the best 2023 VMAs performances, ranked.
Fall Out Boy, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
While Patrick Stump certainly pulled off a convincing cross between David Byrne’s big suit and Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate, Fall Out Boy didn’t quite rock the VMAs with their update on the Billy Joel hit. It wasn’t really their fault – FOB was delivering a remote performance beamed into the broadcast, and those out-of-venue performances tend to fall a bit flat, which was certainly the case here. True to the title of the song, they did not start the fire at the 2023 VMAs.
Kelsea Ballerini, “Penthouse”
Kelsea Ballerini – performing outside the Prudential Center – sounded great while singing “Penthouse,” and the way the crowd sang the words of the ballad back to her felt poignant. But this performance was a victim of the show’s runtime. Coming in at 11:25pm ET – almost a half hour after the show was supposed to have ended – a ballad just could not keep things from dragging.
Lil Wayne, “Uproar” & “Kat Food”
Recent Billboard cover star Lil Wayne – wearing a black-and-white-striped outfit that brought to mind Robin Thicke during that infamous VMAs performance with Miley Cyrus a decade ago – opened the show with “Uproar” from Tha Carter V and new single “Kat Food.” Twas a solid showing from an undeniable legend, but hardly the cat’s meow.
Maneskin, “Honey (Are You Coming?)”
Måneskin frontman Damiano David, shirtless and wearing a kilt, provided the Italian rockers with a novel way to kick off their toothy performance. At the start of the song, we got to watch a live feed from a hand-held camera he was toting as he prowled through the crowd. When he did hit the stage, he earned a blown kiss from Taylor Swift. Last year’s VMAs set from them was stronger, but they’re certainly one of the most entertaining rock acts touring these days.
Recipient of the VMAs global icon award, Diddy – flashy as always in a lush red suit – delivered a medley (a Diddy Dirty Medley, if you will) of hits that included classics like “I’ll Be Missing You,” “Bad Boy for Life” and “All About the Benjamins.” Diddy still dances with the excitement and bounce of that kid whose moves got him cast in music videos back when he was an unknown, and guest spots from Yung Miami and Keyshia Cole (who brought a substantial vocal showcase) helped keep it fresh. Diddy’s son, King Combs, made sure it was a family affair, with the younger Combs rapping Ma$e’s verse on Biggie’s immortal “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” The two clearly fed off each other’s energy, thrilled to be sharing the stage together.
Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion, “Bongos”
The “WAP” collaborators reunited to give Prudential Center the live debut of their latest track together, “Bongos.” The island-themed performance had – as you’d expect – bongos aplenty, and Megan once again demonstrated that few rappers can twerk as effortless as her.
Nicki Minaj, “Last Time I Saw You” & new song
In addition to emceeing the 2023 VMAs, Minaj reminded VMA viewers she’s more than one of the greatest rappers of the 21st century – she’s a pretty damn great singer, too. The Alpha Barb sang “Last Time I Saw You” set against moody ‘80s lighting before unleashing her inner Roman to tease part of an unnamed track from the upcoming Pink Friday 2 album.
TOMORROW X TOGETHER and Anitta, “Back for More”
TXT and Anitta offered up the world debut of the collab “Back for More” at the 2023 VMAs. The track is a slick, lush slice of R&B-tinged pop from the boy band, with a favela funk flavor courtesy the Brazilian star. Not only does the musical pairing work, but Anitta’s voice and TXT’s multi-layered harmonies blend together surprisingly well.
Metro Boomin, Future, Swae Lee, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and NAV, “Superhero (Heroes and Villains)” & “Calling”
When Metro Boomin hit the VMAs stage, he wasn’t just hovering over his turntables – he was floating over the entire stage. His performance featured Future, Swae Lee, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and NAV, who joined him on a smoky stage that was designed to look like a secret underground headquarters. The BPMs were chill, but the visuals and the onstage chemistry kept the energy high.
Olivia Rodrigo, “Vampire” & “Get Him Back!”
Seated in a misty forest, Olivia crooned the opening of her Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Vampire” before feigning a set disaster – she even got a stagehand to usher her offstage dramatically – that helped her segue into a spirited “Get Him Back!” with serious Bring It On vibes.
Karol G, “Oki Doki” & “Ta OK”
Karol G – rocking a pink fishnet leotard — and her dancers brought an irrepressible energy to the reggaeton pulse of her “Oki Doki” and her portion of the collab “Tá OK,” reminding fans why she’s become an unstoppable force in Latin music — and showing the uninitiated why she’s a talent to celebrate.
Doja Cat, medley
Doja Cat – whose “Paint the Town Red” currently rules the Hot 100 – brought school marm vibes to her VMAs performance, where she rapped her latest chart topper plus “Attention” and “Demons” surrounded by a troupe of devilish dancers who looked straight out of the Suspiria remake. As always, Doja brought inventive choreography and distinctive visuals to her VMAs set.
Stray Kids, “S-Class”
Shortly after winning the best K-pop VMA for their song “S-Class,” Stray Kids performed the award-nabbing track. Moving around the stage with the precision of a Swiss watch while flaunting fashionably ripped pants, the musically unpredictable boy band captivated — and made a case that more awards shows would benefit by booking them.
Anitta, “Used to Be” and “Funk Rave”
Anitta gave her VMAs performance of “Used to Be” and “Funk Rave” the vibrant colors and swagger you’d expect for a showcase of Brazilian funk. With neon-drenched milk crates and block party vibes, it was a joyous, electric party you wanted to be a part of.
Demi Lovato, medley
When Demi Lovato announced she was unleashing an album of rock versions of previous pop material titled Revamped, there was no real doubt that she could nail it – she has the voice, the fire and the stage presence to rock the hell out. But sometimes a rock band just doesn’t translate to the VMAs stage, with some veterans struggling to stand out on the show. For Lovato, however, that was NOT AT ALL the case. The star and her crackling band ripped through “Heart Attack,” “Sorry Not Sorry” and “Cool for the Summer” and left it all hanging out.
Peso Pluma, “Lady Gaga”
Wearing a puffy black jacket-vest and sunglasses despite the indoor setting, Peso Pluma’s stylish look belied the stripped down, organic nature of his performance. Backed by furious Spanish guitar strumming and brass horns, the música Mexicana star spun a tale about a luxury lifestyle on the DL. There’s an effortless authenticity to his stage presence — and a casually emotive quality in his voice — that makes you want to see and hear more from him. It’s no small wonder that he’s one of the genre’s brightest and fastest rising stars.
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, Nicki Minaj, LL Cool J, Lil Wayne & Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, medley
Last month – which was celebrated as the 50th birthday of rap – saw a slew of all-star hip-hop celebrations, and the VMAs kept the party going with a generations-spanning set that encompassed a ton of rap classics. To name a few: early genre pioneers Grandmaster and the Furious Five rapped the socially conscious “The Message”; Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh had a blast running through “The Show”; LL Cool J smoked the mic on “Mama Said Knock You Out”; and Minaj and Weezy demonstrated how dexterous hip-hop has gotten since then. Before it all wrapped, Darryl McDaniels — DMC of Run-D.M.C. — closed it out with a “Walk This Way” group rap/singalong.
Shakira, Video Vanguard Award Medley
The Latin pop icon demonstrated three important things during her career-spanning medley at the VMAs: 1) From the unstoppable “Hips Don’t Lie” to the delicious “Objection (Tango)” to the ferocious “She Wolf,” Shakira’s catalog boasts some of the best pop songs of the last generation; 2) she dances (and looks) every bit as flawless as when she shimmied onto the global stage a generation ago; and 3) there’s a certain soccer star out there who made quite a mistake. After she ripped through the Bizarrap collab “Bzrp Music Sessions, Vol. 53” at the VMAs, it might be nice for a friend of his to check in on him.