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Hosting an Awards Show in 2020: the MTV VMAs


I’m not normally one to watch awards shows, but as a loyal BTS stan, (shoutout to all the ARMYs out there!), I absolutely had to watch their performance for their latest single “Dynamite” at the 2020 VMAs on the night of August 30th. Originally, I had planned to only watch BTS’ performance, but I ended up watching the entire VMAs with my roommate while texting my friends about the whole thing. It’s not like I had schoolwork to do or anything...nope, definitely not. 

I didn’t realize how much things would change for the VMAs due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the state of affairs in our nation. I found myself interested in how MTV was handling running an awards show with a limited live audience in addition to addressing the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the recent passings of notable figures.

It’s not unknown knowledge that awards shows themselves are dying out. From the Oscars, to the Golden Globes and the Grammys, news outlets and entertainment blogs have written about the dying state of the awards show institution and the decrease in its appeal. (Check out these articles by TIME and Vogue for more insight!) So how did MTV manage to pull off a program that attracted a half-live, half-video-call audience and bring into it important issues and influential people? Let’s examine some highlights of what went down that Sunday night.

COVID-19 causes MTV to get creative with live performances and live audiences.

So how do you run an awards show during a global pandemic? Thinking about it, you’d want to keep as much of the fun parts alive by providing the upbeat, energetic atmosphere you normally get at the MTV Video Music Awards, right? However, when thinking of safety precautions for dealing with COVID-19, people don’t usually think of fun and excitement. In keeping with the CDC guidelines for staying safe and healthy, MTV created live performances with backgrounds of vibrant and moving colors and lights. I immediately noticed how much the visual design department was working on creating visually stunning performances that mixed both the performing artist and their themes, all against the brilliant nightscape in some of New York’s famous cities and landmarks.

In addition to the amazing visual aspects, there were the live audiences. For live performances from artists like Maluma and CNCO, audience members were able to attend sitting atop parked cars that were distant from one another (gotta stay at least six feet apart, right?), similar to a drive-in movie experience. Some people had “seats” from right at home via video call. What was kind of weird, in my opinion, were the animated crowds of faceless, shadowy people around the stage. It was kind of eerie, not gonna lie. I get what the visual design people had in mind to make it seem more like an arena packed with awards show-goers, but it just seemed really off to me. However, I do think the drive-in experience kind of made up for it.

Lady Gaga dominates both the stage AND the music categories, earning MTV’s first-ever Tricon Award.

The biggest winner of the night was definitely Lady Gaga, and as upset as I was that Megan Thee Stallion didn’t win as many (I am super biased here, but also Meg kept putting out hit after hit during 2020), Lady Gaga owned the night for sure. She has put out some incredibly catchy songs throughout her career, and on the VMAs stage that night, she showed everyone who was boss. From her iconic outfits paired with eccentric masks, to her performances that rocked the YouTube trending page for several days straight, Lady Gaga rightfully earned her place as MTV’s first-ever Tricon Award. For Gaga, this award respected her as a performing artist, fashion icon, and talented actress.

Lady Gaga walked away on Sunday night for nominations in several categories, yet winning almost every single one she was in, including but not limited to: Artists of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Collaboration (with Ariana Grande). But perhaps the most notable thing she did that evening besides her killer performance, was the acceptance speech she gave when receiving the Tricon Award, In her speech, she talked about paving your own path and accepting who you are, both of which are things she has always aimed to do with her music.

Host Keke Palmer creates a fun and engaging environment amidst a truly different VMAs atmosphere.

One thing I think most people will agree with me on is that the host(s) always either make or break the show. If you can tell that the person hosting is actually enjoying what they’re doing, then that makes the awards show about a hundred times better. Keke Palmer was no exception to this. I loved Keke back on her Nickelodeon days, and I got to be honest, 2020 was definitely her year to shine. Hosting the 2020 MTV VMAs certainly showed her hilarious and wonderful personality. I mean, just look at some of the crazy characters she came up with!

Her outfits were super cute, and her ability to grab onto and interact with the crowd made up for a night that normally would be coupled with a packed audience. Moreover, even with all her silly jokes and skits, Palmer was able to slow down and present some thoughts on important issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, which leads me to the next point.

Black Lives Matter grabs the true spotlight of the night, bringing to the forefront important racial issues within the country.

I think what struck me the most throughout the night was the sheer amount of discussion about Black Lives Matter and advocating for social justice. Keke Palmer opened the 2020 VMAs with a moving speech about the Black Lives Matter movement, and though she paid tribute to several celebrities who lost their lives this year, she spotlighted Chadwick Boseman. The Black Panther star had not only passed away just two days before from colon cancer, but was a notable activist for Black lives. Palmer stated, “We dedicate tonight's show to a man whose spirit touched so many. He is a true hero, not just on-screen, but in everything he did. His impact lives forever."

DaBaby was driven away handcuffed in the back of a police car while black-clothed masked dancers, (the JabbaWockeez for all you ABDC and professional dance fans out there), during his performance of “PEEPHOLE,” “Blind,” and “Rockstar.” 

In his acceptance speech for winning Video of the Year for “Blinding Lights,” The Weeknd expressed how it was “really hard to celebrate” VMA wins because of all that was going on right now. He kept his speech short and simple, instead calling for justice for Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor. 

‘Black Lives Matter’ was woven into nearly every fiber of the 2020 VMAs that night. They even made two new categories to address COVID-19 and BLM, including Everyday Heroes: Frontline Medical Workers, in which all the nominees won, and Video for Good, with H.E.R. winning for “I Can’t Breathe,” which I was super happy about because not only do I love H.E.R but that video brought me to tears. It was easy to see how artists like DaBaby and The Weeknd and host Keke Palmer felt passionately about the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, it really made me think because watching cable television nowadays, commercials, and advertisements are filled with mentions of BLM and discrimination. It made me think about how many of these are performative and how many are genuine in their actions and messages.

Final Thoughts

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed watching the performances and Keke Palmer host, the 2020 VMAs really made me think about the future of the awards show. It also made me think how awards shows in the past, like the Golden Globes and Oscars, have or haven't addressed issues like race representation in film, equal payment, and fair treatment of women in entertainment. So I guess procrastinating on schoolwork by watching the MTV awards show makes you think critically...who knew?

Check out the full list of the nominees and winners for the 2020 VMAs here.

Kayla is a Communication Studies and Entertainment & Media Studies (EMST) double-major, with a Women's Studies minor. She enjoys good music, Marvel movies, and Tik Toks. In the rare moments where she's not writing, watching, or listening to something, you can catch her hiking outdoors, eating good food, and spending time with family and friends.
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