Performances take center stage even more than usual at the 2023 Video Music Awards amid the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes with Nicki Minaj hosting and performing alongside Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Demi Lovato and more -- plus, all the night's most viral moments!
While there was a lot of uncertainty about how the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards might play out without writers amid the ongoing WGA strike, one thing was guaranteed to light up the stage ... a night of superstar performances.
As it turns out, though, they didn't need writers to generate some truly iconic and viral moments, even outside of those epic musical numbers. We guess that's what happen when you fill a room with famous people like Megan Thee Stallion, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and so many more!
On the music side, we went from Lil Wayne and Olivia Rodrigo kicking off the show to a retrospective of 50 years of hip-hop music to close out the night, and the VMAs did not disappoint. That's not to say all performances were equal, so we're going to break down what worked and what left us a little underwhelmed as the night progressed.
In fact, we're going to go ahead and rank all of the night's performances from first to-- well, you hate to say worst, so we'll just call it our least favorite. It might just be your favorite. That's the beauty of things like this; it's all subjective.
But before we get to that, let's take a look at some of the other moments that took social media by storm, starting with an epic reunion so big that it even left the biggest music star on the planet flabbergasted.
It was a good night for Taylor Swift, and it started off right away when she won the very first award. Making the "Anti-Hero" singer even more flustered as the track won Best Pop was who was handing out the trophy.
For the first time in ten years, *NSYNC was reunited and together on stage, which Swift could not get past. She started badgering them about what this means, whether they're working on something. Everything's a cryptic clue or tease with her, so why not them?
She had the same reaction the second time she went up with another Millennial music icon reunion handing her Song of the Year. Are Timbaland and Nelly Furtado going to make more music? Are all of her millennial dreams about to come true? We feel ya, Taylor, and we're right there with you.
What does it all mean?!
What Happened Backstage with Megan Thee Stallion and Justin Timberlake
Sometimes a viral moment doesn't happen on the air, or even on the stage. One moment that quickly started making the rounds online happened backstage as Megan Thee Stallion was getting her hair done, presumably before her big performance with Cardi B.
In the clip, Megan definitely looks animated while pointing, shouting, and gesturing at Justin Timberlake, who was walking by with the rest of *NSYNC. For his part, Justin appeared to be smiling and Joey Fatone had a big smile on his face even after Megan started gesturing toward them.
The moment quickly blew up on social media as fans began to speculate as to what was going on, but with no audio in the clip, it remained a mystery -- for awhile.
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Before the show was over, Variety had the dirt, saying there was definitely no beef between the two superstars. In fact, it was just the opposite. According to their backstage source, Justin told Megan, "It's so nice to meet you."
She reportedly responded, emphatically, "No, no this don’t count, this don’t count. We gotta meet proper." Insisting that there was "zero fight," the source called the exchange "very cute."
Megan and Justin later confirmed everything was all good between them, when they posted a TikTok together at a VMA after-party -- which the rapper captioned, "I just talk with my hands lol 💁🏽♀️see ya next time @JustinTimberlake." Like the original backstage video, this one also didn't include any sound.
Sometimes the camera catches the most awkward moments from the crowd, and sometimes it captures pure gold. In the case of Selena Gomez on Tuesday night, it all depends on your stance on Chris Brown, a problematic and controversial artist still after the violence incident with Rihanna.
A nominee on the night, Gomez' face summed up her thoughts and feelings about the R&B star with just the slightest grimace and upturn of the lips as his name was mentioned.
The smallest movements can say so much, and social media immediately picked up on this one, with most supporting the pop star's reaction and echoing it themselves.
Doing anything live is difficult, and sometimes we're not our best. That's what happened to Saweetie not once but twice during her hosting duties for the pre-show. The first was simply a matter of missing her cue, which left her staring into the camera for a few very pregnant seconds.
The second was a little more notable, with Saweetie definitely stumbling over her words while either trying to read a teleprompter or tease what was coming off the top of her head. Either way, it came out a bit of a garbled mess, which fans quickly picked up on.
Hilariously, Saweetie took it to the main show, owning up to her "stutter" and calling out social media at the same time. Before introducing Stray Kids, she said, "Hey what's up, y'all. It's me again, and y'all better stop making my lil' stutter video go viral, I see what you're doing."
"Anyway, let's try it again," she continued before introducing the K-Pop group with nary a stutter, stammer or pause. It looks like those pre-show jitters didn't carry over to the main show.
Shakira brought a whole mood to the VMAs stage from those first three opening poses. So much drama and statement before the song even began. From there, we went on a bilingual journey through her three-decade career. It wasn't just the songs, though as it was Shakira really taking advantage of the entire theater for her performance, incorporating crowd surfing and even rising high above them all. With Latin music continuing to explode in popularity, Shakira reminded everyone why she was right at the forefront of the movement, anticipating it by more than 20 years!
This epic performance felt like Doja Cat was trying to make a statement about where she's at in her career, which is absolutely dominating the stage. This felt like a musical had been built around her music and she was just bringing it to life. We loved the backup dancers splattered in red representing her "Paint the Town Red" look, as well as all the bad-bitch energy everyone was bringing to this. It was genuinely epic from start to finish, like she's already a legendary performer celebrating her career.
Nicki Minaj kept us on our toes with a whirlwind duet of songs, starting with the melodically beautiful "Last Time I Saw You." It's so easy when you hear her spitting her verses on everyone else's songs to remember what a triple threat she is as a musician, gorgeously tackling her own verses. It was a beautifully classy performance and song, which is why we loved it so much when she turned around and punched us in the face with an exclusive premiere of a new track from her upcoming Pink Friday 2 album. This one was hard-hitting and all about Nicki reminding us that there is no one else at the top of the game, because they're all looking up at her. It was a powerhouse performance start to finish showing how multi-faceted she is.
All by herself, Kelsea Ballerini had to represent an entire genre of music, but she definitely did country music proud. Country is about telling stories, and Kelsea was all heart as she celebrated her birthday on the outdoor stage with a gorgeous performance of "Penthouse." We could feel the ache and anger in her voice and she had the crowd eating from the palm of her hand. Then, in the middle of a dramatic pause, she pulled off an incredible dress change. There was nothing over-the-top about this presentation, but she absolutely killed it.
50 Years of Hip Hop
A bit of a hodge-podge of hip-hop, there was some good representation across 50 years. Obviously, with something like this, we get greedy and want more and more and more, but we have to give credit for Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Doug E. Fresh, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, LL Cool J & DJ Z-Trip, DMC, and Slick Rick for representing. LL did double duty after a solo set, helping DMC (without Run) to get through some of their iconic tracks to wrap the piece up. It was a little jarring going from the '70s and '80s hip-hop pioneers to Nicki and Wayne. Both are definitely legends in their own right, but there was such a transition musically from where the genre began to where it stood when they picked it up, it was like a musical slap in the face. All in all, though, this was yet another impressive tribute as it's always a treat to see the legends come out and prove they've still got it.
Can we start off by saying the costuming was absolutely fantastic for this piece, with Karol G and her dancers really incorporating the colorful sleeves and skirts to create some really strong visuals with the choreography. She had the most intricate and visually arresting choreo on the night, painting visual pictures throughout with her multi-level set and the discipline of her crew. It was such a polished performance, she definitely made a big statement for her VMAs debut.
After winning Best K-Pop earlier in the night, Stray Kids came out with all the elements we've come to expect from the best in K-Pop groups, injected with a little more edge than we're used to seeing. The choreography was intricate and on point as they performed, with the group even creating a vertical screen experience to emphasize how much social media has helped the genre blow up. Vocally, everyone did a great job. Great music transcends language, and this performance managed to keep us enraptured as it shifted languages and never let up the adrenaline rush. With nothing but themselves and dancers, they made this a spectacle.
We got a little dizzy at the top when Måneskin frontman Damiano David was manning a handheld digital camera, and we were cutting to what he recorded as he performed. But, once our stomachs settled, we were able to really immerse ourselves into authentic rock-and-roll in an era where it seems the genre is always being threatened with extinction, or worse, irrelevancy. We've seen this band be so extra in the most delightful ways, but we appreciated that this was old-school, classic-style rock. Their sound was great, the show was straightforward and it was fantastic.
The night may have wrapped with a look back at 50 years of hip-hop, but Metro Boomin's set was all about the state of hip-hop today, bringing out four of the freshest voices on the mic today with Future, Swae Lee, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and NAV. On a smoke-filled stage, Metro mostly stayed behind the deejay booth to allow his emcees the run of the stage to showcase what they do. It was a great way to spotlight what he does so well, while also sharing his spotlight with those collaborators who've helped put him on the map. This was a very cool performance from start to finish, just smooth like butter.
Anitta brought a whole damned show with spotlight dancers throughout the theater and all around her. She went move for move with them, without missing a note. The biggest issue we had with this performance was the fact that MTV seemed to have their camera people deep in the crowd, giving us some truly awful shots of the non-stop action on the stage. Anitta looked and sounded fantastic on this, with set design that brings the street to the stage and then fills them with wall-to-wall dance and energy.
TOMORROW X TOGETHER f/ Anitta
This debut of their new collaboration "Back for More" really came alive after Anitta came out and created this really compelling fusion of her Latin style with TOMORROW X TOGETHER's classic K-Pop elements. Yes, the tight choreography was there on the dance track, with consistent vocals across all five members, but we found ourselves missing that fusion of energy when Anitta wasn't present. What this tells us is we would definitely come back for more collabos across genres and even nations.
Fall Out Boy
Well, this is a tough one. Fall Out Boy did a fantastic job of performing and delivering the song with great vocals, a great sound, and all the live concert energy you'd expect from a rock band that played outside the venue for some reason. Our issue remains with the song itself. Like everyone else, we just can't get over that these random events weren't chronologically presented and instead was a hodge-podge pop culture word association game we wanted to end the moment it started. But they sounded great.
Diddy (Global Icon)
Diddy made it a low-budget affair, keeping the production to a minimum and the focus on him and all his guest stars. This Diddy joint welcomed Yung Miami and Keyshia Cole -- reducing him to hype man for much of the performance, like the current king DJ Khaled. He also invited his family out, giving two different vocal spotlights to his son Christian Combs, who definitely reminded us of early Puff Daddy (when he was just meh as an emcee). His adorable twin daughters Jessi and D'Lila were a lot more fun to watch as they performed the viral TikTok dance to "I'll Be Missing You." Overall, the performance was a bit all over the place and didn't really spotlight his most iconic music as we would have liked.
Olivia Rodrigo started gently in a beautifully designed nighttime forest vista as she got into "vampire." We did enjoy the elements of the set sparking and pretending to break down as her performance progressed, with Rodrigo and the band reacting to the apparent mishaps as if it wasn't all scripted. She was even rushed off stage as a concerned Selena Gomez looked on (did anyone tell Selena this was all scripted?). Rodrigo reappeared with her own dancers to perform her latest single, "get him back!" The vocal wasn't quite as strong on the uptempo, but we can't deny that she was living her best life up there.
Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion
The backing tracks of themselves were a little jarring as both Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion dropped their mics from time to time only to have the track make it look like this was a lip sync performance. It was strategic and clearly intended, but those tracks hit with the same volume and intensity as the live vocals. Outside of that, though, props to both women for putting on a great show with plenty of sass and-- what rhymes with sass? Let's just say there was a lot of female empowerment going on with a whole slew of women bringing their sensuality, sexuality and ferocity to bear in equal measure.
Lil Wayne kicked off the night with a high-energy performance that was at the same time pretty lowkey when it comes to spectacle -- and the sound mix wasn't working for us. The VMAs opted for a pretty straightforward performance piece with just a few backup dancers and Wayne doing his thing. He did make his way briefly through the crowd to a smaller stage set up in their midst, but he didn't stay long. The highlight here was that the rapper sounded great and got the crowd properly hyped for the festivities ahead. Could they keep the momentum going?
The first-ever Música Mexicana artist to hit the VMAs stage, we found ourselves loving Peso Pluma's incredible musicians more than we loved his performance. Maybe it was the novelty of a full band complete with horns and strings, but he had a really great, rich sound accompanying him. His own vocals were solid enough, but there was nothing in the performance that really stood out and demanded we remember this … save the band.
Demi Lovato brought their rock persona to the stage for an aggressive medley of some of their hits, but we found ourselves if we were hearing something wrong or if her pitch really was consistently off throughout her overall performance. We love these songs she was bringing -- putting a rock stamp on "Cool for the Summer" and "Sorry Not Sorry" -- and we loved the kinetic energy of her whole vibe tonight, but this definitely wasn't the strongest live vocal she's ever brought.