The MTV VMAs might be all about crowning the best music videos, but the show itself is all about the performances.
And the VMAS 2021 host, Doja Cat, even got down on stage during the show, which was broadcasted live from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Sunday, September 12.
Who else rocked it out? It was a laundry list of the biggest names in music: Camila Cabello, Chlöe, Justin Bieber, Kacey Musgraves, Lil Nas X, Shawn Mendes, Olivia Rodrigo and Twenty One Pilots. And Travis Barker and Machine Gun Kelly even teamed up to debut their single “papercuts.”
But who got the crowd on their feet — and who flopped?
We break down the best performances of the 2021 VMAs.
Worst: Justin Bieber
When you can’t even tell who’s performing until midway into the performance, it’s kind of a fail. That’s what happened when a hoodied and virtually unrecognizable Justin Bieber took the stage in the first performance of the night with The Kid Laroi. After they did their hit “Stay,” it was finally clear who Bieber even was on the stage. Things definitely picked up when he did “Ghost” solo. But let’s face it: More is to be expected from the night’s top nominee and one of its real certified superstars.
Worst: Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran was perfectly fine performing his new single “Shivers,” but when you don’t even do “Bad Habits” — the hit that is up for Video of the Year at the VMAs — it reduces the show to a promotional joke. Sure, if you want to plug your new hit, we’ll tolerate a bit of it, but to not even perform the song that brought you to the party is a total snub of what the VMAs are supposed to stand for.
Best: Lil Nas X
Just days before finally releasing his debut album, “Montero,” on Friday, Lil Nas X showed why his performances are always must-see stuff. Adopting a marching-band motif for “Industry Baby” with Jack Harlow — shades of Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” and “Formation” — the “Old Town Road” rapper seamlessly segued into his homoerotic hit “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” proving once again that he elevates his material when he hits the stage.
Worst: Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes
It was just two years ago when Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes looked ready to break into a full-on makeout session performing their hit “Señorita” at the VMAS. Put performing separately on Sunday night, neither managed to generate any real heat — although it was a cute move having her introduce him after she finished performing “Don’t Go Yet.” Still, it was pretty much a double meh.
Best: Chloe Bailey
The older half of the sister act Chloe x Halle showed that she is more than capable of holding her own during a popping performance of her debut solo single, “Have Mercy,” which was sweetly introduced by Halle. In fact, there were times during the routine when you could see just how much Chloe Bailey had learned from the duo’s mentor — a little diva by the name of Beyoncé.
Best: Foo Fighters
Just 12 days before the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” on Sept. 24, Dave Grohl reminded all of us about how he and his band Foo Fighters have fought the good fight to keep rock alive, resulting in their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month. Before receiving the first-ever MTV Global Icon Award at the 2021 VMAs—after an intro from Billie Eilish to boot—the band roared through a mini-set that included such hits as “Learn to Fly” and “Everlong.” It was a reminder of all that the the VMAs were — and could hopefully be again.
Best: Alicia Keys
Key’s performance of her new single “Lala” with Swae Lee was pretty forgettable — but hey, it’s been 20 years since “Song in A Minor” and relevancy must be maintained — but when New York’s own piano woman sang a bit of “Empire State of Mind” the day after the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it was all the feels.