The reigning master of this style of stardom is Beyoncé, a fact that she reasserted with a vengeance at Madison Square Garden. Though her presence at the show wasn’t announced until the day of the telecast, her team had secretly been putting in monumental work to pull off a 15-minute set of elaborate choreography, fresh visuals, and Beyoncé showing off her peerlessness as a performer.
During “Pray You Catch Me,” she stood in a group of white-robed women who, in succession, were hit by beams of red light and fell to the ground—a striking image that can be read in personal, feminist, or racial terms, especially given that Beyoncé had brought the mothers of black men killed by police with her to the ceremony. At the end of “Hold Up,” she took a baseball bat to an MTV camera, seeming to crack the lens. “Sorry” began with a dramatic light show, her face strobed with blue and red, and for “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé donned a flossy fur coat and kneeled down among actual flames. “Formation” sent the arena into standing ovation when her dancers lay in the shape of the female symbol: formation indeed. This was Lemonade’s most aggressive, electrifying material, daringly more sour than sweet—a display of total dominance.
Where Beyoncé showed her creative worth, West mostly talked about it, as he’s done for years. No one could have been surprised to see him use part of his stage time to compare himself to Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, though perhaps prognosticators were amazed that he only barely mentioned his feud with Taylor Swift. But then came the goods: a music video where the dancer/singer Teyana Taylor sweated and gyrated in a gym, showered with her fiancée (the NBA player Iman Shumpert), and then revealed herself as some cat-human hybrid, implicating oglers in light association with bestiality. Like so much of West’s work, the video was well-crafted, instantly memorable, and perverted. The associated song, “Fade,” is a low-key dance track that mostly feels like an outro on his album The Life of Pablo. It’s clear that West, at this point, has priorities other than radio hits.
Rihanna accounted for the largest share of the ceremony’s runtime, with four performances and a speech at the end of the night when she accepted MTV’s Video Vanguard Award. Rihanna herself noted how weird it was to receive a lifetime-achievement prize at age 28, but the fact that she could perform hit after hit and still leave many of her smashes untouched made a clear case for her worthiness. Though she’s sometimes been accused of seeming more like a vessel for producers than anything else, this year saw the release of Anti-, an arty, forward-thinking collection that showed a unified and singular vision at work—a vision that the VMAs then connected with her hugely fun back catalogue.
Though each contained a hodgepodge of songs from across her career, Rihanna’s four sets created stark contrasts in visual palette and sonic tone: a pink and white EDM rave to start the night, then an uproarious dancehall party, then a dramatic hip-hop-influenced stomparound, then finally a bandstand performance of a few aching ballads. Even when her voice wavered, Rihanna’s intoxicating confidence, cutting-edge fashions, and ace dancers commanded attention.