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Musicians used their acceptance speeches and performances as an opportunity to address women’s rights and raise awareness about HIV at the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards.
Cyndi Lauper presented the best pop award at the award show Sunday night. She reflected on winning a Moon Person at the first VMAs in 1984 for her hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and connected the song’s title to current women’s rights issues. “Yeah, girls still want to have fun, but we also want to have funds, equal pay and control over our bodies. You know, fundamental rights,” Lauper said, getting the crowd riled up. She seemed to reference Texas’ new restrictive abortion law, which prohibits most abortions after six weeks. The law, which went into effect earlier this month, does not make any exceptions for pregnancies resulting from incest or rape. It also allows private individuals to sue anyone who performs an abortion or assists someone in receiving the procedure.
Billie Eilish, who was presented with the Video for Good trophy by Avril Lavigne for her song “Your Power,” also spoke about women’s rights in her acceptance speech. “We need to protect our young women at all costs,” the “Bad Guy” singer said. “We also need to remember that we all have power, and we have to remember to not abuse it.”
Lil Nas X’s performance of his singles “Industry Baby” and “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” raised awareness about HIV. The rapper had Southern AIDS Coalition’s director of community investments Mardrequs Harris perform with him on stage. Harris’ outfit featured the number 433,816 in red, which represents the universal color of recognition and support for HIV as well as the number of people living with HIV in the south as of 2015, according to GLAAD.
Before welcoming Lil Nas X to the stage, Billy Porter admitted that when he was starting out “the people were not ready for all this Black boy joy.” Porter added, “But children, it’s a new day, and I’m so thankful to have lived long enough to witness it.” Porter, who recently went public with his own HIV positive status in a Hollywood Reporter cover story, then introduced Lil Nas X, who led a marching band onto the stage for his song “Industry Baby” with Jack Harlow. Lil Nas X turned the stage into an all-pink party at his “Montero Prison,” where his dancers were dressed as stylish robbers. After Harlow’s verse, Lil Nas X changed into shiny pink boxers for a transition dance break before he performing “Montero.”
Lil Nas X collected the Moon Person for video of the year for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).” He began his speech with, “Thank you to the gay agenda.”
The rest of the three-hour ceremony, which was hosted by Doja Cat, focused on celebrating the network’s 40th birthday.
The show opened with a video of Madonna reminiscing about her career starting around the same year MTV debuted, which was on Aug. 1, 1981. As “Vogue” played, the Queen of Pop strutted onto the stage in a black leather outfit. “And they said we wouldn’t last, but we’re still here, motherfuckers. Happy 40th, MTV,” she cheered.
Next up, was Justin Bieber who landed the coveted slot as the first performer. He shared it with The Kid Laroi for their popular song “Stay.” Bieber then performed an emotional version of his track “Ghost.”
The Barclays Center was packed with live fans and famous guests like Kourtney Kardashian and Finneas spread around the multiple stages. The setup allowed performers to quickly take the stage one after the other. Close-ups of the crowd revealed most of the audience members were wearing masks. Even some of the performers onstage, like Olivia Rodrigo’s background dancers, wore face coverings.
Speaking of Rodrigo, she bounced around the stage for her VMAs debut of her single “Good 4 U.” The performance ended with confetti floating down from the ceiling as an angsty Rodrigo pretended to break the camera. Rodrigo shortly returned to the stage after Jennifer Lopez presented her with the song of the year Moon Person for her song “Drivers License.” She also won best new artist.
“This has been the most magical year of my life, and it is all because of you guys,” Rodrigo said in her acceptance speech. “I want to dedicate this award to all the other girls who write songs on their bedroom floor.” She added that “speaking your mind and sharing your heart is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Hailey Bailey proudly introduced her sister Chlöe, the other half of their duo. The award show marked Chlöe’s first solo performance. Hailey said she was so happy to see her “sister and collaborator … find her own voice of self-expression and self love.” Chlöe initially appeared draped in a pink hood before dropping it to reveal a pink leotard as she demonstrated some intricate choreography.
The Foo Fighters rocked the stage with a medley of their greatest hits including “Learn to Fly” and “Everlong” before being presented with the first-ever Global Icon award.
Alicia Keys welcomed the audience to the “home of the World Trade” to celebrate the magic of New York City before singing “Empire State of Mind.” Her performance included aerial shots of the city a day after the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Other memorable moments from the 2021 VMAs include “Wild Side” singer Normani captivating the crowd with her hip-hop moves and a surprise appearance by Teyana Taylor, Doja Cat referencing “Kanye needing attention” at the 2009 VMAs and Busta Rhymes nailing his “Look at Me Now” verse.
Machine Gun Kelly closed the show with “Papercuts.”
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