Stars Applaud Taylor Swift and Missy Elliott's Impact on Culture at 2019 MTV VMAs

Taylor Swift and Missy Elliott -Split - Getty-H 2019
Kevin Mazur/WireImage; Mike Coppola/Getty Images for MTV

Bebe Rexha, Keke Palmer, Jonathan Van Ness and more notable names spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the awards show about Swift and Elliott's influence. "To make music that changes the world, that's everything," said singer-songwriter Rexha.

The 2019 MTV Video Music Awards took place Monday night at Newark, New Jersey's Prudential Center. And while the night was full of memorable moments — including a Sopranos cast reunion and an epic hip-hop tribute to the Garden State — two women, in particular, stole the spotlight: Taylor Swift and Missy Elliott.

But before Swift opened the awards ceremony with a dazzling medley of "You Need to Calm Down" and "Lover," and prior to Video Vanguard Award recipient Elliott bringing down the house with a seven-minute performance of her greatest hits, the artists' names dominated red carpet conversations.

Speaking about Swift, fellow stars applauded her decision to use her music to bring attention to the LGBTQ community and the repeated attacks it faces from the Trump administration (including a signed ban for transgender people to serve in the military and a 2018 threat to define gender legally as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth). Swift's music video for "You Need to Calm Down" — along with her VMAs performance of the track — encouraged fans to sign a petition for the U.S. Senate to pass the Equality Act, protecting LGBTQ citizens from discrimination.

Swift even put pressure on the president in her acceptance speech for video of the year. "I want to thank everyone that signed that petition because it now has half a million signatures, which is five times the amount that it would need to warrant a response from the White House," she said, looking at an imaginary watch on her wrist as she implied that the Trump administration should address the petition.

"It's really important for people to use their platform in a way that they feel benefits the common good," Jonathan Van Ness said of Swift while talking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the show, which was hosted by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco. "And there are so many different ways that you can express yourself creatively through music."

The Queer Eye star — one of many LGBTQ figures who appeared in Swift's inclusive "You Need to Calm Down" clip — added, "There's been a shift in music, where artists are becoming more politically engaged. But I think that shift was born out of necessity because, in case you haven’t noticed, we're living in crazy times. So, it's great that people like Taylor are pushing a message of inclusivity and positivity with their music."

"You Need to Calm Down" took home two VMAs on Monday night, including for video of the year (a fan-voted category) and video for good, a new category recognizing videos that not only carry incredible visuals but an important message as well. Openly gay pop singer and 2018 VMA winner Hayley Kiyoko — who also starred in Swift's rainbow-filled video — told THR that she is thrilled to see MTV supporting artists who use their platform to promote change.

"I was like, 'Where has that category been?' I feel like it's just really amazing that all artists are becoming more fearless in what they have to say and what they believe in and then utilizing their music to express that message," said the "I Wish" songstress. "It has a big impact, and Taylor has definitely used her voice for good this year. MTV acknowledging that, and every other artist who is using their platform like her, is really important."

Bebe Rexha — who won this year's VMA for best dance video for her Chainsmokers collaboration, "Call You Mine" — agreed, telling THR, "To make music that changes the world, that's everything. It's so important to stand up for something rather than just write hits or songs that are trying to be hits. 'You Need to Calm Down' is definitely one of those songs that has more meaning. As an artist, making music like that gives you a purpose in life."

Aside from singing Swift's praises, Rexha also gushed over Elliott and the influence the iconic rapper, songwriter and producer has had on pop culture. "Missy has inspired me in so many ways — as a songwriter, for sure, but she's also inspired me to be a strong female in this business," Rexha said of Elliott, who released her debut studio album, Supa Dupa Fly, in 1997. "At every level, she is just so unbelievably inspiring. She has for sure left a mark on all parts of pop culture, from music to fashion and everything in between."

Actress, singer and TV personality Keke Palmer — who celebrated her 26th birthday on Monday with news that she's joining Good Morning America as a third-hour co-host — noted how Elliott's work with the late Aaliyah in the early 2000s is reflected in today's Top 40. "When you listen to the change from Aaliyah's first album that she did to the one that she did with Missy and Timbaland, that created a whole sound and an era of music for an entire generation," said Palmer. "And people are still referencing that sound in 2019. She's very deserving of this award. It's been a long time coming."

Alyson Stoner — the child dancer made famous in Elliott's 2002 music video for "Work It" — received special recognition on Monday night during Elliott's medley performance, reprising her hip-hop moves in a bright yellow tracksuit. According to the now-26-year-old actress and recording artist, Elliott is more than a mentor: "She's a culture shifter."

"Her music transcends time. And her presence is unlike anyone else's. You can feel the humanity when you meet her. That's hard for someone who's been through the machine to maintain. But she's retained her sense of identity and I have so much respect for her," Stoner told THR. "She always somehow flawlessly combined mainstream with underground. That's a difficult thing to do and she's still doing it — even with her new song, 'Throw It Back.' There's plenty more chapters for Missy."