2023 VMAs highs and lows: Taylor Swift sledgehammers the competition, Shakira slays, Fall Out Boy fizzles and more

It was Swift's big night, as she tied VMA records set by the likes of Peter Gabriel, David Fincher and Spike Jonze.
September 13, 2023 at 07:38 Author: Editors Desk Source: Yahoo Wellness
Taylor Swift is seen backstage during the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for MTV)
Taylor Swift is seen backstage during the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for MTV)

It took 36 years for someone to do it, but at Tuesday’s MTV Video Music Awards, an artist finally tied the record for the most competitive-category VMA wins in a single night.

Peter Gabriel set that record — nine wins — in 1987, the year that his groundbreaking “Sledgehammer” video dominated the fourth annual VMAs. And this year, the woman that surprise presenter Justin Timberlake fittingly introduced as “the unstoppable Taylor Swift” also achieved that feat.

Swift positively sledgehammered this year’s VMAs, winning Video of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Video, and three technical awards for “Anti-Hero” as well as Artist of the Year, Album of the Year for Midnights (the release date of which she'd announced at last year’s VMAs), and Show of the Summer for her blockbuster Eras Tour. She also extended her record as the artist with the most Video of the Year trophies (this was her fourth win in what presenter LL Cool J called the VMAs’ “crown jewel” category), and became the first-ever artist to receive that honor two years in a row. (She’d previously won Video of the Year for “Bad Blood,” “You Need to Calm Down,” and last year’s “All Too Well: The Short Film.”)

And perhaps most impressively, by picking up her third Moonperson for Best Direction this year, Swift actually tied the record set by two other legendary visionaries, Oscar-nominated video directors-turned-Hollywood filmmakers David Fincher and Spike Jonze.

Swift obviously experienced many highs at this year’s VMAs, starting with her first trophy, Best Pop Video, being presented by her “pop personified” friendship-braceleted childhood idols, the reunited NSync. She didn’t even have to perform to dominate Tuesday’s VMAs. Instead, she just enjoyed most of the show from her cozy front-row seat at Newark’s Prudential Center, next to her new pal (and 2023 VMA Best New Artist recipient) Ice Spice, while MTV reportedly had a devoted camera feed focused on her for the entirety of the nearly four-hour broadcast. But the otherwise performance-packed night featured many other highs, as well as a few lows, as detailed below.

LOW: NSync presents an award to “the unstoppable Taylor Swift”… but they never really get started

The last time NSync shared a stage was when they performed at the 2013 VMAs, and when all five members were spotted in the New York City area the day before this year’s ceremony, amid reports that they’d recorded their first new music since 2001 for the Trolls Band Together soundtrack, fans hoped they'd soon witness another historic VMAs reunion performance. But NSync only showed up in the broadcast’s first 15 minutes to present the Best Pop award to Swift, and even Swift couldn’t get them to dish about any long-term reunion plans. “Are you doing something? What’s going to happen now?” she begged, but the poker-faced boy band just kept mum and anticlimactically exited the stage. Bye bye bye, indeed.


HIGH: Shakira, Shakira!

Making her first live VMAs appearance in 17 years — and making VMA history as the first South American artist to ever receive the Video Vanguard lifetime-achievement award — Shakira gyrated her famously non-lying hips during a mesmerizing, magically witchy performance celebrating her illustrious career. Whether she was recreating the cave-dwelling, triple-jointed choreo from her legendarily limber “She Wolf” video, dancing in a drum circle during “Objection,” belly-dancing with knives for “Whenever, Wherever,” or crowd-surfing like a seasoned punk-rocker for “BZRP Music Sessions, Vol. 53” before ascending like a gloriously gold-fringed phoenix on a hydraulic lift, by the end of her 10-minute medley, the Colombian superstar had made it clear that she should have won this honor years ago.


“I want to share this award with my fans, who always support me through thick and thin. Thank you so much for being my army and helping me fight all my battles,” Shakira stated in English, before concluding in Spanish: “This is for my people, the Latin-American people inside and outside of this country. Thank you for inspiring me and injecting me with so much power and will to keep going. I love you.”


LOW: Fake feuds go viral

Everyone loves a good VMAs fight — Tommy Lee vs. Kid Rock, Nicki Minaj vs. Miley Cyrus, Eminem vs. Moby, Eminem vs. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. So, when it appeared that Justin Timberlake had some backstage beef with Megan Thee Stallion, or that Selena Gomez disliked Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire” performance, such easily screengrabbed moments of course trended on social media. Viewers were especially quick to speculate about what Entertainment Weekly described as Timberlake’s “tense exchange” with Megan, considering that he’d recently come under fire for his past treatment of other divas like Janet Jackson and Britney Spears.

Early in the evening, a backstage camera captured what looked like Megan angrily yelling, rolling her eyes, and pointing her finger at Timberlake, while NSync’s Joey Fatone was caught in the crossfire. But unnamed insiders insisted to various outlets that there was “zero fight” between the two stars. Sources told People that Timberlake had said, “It's so nice to meet you,” to which the rapper had answered, “No, no, this don't count, this don't count — we gotta meet proper!” Another source clarified, “Meg loves Justin. She was saying ‘No, no, no, we've never met before.’ It was their first time meeting, and she was excited.”

The night’s other feud rumor began when a clip of Gomez looking annoyed and covering her ear during Rodrigo’s fiery performance made the social media rounds. One InTouch headline actually claimed that Gomez seemed to be “shading” Rodrigo. But as it turned out, Gomez was simply spooked by a transition between “Vampire” and Rodrigo’s new single, “Get Him Back!,” when a curtain fell and a panicked security guard whisked Rodrigo off the stage. While this was all part of the act and not an actual technical snafu, the dramatic sequence was realistic enough to fool some viewers and audience members — including, apparently, Gomez. “Before y’all get these two ladies dragged, it was when the stage was having an intentional stage malfunction. Not during Olivia singing,” one fan tweeted as the out-of-context footage circulated. But other fans simply preferred to jump to their own, far more scandalous and exciting conclusions.

HIGH: Kelsea Ballerini strips it back

Rodrigo and Swift aren’t the only VMA artists capable of pulling off scathing breakup songs. Country star Ballerini, who celebrated her 30th birthday Tuesday, was all loved-up on the VMAs’ red carpet in matchy-matchy red outfits with her current boyfriend, actor Chase Stokes. Onstage, however, she delivered a raw rendition of “Penthouse (Healed Version),” from her vicious divorce EP Rolling Up the Welcome Mat (For Good), directed at her ex-husband, country singer Morgan Evans. Staring down the camera lens as she spat lines like “And it hurts putting shit in a box/And now we don't talk/And it stings rolling up the welcome mat/Knowing you got half/I kissed someone new last night/And now I don't care where you're sleeping, baby/We got along real nice until I wanted out, now I know you hate me,” Ballerini took a dramatically, almost uncomfortably long pause. And when the camera panned out, she’d magically shed her bridal column gown and was now standing on the stage in an LBD. It was a powerful, symbolic moment, stripped-back in more ways than one.


HIGH: “Bad Boy for Life” Diddy keeps it in the family

Shakira wasn’t the only MTV veteran receiving a lifetime-achievement honor this year. The Global Icon Award went to hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, who celebrated by performing at the VMAs for the first time since 2005. His own medley included guest appearances by Yung Miami and Keyshia Cole and hits like “Another One of Me,” “I'll Be Missing You,” “It's All About the Benjamins,” “Bad Boy for Life,” “I Need a Girl (Pt. 2),” “Last Night,” “Can't Nobody Hold Me Down,” and the Notorious B.I.G.’s' "Mo Money Mo Problems,” and the award was presented by Diddy’s longtime colleague and friend, Mary J. Blige, who said: “This man has always been an icon, Puff’s impact on pop culture is immeasurable. His iconic music videos redefined the form. His global influence is forever felt across the entire music industry.”


Diddy’s kids also got in on the act. His 25-year-old son, King Combs, rapped on two tunes, while his eldest daughter Chance co-presented the award with Blige. His 16-year-old twin daughters, D'Lila and Jessie, also served as his backup dancers and hypewomen, as they held up vinyl copies of The Love Album: Off the Grid, Combs’s first full record release in 17 years. “In true Diddy fashion, I’m a hustler,” Combs quipped, announcing that the album — which features Blige, Yung Miami, and other MTV stars like the Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Swae Lee, Babyface, French Montana, DJ Khaled, Teyana Taylor, and 21 Savage — probably uncoincidentally drops this Friday.


LOW: Fall Out Boy’s performance doesn’t catch fire

Like many recent VMA ceremonies, this year did not feature much rock 'n' roll, aside from a roughed-up medley of Revamped remakes from PVC-sheathed former Disney pop princess Demi Lovato and a camcorder-kamikaze performance from reliably entertaining Best Rock Video winners Måneskin. So, when pop-punk heroes Fall Out Boy hit the VMAs stage for the first time since 2007, rock fans who grew up in the TRL era were probably excited to hear “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down.” But that's not what went down. Instead, Pete Wentz and company inexplicably played their cringey cover of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” complete with corny updated lyrics (including one line about how “YouTube killed MTV”) that picked up where Joel’s original left off in 1989. Thanks for the memories? Um, not so much.


HIGH and LOW: Madonna accepts the Pepsi challenge

Speaking of pop-cultural headlines of 1989, that was the year when Pepsi abruptly and unceremoniously yanked its $5 million ad campaign with Madonna, who was MTV’s biggest superstar at the time, after her provocative “Like a Prayer” music video generated controversy for its religious imagery. During Tuesday’s broadcast, the cola company resurrected the long-shelved and rarely seen commercial, and Madonna (who, like the true queen and shrew businesswoman she has always been, got to keep that $5 million paycheck) seemed pleased. Madonna posting on Instagram, “34 years ago I made a commercial with Pepsi to celebrate the release of my song ‘Like a Prayer.’ The commercial was immediately canceled when I refused to change any scenes in the video where I was kissing a Black saint or burning crosses. So began my illustrious career as an artist refusing to compromise my artistic integrity. Thank you @pepsi for finally realizing the genius of our collaboration. Artists are here to disturb the peace.” Sure, it was nice to see the ad spot finally reach a wide audience — but it was also hard to ignore the hypocrisy of the spot’s new tagline, “Celebrating 40 Years of Disrupting the Status Quo,” when Pepsi had fired and effectively tried to cancel the superstar disrupter back in ’89.


A post shared by Madonna (@madonna)


HIGH: Doja Cat pays “Attention” to detail

Rapper-singer Doja Cat seemed to pay subtle tribute to two other disruptive divas during her “Attention”/“Paint the Town Red”/“Demons” medley: She donned a tweedy sexy-librarian outfit and long flaxen wig reminiscent of Britney Spears’s signature “...Baby One More Time” ensemble, while flanked by bloody zombie dancers who looked like they were wearing knockoffs of Lady Gaga’s infamous 2010 VMAs meat dress. The result was one of the most over-the-top and visually stunning performances of the ceremony.



HIGH: Yo! MTV raps

To close the night, “hip-hop royalty” — Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, and Run-D.M.C.’s Darryl “D.M.C.” Simmons — teamed with new-school superstars Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne for an electrifying medley that included “The Message,” “The Show,” “Mama Said Knock You Out,” “Rock Box,” and “Walk This Way.” The spectacle wasn’t at the massive level of the Grammy Awards’ all-star 50th anniversary of hip-hop tribute earlier this year, and the final song, with LL filling the Steven Tyler role, suffered from minor technical difficulties. But it was still an undeniably epic mic-passing, mic-dropping moment.


HIGH: Nicki Minaj has attitude and gratitude

Nicki Minaj is clearly the hardest-working woman in hip-hop. Not only did she host Tuesday’s marathon telecast, but she performed three times (solo, with Megan Thee Stallion for the live debut of their new collab “Bongos,” and as the only female rapper in the 50th anniversary of hip-hop tribute), and she extended her record as the VMAs’ most-awarded artist in the Best Hip-Hop Video category when she won a fifth time for “Super Freaky Girl.” While she joked during her opening monologue that MTV censors were terrified she’d say something on live television that would get the network in trouble, when she delivered her Best Hip-Hop Video acceptance speech, she confessed more seriously and sweetly: “This morning when I woke up, I had this really strong sense of gratitude.”

The 2023 MTV Music Awards also featured performances from Lil Wayne (who opened the show), Anitta with Tomorrow x TogetherKarol GPeso PlumaStray Kids, and Metro Boomin with Swae Lee, NAV, Future, and A Boogie Wit da Hoodie. For Yahoo Entertainment’s full VMAs coverage, click here; for a complete list of winners, click here.

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