The Best and Worst of the 2023 MTV VMAs

From Doja Cat’s deranged doppelgängers to Olivia Rodrigo’s girlie anthems to Shakira’s knife dancing
Doja Cat Olivia Rodrigo and Shakira
Image by Chris Panicker, photos via Getty Images

Music’s most meaningless awards show returned to Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center last night. The VMAs have been a husk of its former self for a while now, and this year’s edition isn’t going to change that. Still, it’s a relatively sizable platform amid the increasingly fragmented world of music, and a lot of beloved stars showed up to perform, including Olivia Rodrigo, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Shakira, and Doja Cat.

The biggest star in the building, Taylor Swift, didn’t sing a word, but still managed to be the main character. Along with collecting a gang of trophies for her “Anti-Hero” video, she once again stole the spotlight with her exaggerated reactions, rhythm-curious dancing, and gobsmacked acceptance speeches. She fawned over a reunited *NSync (“Are you doing something?!” she asked them, almost as a dare). She blew a kiss to the Måneskin guy. She obediently waved her hands side to side during an all-star version of “Walk This Way.” She made the show a little more fun to watch—which is more than we can say for some of the people who actually played. Here are the best and worst moments of the 2023 VMAs.

The Best

Olivia Rodrigo wins the attack of the clones

Olivia Rodrigo couldn’t exactly clone herself for the VMAs, but she pulled off a show-stopping fake-out nonetheless. Lounging in a blood-red tennis outfit amid lush foliage on the Prudential Center stage, Rodrigo first slipped into her vengeful Guts ballad “Vampire.” The set recreated director Petra Collins’ calamitous visual for the single, complete with falling plants, a shower of sparks, and askew camera angles. Rodrigo, who seems to foster an impish thirst for chaos, escaped the “fiasco” unscathed, and then launched into a bracing rendition of the brilliantly indecisive new song “Get Him Back!

Fronting a chorus of Olivia lookalikes (in bubblegum pink tennis fits), the singer contorted through the emotional rollercoaster of loving, losing, and plotting revenge. Her backup dancers followed suit, their campy expressions flitting between joy and treachery, lending the scene a delightfully creepy edge. The performance culminated in a giddy fit of flailing and squealing, before Rodrigo’s stand-ins did a synchronized death drop. There is, of course, only one real Olivia Rodrigo—but be careful not to piss her off. She just might multiply. –Madison Bloom

Shakira does it all: sings, contorts, plays guitar, crowd-surfs, dances with knives

Shakira has long reminded us that she has the range. After all, the 46-year-old Colombian icon has taken Ivy League-level philosophy courses, broken Guinness World Records, and taught herself English by reading the works of Leonard Cohen and Walt Whitman. Now she can count the Video Vanguard Award among her many accomplishments.

Showing exactly why she deserves such an honor, she ran through 25 years of hits, from classics like “Ojos Así” to her recent eviscerating Gerard Piqué kiss-off, in a breathless, 10-minute medley. She first appeared in a golden cube, a nod to her classic 2009 video for “She Wolf,” contorting her body into the kinds of physics-defying shapes only she can. From there, her versatility shone through: There was derbake drumming, crowd surfing in a vueltiao hat, and even some knife dancing. Somehow, through it all, she barely broke a sweat. –Isabelia Herrera

Doja Cat’s bloody, lip-synching doppelgängers steal the show

Considering Doja Cat’s recent ire toward her own fanbase, you’d half expect her to stomp onto the VMAs stage wearing a shirt that reads: “Fuck Kittenz.” At the very least, it seemed likely that she’d sport a gory costume inspired by her delightfully demonic recent music videos. Instead, Doja opted for a sexy secretary fit that suggested Britney’s look from “...Baby One More Time,” while her backing dancers stole the show smeared in head-to-toe fake blood. Tearing off her glasses and letting down her hair, it felt like Doja was relishing in a provocatively raging spectacle Britney would have been skewered for back in the day, continuing with the wry takes on pop exploitation found all over the singles from her forthcoming album, Scarlet.

As Doja paced through a medley of “Attention,” “Paint the Town Red,” and “Demons,” her dancers mimed her movements and mouthed her lyrics like sadistic doppelgängers. These barefoot shadow-Dojas wore little more than shredded tank tops caked in marbled red liquid, but their blinding white smiles and angular dance moves made for an especially sinister vibe. As they gesticulated wildly, with choreography that recalled Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, a flurry of newspapers swirled around the stage, briefly obscuring a camera lens. The crowd looked a little confused, but you get the sense that’s just what Doja Cat wanted. –Madison Bloom

Peso Pluma brings his mullet—and a honking brass section—to the party

Five years ago, if you told me there would soon be a música Mexicana artist performing at the VMAs, I would have cackled in your face. But that’s the power of corridos tumbados chief Peso Pluma, who boasted 14 concurrent appearances on the Billboard Hot 100 earlier this year, and has helped spread a whole musical movement to new corners of the world.

The chart conqueror came through with a sleek version of “Lady Gaga,” jumping around a circular stage in a sculptural black puffer vest, wide sunglasses, and his signature mullet. In an unexpected-but-wise move, there was no attempt to update the song’s arrangement into a digital or non-acoustic format. Pluma’s band, composed of a tololoche double bass, brass players, requinto guitars, and a whole string section, helped preserve the traditional spirit of corridos instead of kowtowing to some Anglo award show producer’s whims. When Pluma shouted “¡Arriba México, viejo!” toward the end of the song, I nearly pulled a cowboy hat and buchona fit out of my closet. –Isabelia Herrera

The half-assed hip-hop tribute featuring everyone from Nicki Minaj to Slick Rick to LL Cool J is still pretty fun

Earlier this year, the Grammys celebrated hip-hop’s 50th anniversary by attempting to tell the story of the genre through a head-spinning live medley that spanned from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five to Lil Uzi Vert. It wasn’t perfect, but they tried. And that effort was even more appreciated when stacked against the VMAs’ relatively limp salute. Last night, no storytelling was in place, and the whole thing felt half-assed and cobbled-together.

Still, most of the artists who did take the stage did their thing. Once again, the performance started with Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, who did “The Message” for a crowd of confused Swifties and Barbs who are likely more familiar with Coi Leray’s recent hit “Players,” which heavily samples the 1982 classic. (The best part was Melle Mel flexing his bulging biceps as if he were working for tips at Chippendales.) Then Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick showed up for a way-too-short interlude before the set fast-forwarded to Nicki Minaj, who was somehow the only woman to be part of the performance. She did her riotous early mixtape cut “Itty Biggy Piggy,” which was great, along with her recent hit “Red Ruby Da Sleeze,” which was less great. Lil Wayne pulled up for “A Milli” looking way more energized than usual as he hit a few jackhammer thrusts. LL Cool J, always the showman, was bedazzled-out, Saturday Night Fever-style, and lit it up both solo and with D.M.C. The ending was abrupt. The performers, none under 40, smiled and waved and posed. All I could think was: Is that it? It didn’t come close to capturing the totality of hip-hop history in any way, but it was fun enough. –Alphonse Pierre

The Worst

Diddy desecrates his own classics

Forget a Global Icon Award, what Diddy really wants is a “World’s Best Dad” mug to sit on that desk where he threw a tantrum that one time. He deserves it, too, for having the gall to let his always-frolicking son King Combs–who I still haven’t forgiven for ruining BlueBucksClan’s “City Poppin”–hijack what was supposed to be a celebration of Diddy and 30 years of Bad Boy Records.

Diddy opened his career-spanning medley with an undercooked ballad true to his latest persona, Love—he’s all about romance, family, and God at the moment. Thankfully, he quickly moved on to some of the hits, though fairly standard renditions of “I’ll Be Missing You” and “It’s All About the Benjamins” didn’t live up to his characteristic knack for over-the-top theatrics. There were a few guests. Yung Miami was there. And so was Keyshia Cole, whose voice was off, but she did “Last Night,” so we’ll give her a pass. Then it was time for “Mo Money Mo Problems,” and out came King Combs, as jolly as only a person who’s never paid a bill in their life could be. Ironically enough, he rapped Mase’s opening verse without one iota of the famed Harlem MC’s signature smoothness. Diddy looked on proudly; I was horrified. Congrats on your mug, Puff. –Alphonse Pierre

Where is the mischievous Nicki Minaj we know and love?

Let’s get one thing straight: When the news dropped that Nicki Minaj was going to reprise her role as an emcee and performer at the VMAs this year, you had to be relieved. Nicki has always possessed the theatricality of a scene-stealing actor without the try-hard corniness that plagues most celebrity award show hosts. Yet when she performed “Last Time I Saw You,” a doleful, mid-tempo ballad from her forthcoming album, Pink Friday 2, that beloved eccentricity was missing in action.

Nicki appeared onstage in a bulbous black coat, awash in magenta neon light, but remained mostly stationary. Things started looking up when she surprise-dropped a preview of a more upbeat new song, but even a bad-bitch anthem of the highest order couldn’t save this dull performance. She had a couple of brief highs elsewhere, including that “Itty Bitty Piggy” verse from the hip-hop tribute and when she told some delirious audience members to “shut the fuck up,” but the deliciously impetuous Nicki we know and love was largely absent. –Isabelia Herrera

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion do the least

Everything about Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Bongos” lives in the shadow of their previous jaw-dropping collaboration “WAP,” including this award show performance. At the 2021 Grammys, they memorably thrusted up and down the stage, and on each other’s bodies, in metallic getups, while Post Malone cheered along from the crowd like a proud dad at his kid’s baseball game. Their performance of “Bongos” at the VMAs was so boring in comparison, from the glossy blue outfits that could have used more Neon Genesis Evangelion futuristic flash to the phoned-in grinds and whines, to the song itself—a try-hard pop-rap experiment. Not even the pans to the crowd—including Offset on his best behavior and Taylor Swift and Ice Spice bobbing along—could save it. –Alphonse Pierre

Måneskin continue to represent mainstream rock’s tarted-up corpse

The Italian band Måneskin have been heralded as the saviors of rock’n’roll… the “last rock band,” some might say. If that is the case: good riddance to rock. The quartet—somehow both self-serious and hopelessly goofy—showed up to play “Honey (Are U Coming?),” one of their many not-so-subtle songs about fucking. Like all of Måneskin’s music, it sounded like an A.I.-generated track spawned from the prompts “leather pants,” “Greta Van Fleet,” and “Mountain Dew Code Red commercial.” Among singer Damiano David’s husky utterances, “It’s not a one-night stand if it turns into two” proved to be the most sleazy and inane. So yeah, we’re still not huge fans of this group. –Madison Bloom

Jared Leto presents… the Best Hip-Hop award?!

If you thought Måneskin had a monopoly on corny rocker getups, fear not: Jared Leto donned his own version during a completely unnecessary appearance. Leto showed up to give out the Best Hip-Hop award—and, oh yeah, to plug the new album by his band 30 Seconds to Mars, which still exists. Sporting a metal collar the size of a radiator grille, head-to-toe Rick Owens, and balayage hair fit for a Real Housewife, Leto was the presenter nobody asked for. Maybe he just happened to be wandering around Newark, looking for a dark alley to lurk in. During a night that seemed hellbent on cheapening hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, Leto’s presentation was especially pointless. Because if we learned anything from this year’s Met Gala, where he dressed in a giant cat costume, the only good Jared Leto is one that’s entirely obscured from view. –Madison Bloom