Every MTV VMA 2019 Performance Ranked

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MTV

There was a joke that was pretty common on Twitter last night after members of the Sopranos cast—Drea De Matteo (Adriana La Cerva), Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Meadow Soprano) and Vincent Pastore (Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero)—presented an award at the MTV VMAs. Why would the kids watching MTV know anything about The Sopranos? The show debuted 20 years ago, likely before they were born.

But, I have to ask, are kids even watching the VMAs? Last year, the annual awards hit an all-time low with a 1.04 rating among adults 18-49 and just 2.25 million viewers on MTV. Is it possible that that demo is instead just finding videos of the performances the following day and contributing to the 141 million follow-up streams? Does that mean, then, that maybe the Sopranos audience is the exact audience still tuning in to watch the MTV VMAs live on TV these days? The show is 35 after all.

That identity struggle seemed real last night as the MTV VMAs celebrated all things New Jersey (??) with host Sebastian Maniscalco, who mostly complained about the youths on his lawn. As always, the awards didn’t matter as much as the meme-able reaction shots from celebrities in the crowd. But there were performances too! Some of them were good! Some of them not so much. So, for all the people who voluntarily skipped the three hour marathon last night, here is every performance, ranked.

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14) Taylor Swift

I’m sorry, I really am. But there’s something absolutely off about the sound on Taylor’s show-opening performance. Were they still figuring out the levels? Was there some sort of malfunction? Was she sick? It certainly sounds like she couldn’t hear herself for the first two minutes of “You Need to Calm Down,” with her vocals flat and weak. Things get slightly better for “Lover,” but there’s still some weird feedback. It’s not all her fault, but it was also hard to take the political message of “You Need to Calm Down” seriously when the song was being used to sell Amazon Alexa during ad breaks all evening.

13) Big Sean ft. A$AP Ferg

Maybe I was just tired by hour 30 of this thing, but there was nothing particularly memorable about Big Sean and A$AP Ferg’s performance of “Bezerk.” Although I did find it incredible that they opened the song by shouting out New York in a show so clearly dedicated to—and hosted by—New Jersey.

12) Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes is a very attractive man. But does no one else find it extremely unsettling that he is able to sing while smiling? And not just a slight smile, this guy has a full toothy, unnatural grin as he’s supposedly singing? How is that possible? Cool to see he holds a guitar, though.

11) Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello

Ah yes, our second Shawn Mendes appearance of the night—and I’m not complaining. This one is by far the better of the two thanks to the talents of Camila Cabello, who can sing in circles around her real-life BF. But her vocal superiority was awkwardly obvious with them singing live side-by-side.

10) J. Balvin and Bad Bunny

Like Rosalía, J. Balvin and Bad Bunny showcased the sounds that are some of the most influential in global pop music right now. And this side of Missy, they had the best staging and costuming of the night.

9) The Jonas Brothers

The Jonas Brothers weren’t at the MTV VMAs. Instead they were off a different Jersey exit at the local institution, The Stone Pony. They took their “Sucker” and “Only Human” medley from their hometown venue outside to the Asbury Park stage, where I was only disappointed that they didn’t cut to Sophie Turner crushing a Juul and a Big Gulp of wine.

8) H.E.R.

One of the most meaningful performances of the night, it’s refreshing to see H.E.R. given this type of platform and use it in such a powerful way.

7) Lil Nas X

While I’m skeptical that Lil Nas X will ever make a song that rivals “Old Town Road,” I have to say I’m rooting for this kid. Good for him for going on the MTV VMAs for his first-ever televised performance and NOT playing “Old Town Road.” Plus, having gone to immense stardom in less than a year, he really put on an impressive, confident performance of “Panini.”

6) Naughty By Nature, Redman, Fetty Wap, Queen Latifah, and Wyclef

Look, I mean, if we’re going to spend a night celebrating New Jersey I can’t think of a better way to do it than with this medley. I’d only advise tossing The Boss in there to make things real weird.

5) Rosalía ft. Ozuna

The vocal performance of the night goes to Rosalía, whose medley of “A Ningun Hombre,” “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi,” and “Aute Cuture” highlighted the Latin sounds dominating global music charts. She’s probably next on Taylor Swift’s New BFF List.

4) Normani

No one had dance moves like Fifth Harmony-alum Normani last night during her basketball court performance of “Motivation.” Prepare to have your mind blown at about two-and-a-half minutes into this video when she goes from a hand stand into a split. I imagine attempting this and breaking both my arms and legs.

3) Miley Cyrus

Though she’s known for some of the most scandalous moments in MTV VMAs history, Miley went for a stripped-down performance of “Slide Away” last night. It’s a performance that serves as a good reminder that Miley doesn’t need the drama when she has a voice that fucking good.

2) Lizzo

With a giant inflatable butt and a backing choir, Lizzo’s early performance of “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell” briefly revived the MTV VMAs after a rather annoying opening monologue. If there was a star-making performance of the night it was this one, an unforgettable moment that I’m hoping we’ll see at more award shows for years to come.

1) Missy Elliott

This night was dedicated to Missy Elliott, the recipient of the Video Vanguard award, and the whole show was building up to her performance, which included takes on “Throw it Back,” “The Rain,” “Hot Boyz,” “Get Ur Freak On,” “Work It,” “Pass That Dutch,” and “Lose Control.” Complete with throwbacks to her iconic videos—the trash bag from “The Rain”—a hall of mirrors, and a corn field, Missy’s performance was all the visual spectacle that her reputation demanded.

Culture Editor Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.

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