The MTV Video Music Awards are mostly concerned with minting moments, not winners. But this year, even with some of pop’s biggest names on the same stage, the moments were in short supply (save for the 16 of them the show turned over to Beyoncé). Most striking was what was absent: tributes to Prince and David Bowie; big political statements about the major parties’ candidates for president; controversial interactions — orchestrated or not — between the assembled glitterati. At the end of the nearly three-hour show, just five performances, speeches and proclamations of love held our attention.
1. Beyoncé Takes Over
There’s a new law of show business: A Beyoncé segment will obliterate whatever surrounds it. Coldplay learned that at the Super Bowl, and so it was at the MTV Video Music Awards, where Beyoncé made her 16 minutes a blast of wrath, strength, righteousness and female solidarity. The songs came from her 2016 album “Lemonade,” punctuated (as on the “visual album” version of “Lemonade”) with excerpts from poetry by Warsan Shire that framed and deepened them. Videos from the album were showered with awards, but they were just a sideshow to Beyoncé’s vivid live performance.
“Lemonade” is an album of bitter marital strife followed by reconciliation; Beyoncé’s set concentrated on the strife. She performed shortened versions of the four songs that open the album, singing about betrayal, jealousy and revenge, then concluded with “Formation,” calling for pride and sisterhood. She put a big smile on her face as she spat out her refusal to apologize in “Sorry” and urged “Middle fingers up!” At the end of “Hold Up,” she swung a baseball bat directly toward a camera, and the lens seemed to crack. Beyoncé glared in a close-up to telegraph the contempt and fury in “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” That song had the theological clarification that’s also on the “Lemonade” visual album; when she sang “Love God herself,” large letters flashed behind her saying, “GOD IS GOD/I AM NOT.”
Beyoncé substituted some lyrics where the album has profanities, so her musical momentum didn’t get interrupted by MTV’s censors. But she left in others, knowingly, which gave her closing taunt in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” two insistent bleeps.
Crucially, Beyoncé was not alone onstage; ranks of women reinforced her, sharing and complementing her moves, placing her in a community. Women stood in elaborate, old-fashioned white dresses during the reverential “Pray You Catch Me,” then fell to the stage in puddles of bloody red light as the song’s sorrow grew overwhelming. Women joined her in crouching, hip-swinging dances hinting at African roots, and appeared in glowing, futuristic garb with West African-style face paint. In “Formation,” the dancers wore black hats and shiny black halters, hot pants and boots, and they eventually deployed themselves with synchronized, scissoring legs for aerial shots, like something from a Busby Berkeley musical. Their final formation was the gender symbol for female: a silent and unmistakable message. JON PARELES
2. Kanye West Lets New Video Do The Talking (but Does Some Himself)
Kanye West took it easy Sunday night. With free rein on stage at Madison Square Garden, he accepted the night off from his new “Saint Pablo” tour, opting to speak — not rant — instead of perform. Looking relaxed, he touched on issues but didn’t fixate. Instead, he gave half of his time to the premiere of a new music video, “Fade,” a dance piece starring Teyana Taylor. The sweaty, retro gym choreography — a homage to “Flashdance” — had a vibe reminiscent of the glory days of MTV. And in a turn fitting with the lineage of over-the-top classic videos, this one climaxed with a steamy shower scene also featuring Ms. Taylor’s partner, the N.B.A. player Iman Shumpert. By the final shot, Ms. Taylor had morphed into a feline, a flock of sheep had appeared and the couple was joined by a baby. Mr. West did not appear, but he was all over it. JOE COSCARELLI
3. Rihanna Embraces Her Many Personas
How does Rihanna sort out all her hits? The V.M.A.s offered one method: by genre. Rihanna, who won the channel’s Video Vanguard Award, gave four performances, each one a medley sifting through her catalog. There was electronic dance music, Caribbean beats, trap/R&B and ballads, each a showcase for a different outfit and a different persona. She was blasé as she ran through group moves for the electronic songs, smiley and hip-grinding in the Caribbean songs, black-clad and making tough-gal faces for the trap songs and, in by far her best segment, clad in a voluminous white dress and singing unmistakably live vocals in ballads like “Stay,” “Diamonds” and “Love on the Brain” with the huge voice that got her noticed in the first place.
She sees no need to knit those personas any closer together. It suits her to offer something for everyone. “My success is not my own,” she said as she accepted the Video Vanguard Award. “It’s my family’s, it’s my fans’, it’s my country’s, it’s the Caribbean as a whole, it’s women, it’s black women.”
4. Drake Makes it Personal
Drake didn’t pause during his speech praising Rihanna before she accepted the Video Vanguard Award until the very end of his remarks. After he spoke about the first time they met (on the set of her video for “Pon de Replay” in Toronto) and what he perceives to be her most impressive talent (“doing something that no one else in this music industry does, which is being herself”), his smooth delivery slipped a little. “She’s someone,” he said, and stopped, then tried starting again: “She’s someone I’ve been in love with since I was 22 years old” — a statement that elicited an eye roll from Rihanna, standing nearby, before he went on to call her one of his best friends and “a living, breathing legend in our industry.” He tried to cap the speech with a kiss; the crowd approved, but Rihanna didn’t. CARYN GANZ
4. Michael Phelps Reveals Hip-Hop Inspiration for #PhelpsFace
Michael Phelps’s word-beating stink face was brought to you by Future. Mr. Phelps, the Olympic swimmer and gold medal collector, recently back from Rio, spilled a closely kept training secret when he revealed that his recent pre-race motivator was “Stick Talk,” the menacing track from Future’s “DS2” album.
“If there’s been one thing that’s been constant through my entire career, it’s the motivation and inspiration that I get from hip-hop,” Mr. Phelps said in his introduction for the rapper, who performed his hit single, “Commas,” with a dramatic rock-band backing.
“Remember in Rio when I made that face that ended up all over the internet?” Mr. Phelps said, referring to the freeze-frame of his grimace. “I was in the zone, with Future’s track ‘Stick Talk’ blaring in my headphones,” he said.
It all makes sense now. J.C.