On Friday, Donald Trump formally ordered the reversal of the 2016 order that allowed transgender individuals to serve openly in the military. In response to the discriminatory memo, six transgender service members walked the VMAs red carpet before the show. Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, applauded the message: "MTV continues to be a pioneer and fierce advocate for the LGBTQ community by giving one of the most visible platforms to voices that need to be heard." Earlier this year, MTV eliminated all of its award shows' gender-specific categories.
VMA host Katy Perry — who was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election and has since released political, "purposeful pop" — dropped references to the current fraught political climate throughout the night. She opened the show by floating in wearing a Moon Person suit and explained to the audience that she'd been in space for awhile. Reading a a newspaper to catch up on what she’d missed, she asked, “How the f--- are you coping right now?” but expressed some enthusiasm for the latest fashion trend — a Handmaid’s Tale costume. Later, she encouraged people to vote in the Best New Artist category by calling it an “election where the popular vote actually matters,” and during a bit about unsent tweet drafts, she shared one that read, “When @HillaryClinton becomes president, I promise to put out a timeless record that everybody loves!” At least we’ll always have Teenage Dream.
Stepping onstage to present at the top of the show, Paris Jackson worked in some political commentary before awarding Fifth Harmony with the Moon Person for Best Pop Video. “Let’s leave here tonight remembering that we must show these Nazi white supremacist jerks, in Charlottesville and all over the country, that as a nation, with liberty as our slogan, we have zero tolerance for their violence, their hatred, and their discrimination. We must resist,” she said.
Onstage to introduce Demi Lovato, pre-show performer Cardi B took a moment to give a shoutout to another star (and suffered a minor wardrobe malfunction). “Colin Kaepernick, as long as you kneel with us, we’re gonna be standing for you, baby!” she said. “That’s right, I said it!” The rapper joins the ranks of celebrities who have commented on the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who has drawn both criticism and support for kneeling rather than standing when the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played at football games, to protest “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Pink was this year’s recipient of the VMAs’ lifetime achievement trophy, the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Ellen DeGeneres was on hand to present the honor to the pop star, and snuck in a subtle dig at Trump in the process. After explaining that former VMA nominee Cher was supposed to present the award but had to cancel last minute, DeGeneres admitted, “I have not received the Vanguard Award; I have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.” That’s also good.
Logic’s performance of “1-800-273-8255,” named for the suicide prevention hotline, was already emotional before it began: Kesha introduced the powerful performance, in which the rapper was joined by Alessia Cara, Khalid, and a group of suicide survivors wearing T-shirts that read “You are not alone.” “The truth is piercing and the truth is what matters,” Kesha said. “The truth is none of us are alone.”
At the end of the song, Logic delivered a rousing speech: “I just want to take a moment right now and thank you all so much for giving me a platform to talk about something that mainstream media doesn’t want to talk about: Mental health, anxiety, suicide, depression, and so much more that I talk about on this album. From racism, discrimination, sexism, domestic violence, sexual assault, and so much more. I don’t give a damn if you’re black, white, or any color in between. I don’t care if you’re Christian, you’re Muslim, you’re gay, you’re straight, I am here to fight for your equality. Because I believe that we are all born equal, but we are not treated equally, and that is why we must fight. We must fight for the equality of every man woman and child, regardless of race, religion, color, creed, or sexual orientation.” Then he called for the audience to rise to their feet and applaud “the foundation we are laying for our children.”
In a somber moment toward the end of the show, Robert E. Lee’s descendant, Robert Lee IV, took the stage to introduce the mother of Heather Heyer. “As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin,” Lee said. “Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the women’s march in January, and especially Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”
With that, Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, stepped out to say a few words. “I’ve been deeply moved to see people across the world, the whole world, find inspiration in [Heather’s] courage,” she said before announcing the launch of the Heather Heyer Foundation, which will give scholarships to assist people who wish to “join Heather’s fight against hatred.” Bro also said that MTV would honor all six music videos nominated for the “Fight Against the System” award.