Why did the 2023 MTV VMAs feel like such a slog? It was the scheduling of the night, a fire hose of content turned full blast and directed at viewers’ eyeballs. It was the inescapable advertising plastered everywhere, even on the performances (OK, I understand that this song is brought to me by Doritos, thank you). It was the relentless and strained effort to convince the audience that the show still matters, even though it was impossible to shake the feeling that the biggest stars were there either because they were contractually obliged, or because they already knew they were winning.
It’s a shame, because the VMAs have been the host of some truly compelling performances. Madonna caused a firestorm with her performance of “Like A Prayer“ in 1984 and again in 2003, the year of the kiss. Prince showed his ass. Kendrick Lamar met the moment. Beyoncé showed the world how Lemonade would change pop music. At their best, performances at the VMAs can be provocative spectacles or undeniable reassertions.
Shakira’s performance fell into the latter camp. The game-changing Colombian artist became one of the biggest stars in music at the turn of the millennium, opening the door for today’s crop of chart-dominating Latin artists; in the past two years, she’s experienced a renaissance in the Western pop conversation thanks to hits like “Te Felicito” with Rauw Alejandro, “TQG” with Karol G, and ”BZRP Music Sessions #53,” her collaboration with Bizarrap that addressed the dissolution of her romantic partnership with soccer star Gerard Piqué and her tax troubles in Spain. Her performance at the VMAs used that momentum to reassert her pop pedigree to a younger, perhaps more unfamiliar audience.
As is tradition for the performance of the Video Vanguard-receiving artist, Shakira pulled liberally from the past, starting things off with “She-Wolf,” a classic of mutated, implicitly perverse disco, her set recreating a scene from the track’s music video. The robotic choreography of the “Te Felicito” visuals got a brief nod before Shakira took it back to 2001 with the surf-rock track “Objection (Tango),” slightly goofy while still remaining a catchy showcase of Shakira’s guitar skills. Some Video Vanguard honorees don’t have contemporary hits to stand next to their classics, a problem Shakira doesn’t have: “Hips Don’t Lie” and “Whenever Wherever” are decades old, and two of her biggest songs, but played just before the finale of “BZRP Music Sessions #53” (which included an extended crowd surf), they didn’t feel like a nostalgia trip as much as the continuation of an ongoing story.
Is it unfair to compare the rest of the 2023 VMA performers with Shakira? Perhaps. Her influence is singular and her career groundbreaking. But in a night that felt like an endless series of checked boxes, seeing a glimpse of talent and enthusiasm stood out, and helped Shakira’s moment to dominate the entire three-plus hour event.