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The Best Moments From The MTV VMAs

Lil Nas X accepts Best Direction for "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)" onstage during the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday in New York City.
Michael Loccisano
Getty Images
Lil Nas X accepts Best Direction for "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)" onstage during the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday in New York City.

MTV's Video Music Awards returned to the stage after 2020's socially distanced show. The show also marked the network's milestone 40th year.

It was a big night for Olivia Rodrigo, Justin Bieber and Lil Nas X, among others. Here are some of the memorable moments and "Moon person" winners.

Standout performances and memorable moments

The night saw performances from Justin Bieber, Camila Cabello, Chlöe, Lil Nas X, Machine Gun Kelly, Kacey Musgraves, Ed Sheeran, Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes, Olivia Rodrigo, Shawn Mendes, Twenty One Pilots and others. Watch those videos here.

Some stars were making their VMA debuts with brand-new songs. Musgraves performed "Star-Crossed," the title track off her recently released studio album, while Chlöe (who you may know as half of the sister R&B duo Chlöe x Halle) performed her debut solo single "Have Mercy" onstage for the first time.

Other veterans returned to the stage: Brooklyn legend Busta Rhymes performed a medley of some of his biggest hits, while Alicia Keys honored the anniversary of 9/11 by finishing her performance with a piano version of "Empire State of Mind."

Some other notable moments, as collected by MTV: Olivia Rodrigo descended onstage from a cloud (Good 4 Her, honestly), Doja Cat danced midair after being introduced by fellow gravity defier Simone Biles (and later accepted an award dressed as a worm) and the Foo Fighters received the VMAs' first-ever Global Icon Award.

See USA Today's ranking of the performances.

A star-studded roster of nominees and winners

Justin Bieber led with seven nominations, followed by Megan Thee Stallion (who got six but went home empty-handed). Billie Eilish, BTS, Doja Cat, Drake, Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo and Giveon each got five nominations.

Lil Nas X won the top prize for video of the year with "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)," then began his acceptance speech by thanking "the gay agenda." That video also won for best direction and best visual effects.

Justin Bieber won the award for artist of the year and shared "best pop" with Daniel Caesar and Giveon for "Peaches."

Olivia Rodrigo's "Drivers License" won song of the year and best push performance of the year. She also took home the award for best new artist.

Here's the full list.

A milestone birthday

The awards show paid tribute to MTV's history from start to finish.

It opened with a surprise appearance from Madonna, a VMA legend with 20 moon person awards to her name.

The queen of pop celebrated her decades-long relationship with MTV — and New York City — in a video sequence that showed her in the back of a taxi, in Times Square and eventually live onstage at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, surrounding by screens projecting some of her iconic music videos (and dropping her trench coat to reveal a cheeky leather outfit).

"Forty years ago, another underdog arrived in New York City, hoping to create something revolutionary. An all-music channel premiered in the middle of the night and called itself MTV," Madonna said. "We found each other and formed a bond that changed my life, changed music and created a whole new art form. That's why there's only one place to be tonight."

Cyndi Lauper, who won a moon person at the first-ever VMAs in 1984, reminded viewers of how much has changed since then. In brief remarks before presenting an award, she tied her hit song to the fight for women's rights.

"Yeah, girls still wanna have fun," Lauper said as the crowd roared. "But we also want to have funds. Equal pay. Control over our bodies! You know, fundamental rights."

The evening ended with another nod to the past. The Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star," the very first video to air on MTV in 1981, played over the closing credits.

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.