NEW YORK — With most of music industry's top acts absent — from Beyonce to Bruno Mars — the MTV Video Music Awards lacked star power and felt flat, and some of the winners turned heads — for the wrong reasons.
Exhibit A: Camila Cabello beat out Drake, Mars, Cardi B, Ariana Grande and Post Malone for artist of the year.
"I can't believe this is for me," Cabello said Monday onstage.
Neither can we.
Cabello achieved the unthinkable later in the show when she took home the top prize — video of the year — for "Havana." Cabello's song was a No. 1 hit and of the video of the year nominees, "Havana" was the second-most viewed clip behind Drake's "God's Plan." But that's partly since "Havana" was released last year while the other videos came out this year.
It was the night's most shocking moment, and MTV seemed to send a message: You're punished for not showing up and rewarded for attending.
Grande won best pop and Post Malone took home song of the year. Drake, the most successful musician of the last year, didn't win a single award. Beyonce, Jay-Z, Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar were restricted to technical honours like editing, art direction, cinematography and visual effects. And Gambino picked up best direction, choreography and video with a message for his heralded video "This Is America."
The show hit another low when Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B and DJ Khaled won best collaboration for "Dinero" — a song that has peaked at No. 80 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart — besting the record-setting hit "Meant to Be," by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line, and Mars and Cardi B's anthemic "Finesse" remix.
Then there was the Aretha Franklin tribute, a moment Madonna made, well, all about Madonna.
The pop icon rambled and rambled about the early struggles in her career, finally informing the crowd that she sang Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at an audition that became a breakthrough for her.
"None of this would have happened without our lady of soul," she said. "She led me where I am today. ...I want to thank you Aretha for empowering all of us. ... Love live the queen." It wasn't clear if Madonna meant Franklin, or herself.
At least MTV did played a clip of Franklin, who died last week, singing "I Say A Little Prayer."
The VMAs, at Radio City Music Hall in New York, also lacked oomph with its performances throughout the night: Grande was a bore during "God Is a Woman," but added some excitement when she was joined by her mother, grandmother and cousin onstage at the end of the performance. Travis Scott, whose album is No. 1 for a second week, had strong energy while onstage, but the performance felt like it belonged more to singer James Blake, who is featured on Scott's album and performed just as long as Scott during the segment.
There were a few highlights. Maluma, the Colombian singer who was nominated twice in the best Latin category, did have an exciting performance as he danced onstage with gyrating dancers. And Lopez started off slow — Kylie Jenner and Scott's unamused faces perfectly captured the vibe — but she hit a strong stride when she sang old smashes like "Jenny from the Block," ''I'm Real" — where Ja Rule joined her onstage — and "All I Have," which showed the skilled dancer's vocal range.
But Lopez's speech was more stirring than her performance: She was emotional as she thanked her children and beau Alex Rodriguez onstage when she earned the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award for lifetime achievement.
She was teary-eyed and looked at her "two little angels," as she called them, and said, "I stand here stronger and better than ever ... so thank you Max and Emme." She called Rodriguez, who filmed her performance with his phone, "my twin soul."
"My life is sweeter and better with you in it," she said.
Cardi B, who gave birth last month, won three awards and said people told her she was "gambling your career" when she decided to become a mother.
"I had the baby, I carried the baby and now I'm still winning awards," she said.
She also seemed to take aim at Nicki Minaj, who while promoting her new album last week said other musicians have hired fans to listen to their music.
Cardi said she's been blessed with fans "that you can't buy," looking into the camera and shouting an expletive.
Minaj won the first televised award — best hip hop — and checked comedian Tiffany Haddish for dissing girl group Fifth Harmony, now on hiatus.
After congratulating ex-Fifth Harmony member Cabello on her five nominations, Haddish said sarcastically, "Hi Fifth Harmony." When Minaj accepted an award moments later, she looked to Haddish and said, "Don't be coming for Fifth Harmony because Normani is that (chick)." Normani currently has her first hit apart from the group with the Khalid-assisted "Love Lies."
Minaj, who has been a trending topic this week after she madly tweeted about why her new album debuted at No. 2 behind Travis Scott, also provided the first bleeped moment of the night when she told the audience to listen to her Apple Music radio show this week to hear "who the (expletive) of the day award is going to."
There was just one political moment, orchestrated when Logic was joined onstage by young immigrants wearing T-shirts that read, "We are all human beings" to protest the Trump administration's separation of migrant children from their parents after they illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. The rapper, best known for the suicide prevention anthem "1-800-273-8255," wore a T-shirt that read, "(Expletive) the wall."
There was one posthumous winner: Avicii, who died in April, won for best dance for "Lonely Together" alongside Rita Ora.
Mesfin Fekadu, The Associated Press