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Inside Beat

Award show like no other: 2020 MTV Europe Music Awards

On Nov. 8, the EMAs held stellar performances by female musicians including the host of the night, Little Mix. – Photo by Twitter

Music award shows have grown tired. It’s true. Think back to the last award show that you actually sat through, enthralled from beginning to end, or even just the last performance that could keep your attention for more than 1 minute — I certainly can’t.

To be fair, award shows are supposed to be that way. They're supposed to be this recycled version of the latest music on the radio, showcasing the greatest hits of these artists of the current moment.

But between the Grammy Awards, iHeartRadio Music Festival, American Music Awards (AMA), Country Music Association Awards (CMA) and more, I start to get blurry-eyed. The poorly timed cuts to the audience, the blatant close-ups on all the wrong body parts and the tired stage setups — yes, even the staging can get boring — were all just too conventional and unexciting to grab my attention.

That’s why I was shocked when, instead of making music shows even more tedious, the pandemic injected the much-needed vigor and innovation into this monotonous platform. That’s certainly what drew my attention to Chloe x Halle’s performance during the Video Music Awards (VMA).

Truth be told, I had never heard of the Europe Music Award (EMA) before, but I’m definitely grateful I’ve heard of it now especially after this year’s bombshell performances. Here are some of the artists — just some — that I truly believe have made virtual award shows a must-watch:

Doja Cat

One of the biggest problems with award shows is that, no matter what arena, stadium or stage it’s held at, there are very few artists that can kill it vocally.

For example, Doja Cat. I have seen some of her previous live performances and have been less than impressed. While I think her Great-Gatsby-themed rendition of “Say So” at the Billboard Music Awards (BBMA) was inspired in terms of outfits and concept, I could barely hear her voice during the song and was left wanting more.

But her performance of “Say So” at the EMA was by far the show-stopper of the evening. In the beginning, she pulls herself out of a TV screen, a possible nod to the fact that she wants to escape virtual reality for a real connection to the audience. 

She is then seen slowly crawling through vines of daisies, fully committed to the role of a garage-grunge girl crush, complete with the tattered dress and mussed black hair. Gone is the red-haired, prim-and-proper BBMA performer.

In a ‘90s punk-rock twist of her famous song, her vocals maintain the lilting aspect that is signature to her voice while packaged in a hard-rock style. Her typically cute verses are transformed into head-banging guitar anthems.

I argue that she could only do this because the performances were virtual. I’m sure she could have done this on a live stage too, but it just wouldn’t have had the same effect. If the performance was live, she would have had to take up more space.

The typical award shows care more about reaching bigger audiences than actually putting on a performance. In this virtual performance, the flowers on the stage stop where the camera ends but gives the illusion that they continue forever. Had this been live, the flowers would have needed to encompass the whole stage and could have easily been seen as merely a fake prop.

Thus, audiences are transported to a whole new world where punk Doja Cat is screaming and jumping in a huge field of post-apocalyptic flowers, actually one of the most fun concepts I’ve seen in a long time.

Her exit from a TV screen would have looked markedly different if this was meant to be held in front of a usual audience. The TV would have likely been larger and more obviously fake, to reach the eyes of those in the back of the arena.

An artist can play around with so much more now that the screen is the sole audience, and we, the people who typically can’t afford to show up to the live performances in the first place, benefit all the more from this adaptation.

Little Mix

Little Mix hosted the EMA on Nov. 8 but was unfortunately down by one member, Jesy Nelson, because she was reportedly sick. They still did an excellent job.

I do think it’s hard to sing the songs that Little Mix has. That’s the reality. Trying to reach those falsettos and incredibly high notes could stress out anyone’s voice, which is what I think happens in some of their live performances — to be fair, I haven’t seen many great performances at all on the "Today" show at the Rockefeller Center since that outdoor stage doesn’t have great acoustics.

Don’t get me wrong — I love their musicality and their ability to harmonize with one another is unparalleled in the girl group industry right now. I just think that concert performances force artists to feel like they have to pander to the people in the farthest recesses of the nosebleed sections.

But this virtual setting allows for a blend of intimate and concert venue level interactions. I thought that in their performance of their newly released single, “Sweet Melody,” the three girls were genuinely having fun and weren’t straining their voices nearly as much.

The stage was smaller, with no audience, but that just meant the camera could focus more on the girls — which it would have done if it wasn’t so busy panning in and out of a giant virtually constructed pyramid. What can you do? This virtual stuff is a work in progress.

Zara Larsson

Larsson took no prisoners with this performance. She starts her latest rendition of her track, “WOW,” with an ear-piercing, nearly acapella solo. I’m honestly not sure if any type of description can do this performance justice, at least not vocally.

Then she moves forward and we get a view of a sleek black stage, with nothing on the surface except two dancers who come forward to accompany her. The overhead lights shining down on Larsson accentuate her carefully placed moves. She nails the dancing, which is a carefully curated choreography of pops, locks and powerful twerking.

Instead of being overly sexualized or overwhelming, this performance just focuses on Larsson. Her vocals never waver, her complementary moves always hit the beat consistently and her jaw-dropping stage presence makes it hard to turn your eyes away from the screen.

Again, I’m skeptical that any live setting could have allowed her to perform the way she did here. The stage is obviously smaller, although its sleek surface gives the impression of continuing forever. The performance is meant to be personal, with Larsson frequently staring directly into the camera — something that would have been harder to do with an audience present.

These elements, all combined, make for one of the most musically and creatively put-together performances of the awards. I highly recommend you watch it as your view of award show caliber performances will no longer be the same.

The pandemic has taken far too much from us that we can never get back, but I actually like to think in this case, it gave a little too. While we can fervently pray that the pandemic disappears someday soon, I hope it doesn’t take away the innovation and genuine fun of award shows with it.

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