The 2016 VMAs Were All About Empowering Women To Slay, Get Paid, And Get Laid

The 2016 MTV Video Music Awards gave us a lot to talk about. And, no, I'm not talking about Kanye-West-snatching-a-microphone talk or Miley-Cyrus-twerking-on-Robin-Thicke talk. No, what we need to talk about tonight is the fact that this year's MTV VMAs was dominated by female artists and messages of female empowerment. The female musicians are the ones who stopped the show. They are the ones who gave people something to talk about. They are the ones who, quite frankly, elevated the VMAs to a whole new level. Unlike 2014, when Beyoncé's performance was the only thing really worth talking about from the ceremony, this year gave us a variety of women who were already established as pop cultural game changers, who all contributed something new to the zeitgeist during the ceremony in one way or another.

Rihanna, the recipient of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, performed no fewer than four times over the course of the ceremony. Sure, she was being honored for her incredible career to that point, but her performances alone would give you something to think about. In a chronological depiction of her rise to fame, she began by performing as the "good girl from Barbados" with the pastel clothes and catchy tunes, then exploded into universal popularity and a proudly sexy image, then put on her hardcore "B*tch Better Have My Money" persona. Finally, she ended with a gorgeous gown and a sweet ballad. When she thanked the crowd for her Vanguard Award, she said that the honor was a victory not just for her, but for her country, for women, and for black women in particular. It was such a smart and understated way to really show the broad range of her artistry, to prove that she still has so much talent in her left to hone into something new and even more amazing, and to show that she's still that black girl from Barbados and will always be thinking of her country as she achieves what she achieves. And what she has achieved, by the way, is being one of the bestselling artists of all time.

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Beyoncé performed a medley of songs from Lemonade and took the time, in the middle of it all, to add a nod to Black Lives Matter by having her back up dancers fall to the floor bathed in red light, with every beat of the song like a gunshot. In bright lettering on the screen behind her, she announced that GOD IS GOD I AM NOT, acknowledging that she is only human. She angrily swung a bat around at the specter of a cheating partner, and reminded us that the "best revenge is your paper." Her performance ended with her dancers forming a giant female symbol across the stage, as an empowering, emblematic declaration of the strength of being a woman. When accepting the Video of the Year Award, she dedicated it to New Orleans, because far be it for Beyoncé to not make good use of the attention that she's going to get no matter what she does. Leave it to Beyoncé to take that attention and try to divert it onto causes and issues that matter, in keeping with her newly politicized music.

Alicia Keys, who you wouldn't necessarily expect to really stop the show, used her time on the stage to perform a poem in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, calling for peace and an end to hate. If you didn't know it was the 53rd anniversary of MLK's famous speech, then you certainly know it now, and by speaking-slash-singing what appeared to be an original poem, Keys took us out of the entertainment portion of the award ceremony for a while and made us all stop and think. Think about her words. Think about peace. Think about the courage it takes to try and educate people who mostly only tuned in to find out if Kanye West was going to call out Taylor Swift.

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On top of all of that, we had Nicki Minaj, who just last year was calling out the VMAs for failing to recognize more black artists, performing on stage alongside Ariana Grande for an epic, sex-positive rendition of their single "Side To Side" that ended with the women asking buff dudes to go down on them. We had pop icon Britney Spears coming back to the VMAs in a really huge, really amazing way, shutting up any sexist doubters who might have still been judging her for that 2011 "Gimme More" performance. We had the mothers of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Oscar Grant arriving as part of Beyoncé's entourage on the red carpet and standing in solidarity with each other. Hell, we even had Kanye West giving his wife, Kim Kardashian-West, credit for being his love, his inspiration, his sugar momma, and his savage protector, ahead of the debut of his music video.

Not only was this ceremony a celebration of women, it was a ceremony that showcased women who are game changers and show stoppers, women who elevated the ceremony to a new level of wokeness and empowerment. They made sure that we learned something before the show was over. That we felt something. That, yes, we were entertained, but that we didn't forget to think about something other than entertainment. It's one thing to shut down the VMAs. It's another thing to make them smart and inspirational. And these women did that so expertly that you almost didn't notice.

Images: Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle