Pyrotechnics, elaborate costumes and aerial acrobatics ruled the night at the 2021 MTV European Music Awards show in Hungary’s capital Sunday, a ceremony that was both a celebration of the year’s biggest musical artists and a statement of support for LGBTQ people in the event’s host country.
The show at the Papp Laszlo Sportarena in Budapest, which aired live on MTV in 180 countries, featured performances by some of the world’s most popular artists — some of them LGBTQ musicians that used their stage time to speak out against policies in Hungary that are widely seen as curtailing LGBTQ rights.
Opening the night was English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran with a performance of his newly released song “Overpass Graffiti.” Then the show’s host, American rapper Saweetie, descended onto the stage riding a giant snowflake for her own medley of songs.
Saweetie, after speaking out on the need to show “respect for the LGBTQ community,” presented Sheeran with the award for best artist.
Later, Sheeran’s hit song “Bad Habits,” a chart-topping single from his fifth studio album released this year, took the award for best song, and the British singer performed his hit “Shivers.”
American rapper Lil Nas X was got the best video prize for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” a video the artist co-directed with Ukrainian music video director Tanu Muino. The rapper accepted the award via video message.
The win by Lil Nas X, who came out as gay in 2019, highlighted the rift in values between the MTV EMAs and Hungary’s right-wing government, which came under heavy backlash during the summer when it passed a law forbidding the promotion or depiction of homosexuality to minors.
When announcing in October that the awards show would be held in Budapest, the president and CEO of MTV Entertainment Group Worldwide, Chris McCarthy, said the ceremony would be an opportunity to make a stand for gay and transgender civil rights worldwide in the Central European nation that has moved to curtail them.
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“We’re looking forward to using the event to amplify our voices and stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ siblings,” McCarthy said in an interview with The Associated Press, adding that no censorship of the telecast would be tolerated.
Another expression of that solidarity came through the EMAs debut of German musician Kim Petras, the first transgender artist in the awards’ history to perform at the show.
Earlier this month, Petras expressed support for MTV’s decision to hold the awards in Hungary, which she said she hoped would inspire the local LGBTQ community to “not give up on themselves.”
“I’m transgender and performing at the EMAs,” Petras said. “It’s going to be pretty powerful to be in Hungary and perform the show when these laws have just happened.”
In an interview with the AP from the red carpet on Sunday, Petras said “censorship of any kind of love sucks. It’s not good. No one should feel, you know, not represented in media. No one should feel like it’s not okay to be who they are.”
Also performing at the EMAs was Norwegian indie pop act girl in red, with her hit single “Serotonin.” English singer-songwriter Griff gave a debut performance of her song “One Night,” while American pop-rock group One Republic performed the previous night at the MTV World Stage on Budapest’s Heroes’ Square.
Taking the best rock award was Italian band and first-time EMA performers Maneskin, who took the stage amid flying sparks and a giant neon sign beaming the name of their song “MAMMAMIA.”
South Korean pop group BTS took the most awards with four — best pop, best K-pop, best group and biggest fans — while host and performer Saweetie won in the “best new” category.
Taking the best alternative award was English multi-instrumentalist and singer YUNGBLUD, who closed the night with his newest single, “fleabag.” Columns of fire erupted during the performance, and a smashed guitar and overturned amplifiers were all that were left once YUNGBLUD left the stage.
During the show, the EMAs recognized the winners of the “Generation Change Award,” a new category honoring five activists fighting against anti-LGBTQ policies worldwide.
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Actress and talk show host Drew Barrymore honored the winners through a video message, saying they are doing “incredible things for the LGBTQ+ community.”
“I am proud to help elevate these young voices. They are all gravely asking to love who they want and to love who they are,” Barrymore said.
The winners were LGBTQ activists from Iraq, Nigeria, Brazil, the United States and Hungary. Accepting the Generation Change Award in person was Hungarian activist Viktoria Radvanyi, an organizer with Budapest Pride.
Radvanyi dedicated the award to Hungary’s LGBTQ community and urged them to “get out and vote together” in Hungarian elections scheduled for April, where Hungary’s right-wing governing party faces its most serious challenge since it took power in 2010.
“Never accept the notion that you should tolerate violence and discrimination,” Radvanyi said. “Every single human being is born equal, period … Let’s not let them force us back to the closet.”