We know by now who the nominees are for the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards, going down this Sunday (Sept. 12) at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. But as anyone who’s watched the VMAs for any of the past 37 years knows, the awards themselves are but a part of the equation for who the true biggest winners of the night are — which are just as much the artists with the biggest performances, the buzziest moments, and the most internet-captivating looks.
Here are the 10 artists who Billboard believes could be in position to win the most at this year’s VMAs, ranked from least to first.
10. Swedish House Mafia
They’re only booked for a pre-show performance, but it’ll still mark the first time that a lot of folks will be hearing the DJ supertrio’s new music, recorded since reforming earlier this year. Will they come up with a performance dazzling enough to bring back memories of EDM’s golden age, now essentially a decade in the rearview? And just as importantly, will the new music feel contemporary enough to argue for their continued relevance in the 2020s?
9. Machine Gun Kelly
Back in the ’90s and ’00s, alternative rock was as much a fixture at the VMAs as any genre, but its presence has been increasingly rare as of the 2010s. It’s largely on MGK, leading light of the current pop-punk revival, to prove that it still belongs there — and also to demonstrate that new single “Papercuts,” which hasn’t yet taken off with quite the velocity of his bigger Tickets to My Downfall hits, is a song worthy of taking him to the next level. (Kelly is also nominated for best alternative with his smash blackbear collab “My Ex’s Best Friend.”)
8. Kim Petras
Another pre-show performer, but one undoubtedly with her sights on making the main show before long. Dance-pop savant Kim Petras has been a favorite of critics and the internet for a half-decade now, but playing at the VMAs is by far the biggest mainstream look she’s gotten so far. If she wants to make her case for being ready for primetime, this is as good an opportunity as she’ll get — and certainly, all of Pop Twitter will be rooting her on.
7. Foo Fighters
Speaking of rock’s return: Foo Fighters, a band who released their debut album in 1995 — likely well before a healthy percentage of VMAs viewers were even born — will be receiving the MTV global icon award, likely with an accompanying medley performance. (They’re also nominated for four VMAs: best group, best rock, best choreography and best cinematography, the latter three for “Shame Shame.”) It’s a hell of an opportunity for the group both to cement their legacy as one of the most enduring acts of the entire MTV era, and to prove that a veteran rock band can still get the kids moving in 2021.
6. The Kid LAROI
Few, if any, performers at the VMAs this year will be riding the momentum that The Kid LAROI is — every couple of months this decade, he seems to reach a new strata of popularity, capped this summer by the four-week stay atop the Billboard Hot 100 with his Justin Bieber collab “Stay.” The two will be playing that No. 1 hit at the ceremony, making for the Australian singer-rapper’s biggest stateside TV appearance to date, and perhaps minting him as the decade’s newest pop superstar. (The Kid is also nominated for best new artist, push performance of the year (for “Without You”) and song of summer (for “Stay”).)
5. Kacey Musgraves
Remember the last country artist to perform at the VMAs? Us neither: Country has long been given the snub on MTV’s biggest night, with a “best country” category never materializing and even the biggest crossover artists of the channel’s era (Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, The Chicks) rarely making an impact. (Taylor Swift in 2009 — already well into her pop crossover phase, and not exactly best remembered for her performance that night — may be the closest thing this century.) All of this is to say: It’ll be a new look for both Kacey Musgraves and the VMAs when she takes the stage to play “Star-Crossed” this Sunday, as well as the first big appearance for the Texas singer-songwriter since releasing her album of the same name this Friday.
4. Olivia Rodrigo
Easily the year’s biggest breakout hitmaker, Olivia Rodrigo could be taking the first real victory lap of her career at the VMAs, with six nominations on the evening, including artist of the year, best new artist, and song of the year (for “Drivers License”). Also, while she won’t be making her award show debut on the VMAs — she already appeared on the Brits in the May, delivering a stately “Drivers License” — she could still use a truly exciting, unforgettable award show performance to really put the exclamation mark on her epic first year as a pop star. “Good 4 U” is definitely the song to do it with, anyway.
Chlöe Bailey appeared with sister Halle on last year’s VMAs pre-show, but it’ll be her first appearance of any kind on the main show this year. While Halle has been off filming the live-adaptation remake of The Little Mermaid, Chlöe has become a social media phenomenon — but taking the stage by her lonesome for “Have Mercy” at this year’s VMAs will essentially mark her solo debut performance, and perhaps, her emergence as a solo star. Again, the internet’s eyes will certainly be on her.
2. Lil Nas X
Hard to imagine a performer more custom-made for the VMAs in 2021 than Lil Nas X, a dynamic, provocative pop star with an ever-growing commitment to imaginative and fully fleshed-out red carpet looks, music videos, and award show performances. He’s nominated for six awards on the evening, including video of the year (for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”) and song of summer (for Jack Harlow collab “Industry Baby”), and he’ll be giving “Baby” its first public performance (alongside Harlow) at the show. Last time Lil Nas X was at the VMAs — in 2019, performing “Panini” and winning song of the year with Billy Ray Cyrus for “Old Town Road” — he was still a little raw, but now, he seems perfectly primed to have his first iconic VMAs moment.
1. Doja Cat
Simply put, Doja Cat has a chance to dominate the Video Music Awards like no other artist ever has before. Not only is she one of the evening’s most nominated artists — six total, including artist of the year, video of the year and best collaboration (the last two with SZA for “Kiss Me More”) — but she’s also performing a pair of fan favorites from her blockbuster LP Planet Her. And oh yeah, she’s hosting too, joining Katy Perry in 2017 as the only host-performer-nominee triple threats in VMA history.
It’s all a whole lot for Doja Cat, who’s only been a marquee name in pop for about a year and a half. But the versatile star has risen to every challenge of her career so far — and if she can pull off this multi-hyphenate act on Sunday, it’ll cap an already triumphant 2021 for her, and solidify her as perhaps the greatest new pop star of the 2020s.