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Verzuz livestreams figured out what mega-budget award shows haven't

In a year for music largely defined by subtraction and absence, Verzuz has been one of the biggest new developments to stick. The webcast series, which was founded by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz back in March, has maintained a level of unrivaled momentum throughout the pandemic, bringing together a pair of former hip-hop or R&B rivals for a track-by-track battle. On Monday night, Brandy and Monica’s Verzuz battle was a record-setting stream for the series, drawing 1.2 million concurrent viewers.

These livestreams capture something completely fresh, drawing on the alchemy of getting people in the same room or video call who otherwise would have a good enough excuse to turn it down in normal times. Nostalgia and palpable tension are among the most appealing traits of a cultural phenomenon, which Verzuz has plenty to spare. This is largely true of comedian Ziwe Fumudoh’s revelatory Instagram Live series Baited with Ziwe, which coaxes guests like Alison Roman, Alyssa Milano, and Caroline Calloway to answer uncomfortable questions about race. They often step on a dozen rakes in such a short amount of time.

Cast against the awkward, non-committal VMAs from Sunday night, Brandy and Monica’s battle felt like a far more dialed-in affair, aware of which dynamics to highlight. At the top, the duo paid somber tribute to Chadwick Boseman and welcomed vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris for a video message, lending her fandom and urging viewers to vote this November. Then, they attempted to smile through and paper over past feuds — which very evidently hadn’t been all repaired as the show progressed. Over three hours and 21 rounds, they played the hits and leaned hard into the discomfort when the time came for “The Boy Is Mine,” the pair’s joint single which capped off the night.

Just from an eye-test, this at least matched the Twitter chatter generated by the VMAs on Sunday night. While Lady Gaga’s mask selection and pre-recorded strangeness might stick as emblems of These Times, Brandy’s brother Ray J exuberantly cheering her on offstage and the prolonged debate over Monica’s either really long pants or really tall boots already feel more enduring. The Verzuz battles aren’t trying to duplicate any past musical event or paper over the weirdness inherent in this kind of stream, and they’re all the better for it.

Verzuz captures the drama sorely missing from this year’s VMAs — the pure alchemy of getting celebrities with messy history in the same room or stream. Every more formal award show thereafter, including the Emmys coming up later this month, will have to make the choice evaded by MTV: either lean all the way into fleet escapism or somber poignancy. There isn’t much room for middle ground right now, which Verzuz understands in seizing the boredom and open scheduling to bring rivals together at an especially advantageous moment for them. It's foolish to chase the spectacle of a before-times entertainment event when that just isn’t possible anymore.