Recapping and Ranking the Ten Best Performances from the 2020 MAMA Awards

The theme of this year’s MAMA Awards was “New-topia,” which sounds a bit chilling in a weird way. But, things were definitely new here. This was unlike any MAMA yet, lacking a live audience. But even though everything was accomplished on soundstages, I think the producers did a great job making this still feel like an event. I usually hate when they pump crowd noise over performances, but I honestly feel like it added an air of excitement.

MNET clearly took some of the tricks they learned on Road to Kingdom and applied them here. The camerawork and editing created some real standout stages. Yes, it sucks not to have an audience present, but K-pop was kind of made for this kind of heavily-polished stagecraft.

With that said, one of my favorite aspects of MAMA in the past has been how they invite idol groups as both performers and spectators, watching and reacting to their peers. Obviously that couldn’t happen this year, but I did miss it. And as with all spectacles in the days of Covid, the whole show felt surreal with all the masks and distancing precautions.

Random Thoughts and Observations

  1. Kudos to the weirdly-dressed stagehands. I don’t know what was going on with those outfits, but I kind of loved them – especially paired with all the spritzing they were doing with their disinfecting devices.
  2. I really dislike the “Worldwide Choice” awards. They seem especially pointless, beyond giving MNET a chance to trot out the most popular K-pop acts of the year and make sure that everyone gets a prize (however nebulous it may be). But I guess most MAMA awards are meaningless anyway – just a bunch of made-up categories to prop up the acts that MNET has a stake in.
    I’ll get off my soapbox, now…
  3. Why can’t most K-pop title tracks be as dramatic as their award ceremony intro instrumentals? Why is this symphonic bombast reserved only for big stages like MAMA? Put it in the actual songs, producers!
  4. Throughout the whole show, I couldn’t help but look at everyone’s mask and wonder what choices were made. Who chose basic white or black? Who chose a more surgical-looking style and who went for the glamour? I’m not sure this amounts to anything beyond my own entertainment, but it happened nonetheless.
  5. Regarding ENHYPEN, I only have one thought: they’re already utilizing Sunghoon’s skills as an ice-skater! Yes!!!
  6. Regarding Oh My Girl: this strings-assisted arrangement of Nonstop really should have been the original version of the song, right? Sadly, the Bad Girl, Good Girl collaboration with (G)I-DLE was a bit of a mess…
  7. Regarding JO1: The lighting was very pretty. But, the stage as a whole felt oddly low-budget compared to others. I thought this was odd given that they’re an MNET group. Shine A Light is a really nice song, though.
  8. Big YAY for Higedan taking the Best Asian Artist – Japan award. I love this band! I only wish they could have performed.
  9. Regarding GOT7: This has nothing to do with the guys themselves, but this whole stage felt like of like a budget version of some of the more impactful MAMA performances tonight. GOT7 did a great job, but they clearly weren’t given the kind of spectacle some of the other artists were..
  10. Regarding Mamamoo: I’m sorry, but no matter what you do, a conga line never looks cool. Come to think of it, what’s up with RBW and conga lines this year? Didn’t ONEWE have one in their music video too?
  11. Is it just me, or did tons of this year’s performances depict the idol groups as tribes of warriors? What’s with that? Literal fan wars come to life?

10. Seventeen

Gosh, Left & Right sounds so promising until it hits that first chorus. It fakes me out every single time. Anyway, it looked like the boys were having fun here. This was definitely not as ambitious as their best performances, but the staging during the transition was pretty slick. The vampy intro to Home;Run was also cool, and I liked how they really leaned into the song’s swing elements.

9. Treasure

I really like the staging of this performance, but the arrangement of the songs was kind of weird. It felt like there was so much starting and stopping that the momentum kind of got lost. Still, I think this was a nice debut MAMA stage for these rookies.

8. TXT

The disco covers medley that kicked this off was one of the most unabashedly fun moments of the whole evening, especially when they moved into a classic Park Jinyoung song! Yeonjun is a total star, and one hell of a dancer. The staging for Blue Hour was beautiful, but I wish they would have changed up the song a little. However, I love seeing this performed. It’s like sunshine in a bottle, and this time was no different.

7. Twice

This was a nice, clean stage with a clear concept. I loved the positioning of the backup dancers during I Can’t Stop Me, which really used the vastness of the venue to its full advantage. And, the lighting effects for new song Cry For Me were legitimately cool. Sometimes simple is best. The song itself feels very different for Twice. On first listen, I like the chorus. I’m not sure about the rest. But dang, those lighting effects…

6. NCT

Well, look at that… SM finally arranged a ballad with the heft that they should be! It feels like it’s been years. From Home was quite nice, and finally shined spotlight on the group’s underutilized vocalists. Of course, like everything on this show, this was all lip-synced, right? It certainly looked like it.

WayV has easily been the strongest NCT unit in 2020, so I was glad to see them perform the great Turn Back Time. The use of water effects was a nice touch, even if I would have killed for a cool rearrangement instead. Dream and 127 were fine, but I wish that both would have brought something new to their respective songs.

As I suggested when writing about Resonance last week, this product is more of a performance piece than an actual song. With this in mind, a stage like MAMA is the perfect place to showcase it. I’ll admit that the ultra-dramatic, spoken-word intro of “deep” thoughts had me giggling in a not-so-great way, as did the lowering of the godlike vampire creature Taeyong, but I’ll give them props for pure theatre. I just wish I liked the actual songs a bit more. At some point, the introduction becomes more impactful than the music. I’m not sure that’s how this is supposed to work!

But all bellyaching aside, the novelty of seeing all 23 members onstage was pretty cool (even though the endlessness of this whole NCT segment kind of blunted the overall appeal…)

5. BTS

The staging of this was beautiful, and the choice to move outdoors for On really set it apart from the other performances. I wish I loved this song as much as I adore its marching band influences, but the guys definitely delivered a spectacle. The camera work here moved between being impressive and distracting. It was at its best during the intro.

Sadly, the lip-syncing was especially obvious on this one, particularly when Jungkook unleashed his vocal ad-libs. There’s nothing wrong with lip-syncing during a performance like this (everyone else did it, too), but these vocal moments lose a lot of their luster when you know it’s all canned. Thankfully, the dancing was great.

I loved the simple, inventive set for Dynamite, especially as it pulled away to reveal the whole stage. Very cool. And, its uncluttered nature really helped focus on the choreography. Life Goes On was also beautifully staged, even if the song still doesn’t do much for me.

4. Taemin

Forgive me the bad pun, but it was absolutely “criminal” to relegate the outstanding Criminal to one chorus only to expand on the so-so Idea. Still, that chorus we got was completely awesome, as was the grandiose outro and dance break later on. This was the first look we got at MAMA’s 2020 staging, and it was pretty darn cool. The AR effects were well-used, as were the many, many LED screens. But of course, Taemin himself was the most captivating element by far. I could watch him dance forever.

3. Jessi and Hwasa

Given the charisma dripping from both of these performers, there’s no way this couldn’t be good, right? I’ve come around to both Nunu Nana and Maria quite a bit, and the dramatic staging and arrangements during this performance made both songs feel more eventful than I thought they could. I thought Jessi absolutely killed it, bringing real spectacle to a track that could easily come off as throwaway. The duo’s interpretation of Rain’s Gang wasn’t as impactful as it could have been, but their energy elevated the performance.

2. BoA and Friends

Okay, this is how you appeal to an older K-pop fan like me. Having BoA’s juniors cover some of her more iconic songs was a wonderful move, and paved the way for the legend herself. I can’t even imagine what an inspiration BoA has been to all of these younger artists.

Of course, nothing can compete with the queen herself. After a dynamic introduction, she blitzed us with a history lesson of her hits. I got genuinely emotional when Taemin joined her for Only One, and I can’t quite explain that. What a boundary breaker she’s been, with the songs to back it up. Her performance of new single Better was also awesome. That leg choreography is something else!

1. The Boyz + ATEEZ + Stray Kids

The soon-to-be Kingdom collaborators came together for a tour-de-force showstopper. I’ve got nothing but praise for this stage. All three groups brought the drama – operatic, overblown fever dream drama.

The Boyz reaffirmed their RTK victory, bringing the inventive choreography and stagecraft to Reveal and Checkmate. The rearrangement was absolutely fantastic (every remix of Reveal sounds better than the original), and the guys gave a flawless performance.

ATEEZ brought the operatic drama that Answer deserves, and the song was especially well-suited to it. Although they’re already very popular, this felt like something of an unveiling for the group.

Stray Kids chose a surprising song, given that it was released in early 2019 and wasn’t a title track. But, they just killed it. This was like an anime/comic book come to life, with incredible staging and costumes. They brought a larger-than-life energy to this stage, beyond anything I think I’ve seen them do before.

And then, of course, representatives from each team combined for a dance spotlight/duel. If Kingdom is going to be anything like this, I am so completely sold. It was the best advertisement MNET could give. I guess I’m going to end up recapping that show, too. As if I’ve got the time…