You know the scene. A glitzy award show slows down to let "real music" have a moment as a vocal powerhouse enters the stage to belt out an intense, gorgeous ballad that gets everyone swaying in their seats and rushing to give a standing ovation. The VMAs almost always have them: Adele had her U.S. breakout ballad moment with herself and a piano player for "Someone Like You" in 2011, Frank Ocean crooned out "Thinkin Bout You" solo in a front of a burning brush scene in 2012; then last year, Sam Smith stood at a microphone as he crooned "Stay With Me" alongside a piano-man.
This year's VMA vocalist standout was poised to be Tori Kelly, whose stripped-down-turned-arena-ready performance of new single "Should've Been Us," an undeniable pop earworm, earned a standing O from the audience. More importantly, Kelly represented a new type of power-vocalist.
In a glittery golden jumpsuit and black suit jacket, the 22-year-old opened the set by strumming her electric guitar and fluttering through ad-libs. Soon enough, Tori jumped into a punchy, live rendition of the subtle pop cut supported by live drums, two barely audible (one could say unnecessary) backup vocalists and herself on guitar, adding the perfect amount of grunge on the chorus. By the bridge and final chorus, Tori threw her guitar offstage and finished off with a show-stopping a cappella wail session, nailing the high notes with ease and belting on her knees as if giving her last ounce of strength to be seen alongside Whitney, Mariah, or Christina despite creating an entirely different stage than the aforementioned divas.
“She belted on her knees as if giving her last ounce of strength to be seen alongside Whitney, Mariah, or Christina.”
Tori didn't need to play guitar herself—she had a full backing band—and could have easily belted for her life while standing at the mic or maybe letting some dancers act out the lyrics. But instead, she defied the norms set by your typical pop powerhouses and went full-on rock star for the performance of what's a pristinely crafted Top 40 tune.
Alongside Kelly, probably the "newcomer" pop diva with the biggest voice would be Ariana Grande. While Ari always does her thing on stage, you know when you really are supposed to be focusing on her vocals, seen via her GRAMMY performance earlier this year or a career-making moment at the 2013 American Music Awards. But those instances included a gorgeous gown, done-up hair and a very minimal stage setup a la Adele's flowy dresses and Sam Smith's suits. There's a disconnect between performances like this and, say, "Problem" live, which usually involves Grande swaying her hips in leotards and cat ears.
There is absolutely nothing wrong in keeping the two separate, but what Tori Kelly did at the 2015 VMAs—and will likely continue to do throughout her career—is prove that the big-voiced pop star can simultaneously exist as a rock star. She doesn't need the dramatic fixings or the pretty outfits to get people to pay attention to her main instrument, her voice. She's an example that aspiring singers, especially girls, don't need to decide between pop dreams or becoming a "serious," instrument-wielding musician. The full Tori Kelly experience is already completely unique to her, and worth both watching and applauding.