Taylor Swift performed new single "Shake It Off" in a shimmery two-piece. She got to the top of the stage, and as her tuxedoed male background dancers stood with their arms wide open waiting for Swift to jump she said, "One second. I don't care if it's the VMAs. I'm not jumping off there."
She continued: "It's all kinds of people getting bitten by snakes. Dangerous."
Grande kicked off the show with a performance of her EDM hit, "Break Free" in a Beyonce-inspired leotard. The 21-year-old won best pop video for her smash single "Problem," but lost best female video to Katy Perry, who won for the hit "Dark Horse."
The night featured a serious social message along with the performances Rapper-actor Common held a moment of silence for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer on Aug. 9, before he presented the award for best hip-hop video.
"Hip-hop has always been about truth and has been a powerful instrument of social change, from Melle Mel to Public Enemy to Kendrick Lamar," Common said. "Hip-hop has always been presented a voice for the revolution."
Later, a 15-second spot aired alluding to the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, urging viewers to take action to eliminate bias.
"Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced," a quote by author James Baldwin read on the screen.
There was drama surrounding the MTV Awards days before the big show. Azalea slipped offstage while performing "Fancy" at a MTV benefit concert, later posting the video on Instagram and making fun of herself. At a rehearsal, a show worker fell from one of the winding, sloping platforms on the stage. And rap mogul Suge Knight was injured in a shooting early Sunday at a West Hollywood nightclub for an unofficial pre-VMA party hosted by Chris Brown.
The incidents helped make the popular awards trend on social media even before an award was handed out, though trophies often take a back seat at the VMAs, which are all about the moments like last year's infamous Miley Cyrus twerking.
Cyrus stole the show last year and returned Sunday as a nominee for video of the year with "Wrecking Ball."
Beyonce, who will receive the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, is the leading nominee, competing for eight awards, including video of the year for "Drunk In Love."
Azalea, like Eminem, has seven nominations. The Australian rapper is nominated twice for both best female and pop video thanks to the success of "Problem" and "Fancy." The latter will compete for video of the year.
Girl group Fifth Harmony beat out acts like boy band 5 Seconds of Summer, rapper Schoolboy Q and pop singer Sam Smith for the Artist to Watch award, but Smith was a show highlight with his smoldering performance of his hit "Stay With Me."
Smith lost in the best male video category to Ed Sheeran, who also beat out Eminem, John Legend and Pharrell, whose "Happy" is also nominated for video of the year.
Other contenders for the top award include Sia's "Chandelier," which has helped the singer-songwriter achieve a musical breakthrough this year.
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen and AP Writer Nicole Evatt in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Follow Mesfin Fekadu at twitter.com/MusicMesfin