The Last 15 VMA Video of the Year Winners Ranked From Worst to Best
With under a week to go until the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, what better time to look back at previous Video of the Year (VOTY) winners and talk about them in order from most garbage to most awesome?
This ranking covers every video that won Video of the Year from the year 2000 (when Eminem won for “The Real Slim Shady”) to 2014 (Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” took the trophy).
It is likely you will have opinions about my ranking. That’s fine; I obviously have opinions too. The difference, of course, is that my opinions are right. You are free to disagree with me, but please know that my ranking is definitive and that you are wrong and that you are welcome to leave angry comments below the ranking but that those comments won’t get me to change my mind.
We all seem to be on the same page now — the page that says The Author of This Article Is Right in All Matters — so it seems a good time to begin. We start at the bottom with the VOTY-winning video I least admire…
15. Panic! At The Disco – “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” (2006)
I have a vague recollection of hearing Panic! At The Disco’s name called, of them winning the VOTY statuette in 2006, and of my subsequent deflated, “Wait, really? For f***ing real?” reaction. Having just watched the video again, my response remains unchanged. “I Write Sins” beat out Madonna’s “Hung Up” and Shakira and Wyclef Jean’s “Hips Don’t Lie,” both videos that made a much larger (and longer-lasting) cultural impact. To quote Fallout Boy, a band I often confuse for Panic!, “Thanks for the memories!” But also: no thanks.
14. Green Day – “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (2005)
13. Eminem – “Without Me” (2002)
For a while there, especially during his peak period, Eminem kept making the same cartoonish, faux-offensive video over and over and over again. The best and most memorable of those was, of course, “The Real Slim Shady,” which won VOTY two years earlier, in 2000. “Without Me,” essentially a remake of “Slim Shady” with updated (but certainly not timeless) targets and references, has aged horrendously and benefits not one bit from its lazily recycled concept.
12. Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors” (2013)
The 2013 return of Justin Timberlake felt so exciting at the time, but just two years later, I am left wondering what all the fuss was about. Still, it happened, that cultural moment. The entirety of the 2013 VMA ceremony felt like a homecoming celebration in Justin’s honor. Cue the *NSYNC reunion. (Side note: this coronation was ever so slightly overshadowed by a certain Miley Cyrus performance.) Justin’s VOTY win felt preordained, predictable and flat. There’s nothing wrong with “Mirrors,” but in its literalism, in its eight-and-a-half-minute runtime, and its staunch rebellion against being at all interesting, it deserves nothing more than the No. 12 spot on this list. To the video’s credit: it’s not as if the competition was any better.
11. Katy Perry – “Firework” (2011)
It would be one thing if the sole memorable image from “Firework” — that of Katy Perry shooting fireworks from her boobs — were somehow innovative or even fresh, but Perry had already played that card with the whipped cream-spewing canisters in “California Gurls,” which had only been released six months or so prior. The rest of the video, unremarkable in its trite and condescending depiction of “outcasts” learning to love themselves at the behest of a rich white lady with her tits on fire, simply feels like a remake of Christina Aguilera’s superior “Beautiful.”
10. Rihanna – “Umbrella” (2007)
Though “Umbrella” remains, arguably, Rihanna’s best single, the video has not aged incredibly well. It’s nice. It’s fine. But the splashing water visual effects are incredibly dated. The fashion is unmemorable. The dancing… well, we don’t often look to Rihanna videos for great dancing, do we? Bad Gal would go on to release far more compelling (and controversial) videos, all more worthy of great praise.
9. Britney Spears – “Piece of Me” (2008)
Though it pains me to include Britney Spears’ sole VOTY win this low in the ranking, the plain truth of it is that “Piece of Me” is no “… Baby One More Time” or “I’m a Slave 4 U” or “Toxic.” Those videos would have placed much higher, but “Piece of Me” was a pity win, coming as it did one year after Britney’s infamous on-stage meltdown (and an incredibly terrible year in the tabloids). The song itself is one of Britney’s finest, but the video, unfortunately, is not. The dancing, if it can be called that, is all arm waving and hair whipping — a now ubiquitous Britney video trend that got its start during this very era. Otherwise, this thing looks a lot like Lindsay Lohan’s “Rumors” video.
8. Miley Cyrus – “Wrecking Ball” (2014)
Yes, the image of Miley Cyrus swinging naked atop a wrecking ball became, at the very moment of its release, not only meme-worthy but truly iconic. But does that singular image sustain a four-minute video and elevate it beyond its incredibly literal “interpretation” of the song’s central metaphor? It does not.
7. Eminem – “The Real Slim Shady” (2000)
Like “Without Me,” “The Real Slim Shady” has not aged well. With its visual style and its oh-so-specific-to-the-year-2000 references, watching it feels akin to opening a time capsule and cringing at the contents. But it is also peak Eminem; a perfect distillation of that platinum-haired cultural lightning rod at his most famous moment. This is the Eminem people remember and will probably remember until the end of time. The image, dated though it may seem now, sticks. Bonus points: Em’s army of clones from the video went on to inspire a truly great performance at the VMA ceremony.
In the first draft of my ranking, “Lady Marmalade” placed higher (at No. 3). I could so easily recall the colors, textures, and overall atmosphere of the video; I remember watching it countless times in those long-gone TRL days, and I remember loving it. Then I watched it again, in the present day, and here we are. It looks exactly as I remember it — a plus, certainly — but it has lost a bit of its luster over the years. It is in no way a bad video, but it is just a video, albeit a sensuously plush one that functioned as a perfect advertisement for the movie, Moulin Rouge!, it was advertising. Ultimately, however, the power of the song — maybe the last truly life-changing collaboration of this caliber — trumps the visuals, which are sufficient but not, 14 years later, all that exhilarating.
5. Rihanna – “We Found Love” (2012)
Until the recent release of “Bitch Better Have My Money,” which now holds the title of Best Rihanna Video, “We Found Love” was the gold standard of Bad Gal clips. Its power was such that it helped Rihanna remake her image as an urban pop princess into a bonafide hipster icon, a transition I’m not sure anyone else has ever achieved so successfully. (Let’s call it The Reverse Lana Del Rey.) The video so perfectly captures the youthful energy of the song — and of young love in general. One can’t help but feel high and alive while watching it; the frenetic, turbulent energy is straight-up contagious. I could take or leave the purposefully controversial casting of the Chris Brown look-alike, but I will gladly take the rest of it.
4. Missy Elliott – “Work It” (2003)
You could say that Missy Elliott was making Lady Gaga videos a decade or more before Lady Gaga even existed. The two share a similar love of humorous surrealism and a talent for weaving together disparate-seeming images into bizarre, entertaining, and ultimately cohesive patchworks. The best example of this from Missy’s portfolio is “Work It,” which features, among another things, Missy’s face covered in flies, a few gravity-defying stunts, across-the-board phenomenal dancing, a lot of Aaliyah love, a dunce cap, a Prince impersonator, a pitch-perfect Halle Berry sight gag (Missy is much more adept at incorporating cultural references into her work than, say, Eminem), Missy doing the splits, and Missy swallowing a car. “Work It” has aged surprisingly well; it is still, I must say, fresh and innovative as f***. When Katy Perry brought Missy out onto her Super Bowl stage earlier this year and interest in the rapper — who has not released an album in ten years — reignited, it felt good, natural. Our warm and fuzzy feelings continued to exist even in the absence of new Missy material because it is impossible to discount work as good as “Work It.”
3. Outkast – “Hey Ya!” (2004)
The concept for Outkast’s “Hey Ya” is a simple one executed cleverly. It features a band made up of Andre 3000s taking the stage of an American Bandstand-style show and delivering an exaggerated, energetic performance before an audience of shrieking fans. Everyone gets caught up in the moment, even the old white woman who initially plugged her ears and looked on with disgust. It’s a great concept for a video, and the visuals (especially Andre as his own backup singers), the costuming, the hilarious cutaways to the audience, and even the color palette, have truly endured over the years. But the most impressive feat accomplished by this video is that it became exactly the kind of sensation it was kindly parodying. When this song came on the radio or MTV, people went crazy, exactly like the audience in the video. Recall this scene from Mad Men; it was exactly like that. If you’ve been to a wedding recently, you know that people still go crazy. Do you know a single person that has not at least once in their life run out onto the floor in order to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”? It’s doubtful. That this happened before Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, and most social media even existed is actually mind-boggling. That’s the awesome power of a truly impactful video.
2. Beyoncé – “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (2009)
Though I vacillated in my choices for the No. 2 and No. 1 slots in this ranking, I ultimately knew Beyoncé‘s “Single Ladies would land here in the runners-up slot. This breaks my heart no small amount, for it is a perfect video, and without a doubt the best dance video not only of the last 15 years but, to quote Kanye West, “of all time.” (As much as we villainized Kanye for his infamous stage crash the night “Single Ladies” won VOTY , he was not wrong about this video. Fight me, Swifties.)
“Single Ladies” lands at No. 2 not because it is somehow less memorable or iconic than the video at No. 1 — it’s not. Hopefully my reasons for choosing the way I did will become clear, but we’ll get to that momentarily. First: everything about “Single Ladies,” like everything about the No. 1 video, is flawless — from the Bob Fosse routine to the metal glove to the somehow shocking simplicity of the whole production (the lighting, the simple camera moves, the lack of cuts). It is Beyoncé’s best video, and considering her output, that is a statement that comes with weight. Everyone who watched “Single Ladies” tried to learn the dance, tried to be Beyoncé. Such was the power of this clip. But there is only one Beyoncé. One need look no further than this video to prove it.
1. Lady Gaga – “Bad Romance” (2010)
Let us attempt to take stock of every memorable image and scene from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance with the following not-necessarily-comprehensive list: The coffin pods. The latex bodysuits and crowns. The freakishly enlarged, anime-inspired eyes in the bathtub sequence. The Alexander McQueen armadillo heels. The diamonds suspended in the air. The spinning metal orbit contraption. The bat headpiece and Gaga’s exaggeratedly spiked spine. Her polar bear coat dragging on the floor. The Lady grandly posing before a bed engulfed in flames. The charred corpse and sparking pyrotechnic bra of the final frames. And cut to black.
There is a reason why, upon its release, “Bad Romance” instantly transformed Gaga from the weird, up-and-coming pop-art starlet into a cultural juggernaut drawing comparisons to Michael Jackson and Madonna. That reason is the video’s staggeringly ambitious vision. It came at a time — between the demise of TRL and our current era of Vevo 24-hour view count record-smashing — when artistically ambitious music videos were simply not de rigueur. It seemed, at that time, more important for musicians — and women especially — to be sexy than to be interesting. Also not in vogue: major videos that told complex stories in a non-literal way. (The narrative video may not have been extinct, but you almost have to go back as far as “Thriller” to find mainstream music videos telling stories the way Gaga’s videos, from “Paparazzi” through “Telephone,” were telling them.) Gaga and her Haus challenged that, and they were astoundingly successful. “Bad Romance” not only inspired the memes and covers and parodies that a VOTY-winning video needs to inspire in order to be worthy of its win, but it inspired other artists to do better, try harder, make more interesting art. Some of them tried to remake “Bad Romance,” and others fared better by simply taking a cue to push themselves and their vision forward.
But more important even than the fact that it turned pop culture on its ear: “Bad Romance” is a total joy to watch. It is a non-stop assault of striking visual after striking visual, each imbued equally with subtle humor and a uniquely sexy darkness. Watching it now, for the fiftieth time, feels as good as watching it for the first. That is why no one was surprised when “Bad Romance” won in 2010. (They were, however, surprised at the dress of meat she wore while accepting.) That is why no one was upset when her name was called. It felt right, rewarding. That is why it is the greatest video of the last 15 years.
Only time will tell where this year’s VOTY winner will rank among these fine clips. What are we predicting? Will we be stuck with a “Bad Blood” sweep? Because that one wouldn’t make the Top 5 of this list. I’m just telling it like it is. And you should do the same, whether you agree or disagree with me, in the comments below.