The very first MTV Video Music Awards ceremony aired in 1984, the year I was born. By the time I was old enough to understand the show as an important cultural phenomenon and to actually care about that importance — let’s say sometime around 1998 or 1999 — the show, like MTV itself, had already begun to pivot away from its supposed raison d’être and toward something else entirely, something less tangible.
The VMAs were created, ostensibly, to reward musicians and artists for their work and to provide for them a platform upon which they could promote a single or an album. Over time, however, the focus shifted from the music and zeroed in on celebrity itself. From there, it evolved further, with MTV realizing that the show’s most lasting moments were the ones that keyed into (super)human emotional drama. Therefore, in recent years, it has become a stage upon which the narratives of celebrity relationships — including more feuds and shade and reconciliations than you’ll find in the pages of In Touch — play out. The awards, and to some extent even the performances, are no longer enough; you could even argue that they are no longer important.
Beyoncé's 10 Most Iconic VMA MomentsBeyoncé’s 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
Beyoncé's 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
The baby bump.
That Kanye drama.
Britney Spears' 10 Most Iconic VMA MomentsBritney Spears’ 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
Britney Spears' 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
The glittery body suit.
Lady Gaga's 10 Most Iconic VMA MomentsLady Gaga’s 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
Lady Gaga's 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
The meat dress.
As MTV moved away from music, as tabloid culture expanded and proliferated with the advent of the internet, as social media erupted and changed the way people consume events like the VMAs, things (perhaps inevitably) shifted away from the VMA’s (supposed) mission statement of rewarding artistry and, instead, became a vehicle for personal brand expansion and reality tv-influenced soap opera antics. I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon — I’ll take Kanye West snatching a microphone out of Taylor Swift’s hands over a filler Demi Lovato performance any day of the week, because I am part of the problem, OK? — but it is interesting to look at how the ceremonies of recent years feel like installments in an ongoing telenovela that Hollywood has written about itself, that the “water cooler moments” feel less and less genuine and more and more premeditated, and that the lengths a musician has to go to to make a real, lasting mark have become rather insane and highly personal.
And if you think I am just talking out of my ass (a not uncommon occurrence), you’re wrong. Even MTV has acknowledged the shift, with their VP Creative Director, Andrei Chahine, saying of this year’s show, which is apparently invoking the theme of “blank canvas” in its lead-up materials: “This is our way of tonally repositioning the show from celebrity to artistry, truly celebrating the art of the music video and re-establishing the VMAs as a stage and platform for pure creative expression.” So you see? I’m not crazy.
So how did we get here? And what’s next? I don’t have the answer to the second question, though my guess would be more of the same. As for the first query, I think we can explore that easily enough. Join me as I revisit 26 moments from Video Music Awards history that show us how we got to where we are.
Madonna Writes the Original Playbook (1984)
In 1984, for its very first ceremony, the Video Music Awards were still figuring out what they wanted to be, but this iconic Madonna performance of “Like a Virgin” created one important and enduring template: artists who wanted to make a mark would need to do more than just perform well; they would need to shock.
Madonna Raises the Bar She Herself Set (199o)
In the early years — and occasionally even beyond those — no one did more to shape the mission statement of the Video Music Awards than Madonna. For her Marie Antoinette-inspired performance of “Vogue” in 1990, Madonna brought an epic theatricality that would once again raise the bar for all who dared to take the stage thereafter.
Bow Down to Prince’s Ass (1991)
Decades before Miley Cyrus blew America’s collective mind by baring (most of) her ass on the VMAs stage, Prince did the same, but with just a touch more artistry. Like Madonna, Prince knew how to find that sweet spot between performance art and straight-up shock. Over time, that balance would be undone as audiences grew desensitized and producers pushed everything — performances, fashion, feuds, “moments” — to extremes. But in 1991, a glimpse of The Purple One’s butt was all it took.
Nirvana Brings the Rock ‘N’ Roll (1992)
The VMAs have always favored pop and its players, but every now and then, the rock ‘n’ roll spirit prevails. The best example of this is Nirvana’s 1992 performance of “Rape Me” and “Lithium,” notable mostly for the moment bassist Krist Novoselic threw his guitar into the air only to see it return to earth by way of his own head. More guitar-smashing and drum-crashing followed, all of which served to cement Nirvana as the rock icons we remember today. It was still more about spectacle than about musicianship, but spectacle through the thrillingly destructive lens of rock.
Courtney Love and Madonna Present: Celebrity Beef! (1995)
In one of the earliest instances of interpersonal drama overriding the celebration of music and artistry at the VMAs, Courtney Love and Madonna shared a memorably awkward interview during the 1995 post-show. It started when Love began shouting and throwing things at Madonna, who was perched atop a platform for a chat with Kurt Loder. Loder, sensing he could turn the potentially toxic situation into MTV gold, invited Love to join them, and one of the music history’s most awkward and tense encounters got underway.
The Kiss Before ‘The Kiss’ (1995)
It is generally agreed upon that Michael Jackson was the greatest performer of his generation, so it is slightly telling that, in the context of the VMAs, one of his most memorable appearances at this show involves no music, no dance routine, no artistic spectacle. No, it was a cringeworthy kiss — the second-most famous kiss to occur during a VMA ceremony — with his then-wife Lisa Marie Presley that garnered tons of attention for seeming staged and inauthentic.
Fiona Apple Tells It Like It Is (1997)
More credit needs to be given to Fiona Apple, who, upon taking the stage to accept the Best New Artist award in 1997, declared, in a speech that aspired to subvert the very culture that allows something like the VMAs to exist, the following iconic line: “This world is bullshit.” Ah, a motto for the Tumblr generation, but 15 years before said generation existed. Apple, in her wisdom, helped turn the VMA Acceptance Speech into a dramatic art form. A decade later, post- “Miley, what’s good?” Apple’s impact remains alive and well.
Rose McGowan’s Nudity Is the Night’s Biggest Star (1998)
Wild fashion had always played a key role in the VMAs’ cultural relevance, but in 1998, when Rose McGowan hit the red carpet with her then-boyfriend, Marilyn Manson, in what I’ll generously call a “dress” of glittering chains, it quickly became a much bigger player. McGowan’s gown is not only one of the earliest instances of genuine nudity eclipsing the (non-) wearer’s star, it is one of the first instances of red carpet style upstaging the actual ceremony. That trend — which I will heretofore refer to as Fashion As Statement — continues, for better or for worse, to this very day.
Diana Ross Jiggles Lil’ Kim’s Purple Pasty-Clad Boob (1999)
One year after Rose McGowan put it all out there with her barely-there dress, Lil’ Kim, though technically donning more square inches of coverage, took Fashion As Statement to the next level. The Purple Pasty! So iconic is the rapper’s nipple-covering seashell that I felt compelled to capitalize it like the proper noun it should be. And Kim’s outfit didn’t just make jaws drop on the red carpet: she hit the stage with Diana Ross and Mary J. Blige to present an award, whereupon Ross reached over and jiggled Kim’s free breast. It’s wasn’t music, it wasn’t art, but goddammit, folks, it was good TV.
Rage Against the Machine Bassist Tim Commerford Rages Against the Machine (2000)
The early 2000s belonged to TRL and the pop stars, but, hey guys: let’s not forget about the rock bros. After losing an award to Limp Bizkit (oh, the shame), Rage Against the Machine’s bassist, Tim Commerford, protested by climbing the stage scaffolding as Fred Durst and crew took to the podium. Commerford was eventually brought down and went on to spend the night in jail for disorderly conduct, but not before turning his personal rage against The Machine (MTV, I guess?) into a primetime talking point. Rock and roll may have been dead already, but the grand spectacle of well-timed rebellion lives, apparently, forever.
Oops… Britney Does It Again (2000)
Britney Spears will make several appearances on this list, and for good reason: perhaps more than any star, even Madonna, Britney built her legacy upon the stages of the Video Music Awards. In some ways, Britney’s many appearances at the show over the years mirror the shifts that would take the VMAs from a celebration of music, performance, and, yes, spectacle, to one simply celebrating (or responding to) the cult (and eventual decline) of celebrity. Britney began making waves at the ceremony with memorable performances such as this one, in which she tore away her demure suit-and-tie to reveal a glistening nude bodysuit. (It’s a move straight from Madonna’s “Just the Right Amount of Shock” playbook.)
The Fashion As Statement trend reached its tacky apex in 2001 when Macy Gray, who was then, apparently, famous enough to invite to a shindig like this, hit the red carpet in a dress plastered with the release date of her forthcoming album. It was just cheeky enough so that we can now look back upon it fondly, but its lack of subtlety has unfortunately remained a trend in later years.
Rihanna's 10 Most Iconic VMA MomentsRihanna’s 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
Rihanna's 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
Taylor Swift's 10 Most Iconic VMA MomentsTaylor Swift’s 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
Taylor Swift's 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
Katy Perry's 10 Most Iconic VMA MomentsKaty Perry’s 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
Katy Perry's 10 Most Iconic VMA Moments
Britney Spears Slithers Her Way to Legend Status (2001)
Britney Spears’ 2001 performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U” is her best performance. Not just at the VMAs. It is her best performance. In her peak physical form, and with just the right amount of sexual rebellion (take note, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, et. al), Britney solidified herself as the Princess of Pop with enviable ease. The song was (and is!) good, the look was right, the dancing was perfect, and the snake wrapped around her shoulders made for an iconic, lasting image. It successfully managed to transition Spears from her teenybopper beginnings to a new, mature phase of her career, and all without being obscene. Like that.
Eminem Shows Off His World-Renowned Charm (2002)
At the height of his popularity, Eminem was known just as much for who he was feuding with (or making fun of) as he was for his massive hits. It makes sense, then, that he would then be the one to help usher in the era of on-stage shade throwing. After being mocked by Moby (lol) and Triumph the Comic Insult Dog (good lord) earlier in the show, Eminem threatened Moby from the podium, saying “Keep booing, little girl. I will hit a man with glasses.” Well then. It wasn’t the first celebrity feud to find life at the VMAs, but as you will soon see, the practice of artists dragging their grudges up to the stage with them becomes much more prevalent after this.
Michael Jackson Accepts a Nonexistent Award (2002)
Again, though Michael Jackson’s legacy as one of the greatest performers of all time remains untarnished — and true, he did gift us one of the greatest VMA performances ever when he performed a medley of his hits in 1995 — his relationship with this particular awards show is tainted with so much awkward. In 2002, Britney Spears brought Michael out on stage to wish him a happy birthday. In her introduction, she referred to him as her pick for “artist of the millennium.” Moments later, Michael entered and accepted The Artist of the Millennium Award (which doesn’t exist) and proceeded to give a sincere, earnest thank you speech. The auditorium reaction was supportive, but the media reaction after the fact was… not so supportive. Let the decree go out unto the people: tune into the VMAs to watch your favorite legend make a fool of himself. It’s the best entertainment, like watching the cars crash during a NASCAR race.
The Kiss (2003)
In the context of the Video Music Awards, when I say “The Kiss,” you know exactly to what I am referring. Nearly 20 years of musicians not-so-subtly vying to out-shock each other at this very ceremony led to the moment when Britney Spears and Madonna locked lips on stage and made every previous attempt to shock and surprise seem tame in comparison. (Side note: Christina Aguilera was there too.) The Kiss is the kind of water cooler moment the VMAs have tried to create at every show, although more often than not, they’ve missed the mark. In the years preceding The Kiss, nothing really matched its brazen, tacky grandeur. (It was there, sure, but not nearly as in-your-face.) Since The Kiss, every moment that has attempted to reach this level of “DID YOU SEE THAT?” has felt like a hollow imitation. That has not, however, stopped people from trying to top this.
Britney Spears Melts Down (2007)
As arguably the biggest VMAs star of the 2000s (slash ever), all eyes were on Britney Spears as she returned to the stage after a four-year absence and a turbulent few years in the tabloids. What happened next was a disaster of epic proportions. Looking tired, strung out, and a lot like she was on something, Britney gave what we can all agree was the worst performance of her entire career. This performance fell somewhere in the middle of her very public “meltdown” timeline, and its images are as emblazoned on our collective consciousness as the ones of her shaving her head earlier that year. It is here that we really start to see the real lives of celebrities bleed into the staged award show narrative. Sadly — for Britney more than anyone else — people not-so-secretly enjoyed watching a celebrity implode before their very eyes. We accepted it as the best new form of entertainment — that reality TV was hitting its stride and the internet was just beginning to turn “real people” into stars at the same time is no coincidence — and moved forward without ever looking back.
Lady Gaga Dies for Pop’s Sins (2009)
It’s hard to believe, but in September of 2009, a lot of people still didn’t know who Lady Gaga was. She changed all that with a single performance. If Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was the emblem of gold-standard VMA performances in the show’s early days, and Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” was that for the TRL-era, Gaga’s blood-soaked performance of “Paparazzi,” one of her most enduring singles, was that performance for the modern era. Part of the reason Gaga, in all of her theatrical weirdness, became such an mind-blowing phenomenon in 2009 was because she was in the right place doing the right thing at the right time; she was the perfect antidote to the tabloid-fueled culture of celebrity train wreck worship. For several years before Gaga died on stage, the VMAs were almost completely devoid of performances memorable for their artistic merit. Unfortunately, she didn’t end that trend completely, but she did force her contemporaries to step up their games.
Kanye West and Taylor Swift Change the VMAs Forever (2009)
Here we begin weaving the narrative thread that will carry us through the next seven years of pop culture. We all know what happened in 2009: Kanye West rushed the stage when Taylor Swift, grabbed the microphone, and proclaimed that Beyoncé‘s “Single Ladies” deserved the award. (All these years later, he’s still not wrong about that.) This moment would not only begin a West vs. Swift narrative that is still unraveling today, it announced the VMAs as the preeminent venue at which to air your beef.
Lady Gaga Conquers the Fashion Monster (2010)
Speaking of beef! A year after her career-defining debut upon the VMAs stage, Lady Gaga took her victory lap — she scored eight Moonmen that night — in her most infamous ensemble of all time. Taking the Fashion As Statement to its absolute extreme, Gaga accepted her Video of the Year award wearing a dress of raw meat. For nearly two years prior, Gaga had been leading a bizarre-fashion arms race which saw nearly every major pop star, old and new, falling over themselves trying to out-weird the girl in the red lace mask. On that night, in 2010, Gaga proved that no one could come close to touching her. (And because she was wearing meat, it’s very likely no one wanted to.) And you know what? No one has since.
Beyoncé’s Got a Secret (2011)
Beyoncé’s 2011 performance of “Love on Top” is one of the greats, but not so much because of Bey’s vocal performance or dancing skills, impeccable as they were. No, it was the announcement of Bey’s real-life pregnancy, which she made by unbuttoning her sequined jacket to reveal her rounded stomach at the end of the song. There is no denying that Beyoncé is one of the most talented performers alive, but here on the VMAs stage, a good performance sometimes (often) takes a back seat to the soap opera surprises of a celebrity’s real life.
Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke Debauch America (2013)
Despite performances by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Kanye West, Drake, and a reunited *NSYNC, all anyone may remember from 2013 Video Music Awards is Miley Cyrus’ career-transforming performance of “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” alongside Robin Thicke. It was, objectively, a terrible performance. That it was deliberately terrible didn’t make it much easier to swallow. However, in the face of its impact, its quality was irrelevant. Miley burned every bridge that started with her young, Disney-sanctioned rise to fame and ended here, with her declaration of rebellious adulthood. Months of think pieces — on everything from the racial politics of the performance to endless discussion of Miley’s newly-embraced sexuality (plus the inevitable backlash to those discussions) — followed and turned a seven-minute award show song-and-dance into a watershed cultural moment. Like Madonna, Britney, and Gaga before her, Miley used shock value to write her own legacy upon the VMA stage. Unlike those former greats, though, she did so without even an attempt at artistry; we’d long since passed the point of wanting it.
Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift Bury the Hatchet (2015)
Let’s be honest: the 2015 VMAs sucked.
And yet, for however badly they were lacking in truly interesting, shocking, or subversive moments, they did do a lot to move the needle, to help redefine, for better or for worse (spoiler: it’s the latter) what the VMAs aim to be in the modern era.
First, brief context: About a month before 2015’s show, Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift engaged in highly-publicized Twitter spat about the year’s nominations. Taylor came out of it a little worse for the wear, but, ultimately, people moved on, and things returned to normal.
Except that Nicki, Taylor, and the producers at MTV did not move on and instead used that same highly-publicized Twitter spat as fuel for their opening number. Surprising approximately no one, Taylor made a “surprise” appearance during Nicki’s opening set and performed the slightly-too-on-the-nose “Bad Blood.” There: hatchet buried. More like: hatchet meticulously constructed, waved around in vague imitation of a threat, and gently placed underneath a mound of glitter. You will note here how a feud story that had previously found popularity in the press and on social media is far more of a “moment” then the actual performance, which no one cared about or remembers. (It was, like, Las Vegas-themed or something…)
Nicki Minaj Strikes Twice
Nicki Minaj scored a second (and superior) water cooler moment last year when, later in the evening, she accepted the award for Best Rap Video and put the show’s host, Miley Cyrus, on blast. “Back to this bitch that has a lot of stuff to say about me in the press the other day. Miley, what’s good?” she spat at the end of her speech. The latter part of that quote would go on to become the night’s biggest meme, eventually even making its way into Nicki’s own lyrics. So that’s twice in one night that beef started in the press prior to the show stole the spotlight.
Justin Bieber Cries His Way to Redemption (2015)
Justin Bieber spent the better part of 2015 on an informal tour of apology in an attempt to convince record-buying Americans that he was so, so sorry for years of bratty, sometimes-illegal behavior. For the first real promotion for his yet-to-be-released Purpose, Bieber went, naturally, to the Video Music Awards to perform his new single. Nothing about the performance was particularly spectacular: it was competent but forgettable. Except for at the very end, when Bad Boy Bieber “broke down” in tears. Tears of what? Sadness? Joy? Pride? Allergies? We’ll never really know, because it doesn’t make sense and, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The one thing that is clear: Bieber’s year-long personal redemption narrative, and not his music, reached its climax here and made for one of the most talked-about moments of the night.
Taylor Swift and Kanye West Close the Loop… Or So We Thought (2015)
The feud, or whatever you want to call it, between Taylor Swift and Kanye West spans seven full years, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Six years after “Imma let you finish…,” both musicians gave a high-profile reconciliation the old college try in the form of Taylor presenting Kanye with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at last year’s ceremony. And the circuit closes; we can all move on, right? (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!) It was a beautifully-crafted publicity stunt that felt right, albeit highly manipulative. In other words: perfect for a modern VMA ceremony.
That West followed Swift’s introduction with a rambling, headline-making speech (#Kanye2020) and not with a performance, as is typically common for an artist receiving that particular award, only drives the point home harder: the Video Music Awards seem to no longer care about videos or music or awards. (How much they ever did is questionable.) What they care about, instead, are the celebrities who sometimes win those awards.
This year, following a very public drama, Kanye’s “Famous,” which features the naked likeness of Taylor, is nominated for a few awards, so it seems likely this particular story may yet another new chapter. And that may just be what MTV is hoping for.