MTV Video Music Awards: Most memorable moments
Only at MTV’s Video Music Awards could Madonna tongue-kiss Britney Spears, Diana Ross grope Lil Kim, Miley Cyrus twerk until the audience got dizzy and Kanye West make Taylor Swift cry. We take a look back at the indelible pop culture moments the VMAs have provided.
No other artist has left her or his mark on the VMAs like Madonna. From the moment she writhed around in a wedding gown during “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural telecast in 1984, the Material Girl became synonymous with the VMAs. She’s continued to dominate the VMA stage with provocative and iconic moments, scoring 20 trophies along the way, making her the most lauded act in the show’s history. Between her “Virgin” debut, showing the world how to vogue and the kiss heard around the world, Madonna’s unpredictability continues to inspire generations of pop divas.
Nirvana’s performance of “Lithium”
The grunge rockers broke loose during their performance of “Lithium.” The stage divers were harmless, but the chaos came once Krist Novoselic* tossed his bass guitar into the air and it smashed on his head (ouch). Kurt Cobain used his guitar to tear into the amps as Novoselic limped offstage and Dave Grohl wouldn’t stop shouting out to Axl Rose. Awkward – but awesome.
*Novoselic eventually told the whole story behind the band’s performance on the Seattle Weekly.
Michael Jackson’s opening number
The King of Pop opened with a dizzying retrospective of hits including “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Scream,” “Black or White,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal” and “You Are Not Alone.” The flashy dance moves (the man moonwalked and did the “Bankhead bounce”) found Jackson in top form. Backed by an insane guitar solo from Slash, it was pure pop spectacle that has yet to be matched.
Courtney Love upstaging Madonna
Madonna was trying to be classy and promote an upcoming album during the pre-show when Courtney Love crashed the party by tossing items from her purse toward the singer. They let Love, who was obviously a mess, sit in on the interview where she underwent some incredible passive-aggressive banter from Madonna. One favorite icy jab, “Anyway, so who’s got better shoes? Mine are Gucci, and yours are?” Madonna again reigns supreme.
Van Halen’s reunion
The band got an extended standing ovation when the four original members appeared together for the first time in more than a decade. But like all great, severely fractured rock bands, Van Halen’s make-up was brief as David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen reportedly had another falling out backstage. More than 15 years after that soured moment, the band is still fighting despite a successful tour and album in 2012.
Fiona Apple’s major dose of reality
When Fiona Apple nabbed the Moonman for new artist in 1997, she delivered the weirdest/most amazing acceptance speech ever. “The world is bull …”, she said while receiving an award most in the room would kill for. “It’s stupid that I’m in this world, but you’re all very cool to me, so thank you very much.”
Diana Ross fondling Lil’ Kim
Lil’ Kim’s breast-baring outfit is the stuff of VMA legend. Only at the VMAs could the rapper have dared to show up in a purple jumpsuit and matching purple wig with one breast exposed – save for a clam shell pasty. It was fabulously trashy, compared to the elegant couture of fellow presenters Mary J. Blige and Diana Ross. Befuddled by the outfit, the grand dame of all divas embraced Kim – but not before giving her exposed breast a little jiggle.
Britney Spears and her sparkly nude leotard
Spears gave us not-so-subtle hints that she was ditching her pop innocence when she served up a medley that included her cover of the Rolling Stones classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and her ubiquitous jam, “Oops! … I Did It Again.” But what really made the performance a classic is when she tore off her sparkly tuxedo to reveal a flesh-colored number and ticked off moms everywhere with one of the sexiest dance breaks ever.
Spears came back to the VMAs stage next year to perform “I’m a Slave for U.” From bursting out of a cage with a tiger to slinking around with a giant yellow python, 2001’s Britney could call her 2000 self conservative.
‘N Sync winning the boy band race
In 2000 they solidified themselves as the greatest boy band in the game during a performance that balanced awards show spectacle with technological innovation as they performed behind TV screens that featured their heads. So many dance breaks. Sure, Backstreet Boys stayed together, but ‘N Sync took the boy band crown and came back the next year with a performance that featured Michael Jackson (not to mention a highly anticipated reunion on the 2013 VMA stage).
MJ getting an award that didn’t exist
The 2002 ceremony took place on Michael Jackson’s birthday. Britney Spears shared some kind words about how she “considered him the artist of the millennium,” presented him with a cake and a cheap-looking treble clef trophy. Well, leave it to the King of Pop to mistake the moment as an actual award. And he gave a real acceptance speech. With notes. “When I was a little boy growing up in Indiana if someone told me I’d be getting, as a musician, ‘the artist of the millennium award,’ I’d have never believed it.” Hopefully no one ever told him no such thing existed.
Eminem vs. Moby
Remember when Eminem hated everyone? In 2002 Moby incurred the wrath of the rapper during the ceremony. After being called out by the electronic artist for lyrics that veered toward misogynistic and homophobic, Slim Shady uttered this classic zinger amid boos from the crowd (likely led by Moby): “Keep booing, little girl. I will hit a man with glasses.”
Beyoncé dangling from a ceiling
Beyoncé didn’t play around with her first time on the VMA stage. Making a grand entrance dangling upside down from the rafters at Radio City Music Hall to the tune of “Baby Boy,” she shimmied all over the stage to her smash “Crazy in Love,” where she was joined by Jay Z – after a mid-set costume change (and this was before we knew about Sasha Fierce).
The kiss that stopped the world
Two decades after Madonna set the benchmark for provocative VMA performances, she topped herself, this time with Britney Spears. A wedding-gown-clad Spears was joined by fellow pop princess, and supposed rival, Christina Aguilera for an update of “Like a Virgin.” They writhed onstage before Madonna emerged as a rather polyamorous groom and made out with both girls in a three-way kiss that shattered the Earth, or at least ratings.
R. Kelly’s one man show
It’s hard to remember much about the 2005 VMAs, minus the fact that Rihanna’s slot on the pre-show stage came after Mike Jones (Google him) and Diddy, who played host that year, did an awesome tribute to Biggie. But the night’s scene-stealer came in R. Kelly, whose hip-hop soap opera “Trapped in the Closet” – where he plays a host of characters – made a splash in the zeitgeist. So what did he do? Kelly staged a one-man version of the cult classic. He really needs to take this to Broadway.
Britney Spears and her epic nosedive
With so many spectacular moments on the VMA stage, it was only fair that her worst performance would happen there too. 2007 wasn’t the kindest year for Spears (Rehab! Shaved head!) and her opening number was supposed to reverse that. It didn’t. Everything was wrong. There were terrible hair extensions. Colored contacts. An ill-advised two-piece. Sloppy footwork. It was a slow, spectacular, unbelievable crash and burn. Diddy was unimpressed. 50 Cent was bewildered. Rihanna laughed. Sigh.
Kid Rock and Tommy Lee brawling
Stars, they’re just like us – which means they also do immature things like fight over a woman they aren’t with anymore. The two rockers got into fisticuffs over Pamela Anderson, who had been married to both. We get it, you guys hate each other, but you stole all the attention from an Alicia Keys comeback performance. Jerks.
Lil Mama crashing Jay Z/Alicia Keys
Before the 2008 VMAs, most of the world would have had to Google “Lil Mama” if she was brought up in conversation. That changed when she got a little too excited during Jay Z and Alicia Keys’ performance of their monster hit “Empire State of Mind.” The pint-sized rapper with a few minor hits crashed the stage and tried to cozy up to the rap titan. He wasn’t amused. Neither were we. Still embarrassed for her.
Kanye West ruining Taylor Swift’s moment
Ah, Kanye. Yes, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” was the year’s fiercest video. And yes, it was odd the video didn’t win for female video. But when West crashed Taylor’s moment by snatching the microphone from her, it made for one of the most uncomfortable – and crude – moments in VMA history. But hey, Swift became an even bigger superstar, Bey scored video of the year and Ye became a social pariah. He also birthed the infamous line, “Imma let you finish, but …”
When Miley twerks, the media go berserk
If you haven’t seen Cyrus’ MTV Video Music Awards performance yet, you’re, uh, behind. Her gyrations around, about, near and far from Robin Thicke spurred a flood of think pieces, unforgettable GIFs and harsh criticisms (not to mention 18.5 million tweets the night of). Coincidentally, the Oxford Dictionaries Online officially added “twerk” to its collection not long after Cyrus’ VMAs performance.
Beyoncé owning the show
Beyoncé has spent her career making award shows memorable with her onstage precision and knack for continuously upping her showmanship. As the recipient of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, the pop diva closed the night with a 15-minute performance. Using her blockbuster, self-titled visual album as the source material, she moved through an ambitious medley that pulled from the entire project. It was a complex, marathon showcase unlike anything else the singer had done, and she never missed a beat. By the end of it, everything that happened onstage before felt meaningless.