While the MTV Video Music Awards have never managed to engender the critical clout of the Grammys (or heck, even the American Music Awards), over its 35 years in existence the award show has made a name for itself as the catalyst for an astonishing number of groundbreaking cultural moments.
Every year, A-listers gather to honor the top achievements in the field of music videos — even decades after the network all but entirely ceased airing them — but more importantly, the ceremony has become a platform for insane wardrobe choices, unhinged speeches, celebrity feuds, and of course, unforgettable performances (both good and bad). Dozens of monumental pop-culture moments, ranging from the scandalous to the uncomfortable to the absolutely epic (in the very best way) have taken place at the VMAs over the years. Here are fifteen of our favorites:
Madonna arguably invented the iconic VMA performance when she emerged from a wedding cake to perform "Like a Virgin" at the inaugural 1984 awards. As the pop suerstar recalled years later, she didn't intend to roll around on the floor (or show her underwear), but when one of her white silettos slipped off, she decided to pretend it was intentional and leaped to the ground to fetch it. The rest is VMAs history.
It seemed to many that we'd seen the last of Pee Wee Herman after Paul Reubens was arrested in a Florida movie theater for indecent exposure. His previously kid-friendly character mired on controversy, Reubens had become a favorite punchline on the late night shows, making his surprise appearance on the 1991 VMAs the stuff of legend after he delivered the line "heard any good jokes lately?"
While fashion pedants everywhere would be quick to point out that all chaps are, by their very definition, assless (nor were the trousers in question actually chaps, strictly speaking) the phrase "assless chaps" was catapulted into the vernacular when the Purple One took the stage at the 1991 VMAs to perform "Gett Off" in a yellow filigree-patterned pantsuit with strategic cutouts in the posterior area. The memorable look added an additional element of scandal to an already erotically-charged performance.
Wearing an outfit inspired by Prince's appearance the year before, Howard Stern brought his fictional character Fartman to the stage in 1992. "Superman is nothing" Stern declared as he was lowered from the ceiling to the combined delight and horror of VMA viewers.
Frontman Kurt Cobain kicked off the band's performance at the ‘92 VMAs by playing the opening chords to the band's latest single, "Rape Me," which they'd been told not to play, then stopped abruptly and launched into the MTV-brass-approved "Lithium." The band concluded the song by flinging their instruments into the air like the anti-establishmentarians they were (bassist Krist Novoselic clipped himself in the head in the process), as Cobain and Dave Grohl shouted taunts at Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose, throwing gasoline on the band's already tense relationship with GnR, which had boiled over backstage earlier that night.
Shortly after tying the knot (amid talk that their marriage was already falling apart), Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley tried to put the rumors to rest, holding hands as Jackson declared "and just think, nobody thought this would last." They they engaged in a very public (and very awkward) kiss before walking off stage. The two divorced two years later.
After an infamous appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in March 1994 in which she uttered the word "f*ck" 14 times and made a series of other controversial statments, Madonna and Letterman were (for a time) sworn enemies, with the two megastars trading insults at each other through the media. That all came to an end at the 1994 VMAs, when Letterman escorted Madonna onstage before announcing that he'd &be waiting for her "in the car."
After accepting her Moon Man for Best New Artist, Apple noted that she hadn't prepared a speech, then launched into a scathing, Maya-Angelou-quoting indictment of celebrity culture. "You shouldn't model your life after what we think is cool," she cautioned the audience. Although her words resonated with many of her young fans, MTV never slowed down its quest to make kids model their lives on what celebrities deem cool.
Perhaps second only to Prince's butt-baring ensemble eight years earlier, as far as iconic indecent exposure is concerned, Li'l Kim took the stage at the VMAs wearing a sparkling purple jumpsuit with one shoulder and a pasty-covered breast bared. As she and co-presenter Mary J. Blige welcomed Diana Ross to the stage to present the Best Hip-Hop Video award, Ross embraced them both (“the new Supremes!”) and gave Kim's bare breast an affectionate jiggle as all three women screamed with laughter.
Nineteen years after she first performed "Like a Virgin" at the VMAs, she donned a top hat and tails to reprise the song, this time with white-lace-clad Spears and Aguilera in the bridal role. The performance itself wasn't particularly spectacular (especially once it blended into Madonna's lackluster then-new single "Hollywood") until she grabbed each woman in turn and gave them each a smooch. By 2019 standards it's a little tame, but back in 2003 nobody talked about anything else for weeks afterward.
Britney came of age on the VMA stage. For most of the late 90s and early 00s, she was a mainstay of the awards, before a string of mental health and substance issues derailed her career. After sitting out the awards for several years, she declared herself ready for a second helping of superstardom, only to deliver a disaffected, robotic, obviously lip-synched performance of "Gimme More," during which she stripped down to a bra and panties to reveal a physique that was a far cry from her python-wrestling "I'm a Slave 4 U" days (although probably still better than most of us mere mortals can manage).
As she accepted the Best Female Video award for "You Belong With Me," West stepped up, snatched the mic from a shocked Swift, and announced that Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" video should have won the award. A decade and several shady song lyrics from both camps later, it's still hard to tell how much of this moment was spontaneous and how much was manufactured by whom, though the phrase "I'mma let you finish" has held up at least as well as both West and Swift's careers.
Though it was pretty hard to top her performance from the prior year's VMAs, in which she pretended to eviscerate herself on stage, complete with gallons of fake blood, the always-controversial Gaga was up for the challenge, turning up to accept the Video of the Year award in what's become her most iconic look — a mini dress, hat, and boots made out of actual flank steak. After a complicated curing process, the dress is now on display in jerky form at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Like Madonna and Britney before her, Beyoncé has been no stranger to memorable VMA moments, from the actual launch of her solo career at the 2003 awards to her 16-minute tour de force "Lemonade" medley in 2014. There's a reason she's taken home more Moon Men than any other artist in VMA history. But when she finished a flawless performance of "Love on Top" by ripping open her sequined blazer to display a prominent baby bump, it was a moment so iconic that it nearly broke Twitter — and led to record viewing numbers for the VMAs.
In the grand tradition of VMA-inspired feuds, Minaj's acceptance speech for her Best Hip-Hop Video award began fairly routinely, until it was time to wrap things up and throw it to Miley Cyrus, perched on another stage across the room: "And now back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me in the press the other day: Miley, what's good?", referencing comments Cyrus had made in the New York Times weeks earlier regarding VMA nominations. Cyrus barely blinked as she deadpanned something about the press manipulating her words. Although both sides have made the odd friendly overture on Instagram, the feud persists to this day, with Cyrus throwing a shady shout-out to Minaj in her May 2019 single, "Cattitude."
Andrew Dice Clay getting banned from MTV for life for his obscenity-laden monologue (1989), Courtney Love crashing Madonna's post-awards interview (1995), Pat Smear quitting the Foo Fighters and introducing his replacement midway through their pre-show performance (1997), Eminem's Beef with Moby (2003), and Jennifer Lopez sucessfully thwarting a stage crasher from grabbing Panic At the Disco's Moon Man.
Which moments did we miss? And what are you most looking forward to seeing at this year's VMAs? Weigh in on our forums.
Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.
TOPICS: MTV Video Music Awards, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Courtney Love, David Letterman, Diana Ross, Eminem, Howard Stern, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Lil' Kim, Lisa Marie Presley, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Paul Reubens, Pee-wee Herman, Taylor Swift