Only at MTV’s Video Music Awards could Madonna tongue kiss Britney Spears, Diana Ross grope Lil Kim, Eminem threaten Moby and Kanye West make Taylor Swift cry.
To celebrate Sunday’s 30th annual ceremony (yes, you are that old) we took a look back at 30 indelible pop culture moments the VMAs have provided.
1. Michael Jackson’s opening number (1995). The King of Pop opened with a dizzying retrospect of iconic 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.
2. Madonna (1984-now). No other artist has left their 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 (it appears at No. 5), Madonna’s unpredictability continues to inspire generations of pop divas.
3. Fiona Apple’s major dose of reality (1997). 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. Yeah, girl, it’s the absolute truth, but maybe a little too much of it for an audience who just wanted to see Hanson “MMMbop.”
4. Nirvana’s performance of “Lithium” (1992). 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.
5. The kiss that stopped the world (2003). Nearly 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.
6. The 1999 Video Music Awards. The 9-9-99 year’s telecast turned out to be pure, unstoppable magic. Chris Rock was a magnetically brilliant host. Paul McCartney brazenly announced Lauryn Hill as “some guy called Lawrence Hill” when he presented video of the year. TLC – whose showstopping performance also makes this list (No. 25) – beat out both Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync for group video. Diana Ross copped a feel of Lil Kim’s pasty-covered breast (see No. 26). Moby was the in-house DJ. The mothers of slain rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. united. A stable of fierce drag queens paid tribute to Madonna. Oh, and the best highlight? During the Backstreet Boys’ win for viewers choice, a mysterious party crasher politely interrupted the group’s acceptance speech to awkwardly tell the crowd to “Wake up at 3” – whatever that means.
7. Beyoncé announcing her pregnancy (2011). Minutes before the 2011 telecast, buzz quickly filled the Nokia Theatre that Beyoncé was on the red carpet sporting a baby bump. Instead of making a formal announcement, the singer offered the grandest of all stunt queen moments and revealed her growing tummy at the end of her performance of “Love on Top.” It was the moment of the night and she nearly shut down Twitter, with more than 8,868 tweets per second. The reveal also helped that year’s telecast become the most-watched broadcast in MTV history.
8. Guns N’ Roses closing medley (2002). Sometimes Axl Rose means well. 2002 was one of those times. Rose used the VMA stage to debut a new version of GNR after a hiatus plagued by lineup switches, drama and work on “Chinese Democracy.” Rose and Co. closed out the 2002 ceremony with a medley of “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Madagascar” and “Paradise City.” The frontman sounded, well, horrible. And the performance went on for more than 10 pitiful minutes. Bet host Jimmy Fallon still wishes he hadn’t told America to “put your tape in your VCR” when he introduced his favorite band.
9. Courtney Love upstaging Madonna (1995). 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.
10. 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 ...”
11. MJ getting an award that didn’t exist (2002). 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.
12. Britney Spears and her snake (2001). Brit’s celebrated her last few months as a teenager in a big way with her sexiest song yet, “I’m a Slave for U.” From bursting out of a cage with a tiger to slinking around with a giant yellow python. There’s something about a pop princess shaking it with a giant snake that screams legendary.
13. Britney Spears and her sparkly nude leotard (2000). Before Spears would don a snake, she 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.
14. Britney Spears and her epic nosedive (2007). 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.
15. Lil Mama crashing Jay Z/Alicia Keys (2008). 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.
16. ‘NSync winning the boy band race (2000). Whether or not ‘NSync finally reunite at this year’s VMAs, it doesn’t matter. 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 ‘NSync took the boy band crown and came back the next year with a performance that featured Michael Jackson.
17. Christina Aguilera and Fred Durst (2000). At this point Christina hadn’t transformed into her dirtier Xtina alter ego. But she gave audiences a hint of how she would spice up that pop princess image by having Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst drop in during her performance of pop hits “Genie in a Bottle” and “Come on Over Baby (All I Want Is You).”
18. Beyoncé dangling from a ceiling (2003). 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).
19. R. Kelly’s one man show (2005). 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.
20. Russell Brand as host (2008). Russell Brand gave the 2008 ceremony a jolt of his extremist comedy. And nothing – or no one -- was off-limits. Britney Spears made a comeback appearance after her disastrous performance the previous year (see No. 14) and won her first VMA. But it was the British comedian’s zingers that really stole the night and cemented him as the last greatest host the ceremony had since Chris Rock in 2003. Brand drew ire with Republicans when he begged the audience to vote for then-Sen. Barack Obama and labeled President George W. Bush a “retarded cowboy” who “wouldn’t be trusted with a pair of scissors” in Britain. He also poked fun at the Jonas Brothers for wearing purity rings, and “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks took it upon herself to defend all virginal pop stars.
21. Eminem vs. Moby (2002). 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.”
22. Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford scaling the wall (2000). We get it, losing a VMA for rock video to Limp Bizkit could be soul-crushingly devastating for a band. But Limp Bizkit’s brand of rap metal got a bit more screen time on “Total Request Live” than Rage Against the Machine’s. The loss didn’t go over well for RATM’s Tim Commerford, who scaled a piece of scaffolding and refused to come down. The telecast went to commercial as security removed him. Not only did Commerford lose the VMA, he spent the night in jail.
23. Kid Rock and Tommy Lee brawling (2007). 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.
24. Van Halen’s reunion (1996). The band got an extended standing ovation when the four original members appeared together for the first time in over 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.
25. TLC’s showstopper (1999). The 1999 VMAs are a standout (see No. 6) for their OMG moments and slew of knockout performances (Lauryn Hill, Nine Inch Nails, Jay Z, Britney Spears with ‘NSync). TLC was riding high with “No Scrubs,” with the single helping soundtrack the year. Prince called them his favorite group and their performance only encapsulated our love of the quirky, groundbreaking trio. Sadly, the next time the group appeared on the VMA stage it would be without its spitfire rapper Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who died in a 2002 car accident.
26. Diana Ross fondling Lil Kim (1999). 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.
27. That awful year at the Palms (2007). For some reason, MTV thought it would be awesome to stage the show at the Palms in Las Vegas and split the ceremony between the main stage which was incredibly tiny – but there were smaller stages that doubled as guests’ tables. Then there were stages in different themed suites that housed performances, each with a separate host band. Mark Ronson had one. So did Timbaland & Justin Timberlake and Fall Out Boy. Britney Spears embarrassed herself on the main stage, Chris Brown saved the day (see No. 28) and Kid Rock and Tommy Lee exchanged pleasantries (see No. 23). Oh, and a dozen or so awards were eliminated and a slew were rebranded into useless categories like quadruple threat, monster single and most earth-shattering collaboration. No one seemed to know where they were, why they were there or what was happening – and it was amazing to watch.
28. Chris Brown jumping on tables (2007). The year at the Palms was tragically embarrassing until Chris Brown took the stage. Back when the world loved him and we only knew him as the only worthy heir to Michael Jackson’s performance standard, Brown made perfect use of the Palms’ ridiculous layout and jumped across the tables, sealing the performance with a Jackson tribute. Midway through, Rihanna popped in to perform her smash “Umbrella,” and we swooned at their young, apparently innocent love.
29. Pat Smear announces his departure from Foo Fighters (1997). When quitting a band, the rock and roll thing to do is to drop the bombshell mid-performance, on national television. That’s what Smear did when Foo Fighters had a pre-show set atop the Radio City Music Hall marquee. He made the announcement during the band’s performance of “Monkey Wrench” and introduced his replacement, Franz Stahl. Smear came back around in 2006 and did spot dates with the band before fully coming back into the fold for 2011’s “Wasting Light.”
30. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera introduce Whitney Houston (2000). Years before Spears and Aguilera would lock lips with Madonna in one of the VMAs’ most iconic moments, the two former Mouseketeers and supposed rivals dropped jaws when they appeared onstage -- together -- to introduce Houston. It was a comeback moment for the superstar, whose image of pop royalty had begun to crumble after a year filled with scandal, including an arrest for marijuana at a Hawaii airport and being fired from an Academy Awards performance and rumors of further drug use. Houston would lose her battle with substance abuse, her death coming less than 24 hours before the 2012 Grammys.