7 iconic moments in VMA history

From Kurt Cobain to “Miley, what’s good?” — and everything in between.

August 23, 2019
7 iconic moments in VMA history Scott Gries/ImageDirect  

It's that time of year again: the MTV Video Music Awards are just a few short days away — Monday, August 26, to be specific (8 pm EST on, y'know, MTV). This year's performers include Taylor Swift, Missy Elliott, Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Rosalía, Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, Normani, and so many others that we've honestly lost count.

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The VMAs have long been a scene of unpredictability, host to memorable moments and unforgettable gaffes that, truly, could only occur on the VMAs. To honor this tradition, FADER's staff have compiled some of their favorite memories from the long-running ceremony — so go grab your Moonperson and take a trip down VMAs memory lane with us.

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE RAGES AGAINST THE MACHINE

Is there a greater early 2000s-era capsule than Rage Against The Machine's bassist getting pissed off that their Michael Moore-directed "Sleep Now In The Fire" video lost at the VMAs to Limp Bizkit? Literally none of those words would make sense to Billie Eilish —BUT 19 years ago, the moment represented an iconic instance of corporate rebellion. Upon hearing that "Break Stuff" had been named Best Rock Video, Tim Commerford crashed the stage and clambered up on the rigging behind where Fred Durst was attempting to give an acceptance speech. As Commerford shook the structure, police swarmed the stage; Eminem shouted "Jump!," and one of the brothers Wayans — on hosting duty that year — called Commerford "Charles Manson's younger brother." After spending a night in jail for his act of protest, it was clear that Commerford basically walked so Kanye could run. -- David Renshaw

MILEY, WHAT'S GOOD?

Nearly five years after “Miley, what’s good?” I still can’t stop thinking about “Miley, what’s good?” “Miley, what’s good?” controlled my brain for the better part of 2015. “Miley, what’s good?” controlled my friends’ brains. Everything about “Miley, what’s good?” was breathtaking. If I had to rank my favourite things about “Miley, what’s good?” they’d go in this order: 1. Nicki’s nostrils flaring; 2. Miley trying to throw the New York Times under the bus; 3. The way Nicki is holding her VMA as if ready to bludgeon Miley with it; 4. Miley’s obvious shock at no longer having control over her beef with Nicki anymore; and 5. Rebel Wilson’s jaw literally dropping behind Nicki. “Miley, what’s good?” is thrilling and melodramatic, but also somehow justified. It was a pop culture moment that wasn’t noteworthy just for its shock value, but also for how it exposed Miley’s "chill girl" facade as a contrivance. Years from now, I probably won’t remember why Nicki and Miley were beefing, but every time I hear Miley Cyrus’ name, there’s no way I won’t hear those three immortal words: “Miley, what’s good?” -- Shaad D'Souza

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FIONA APPLE BURNS THE WORLD

Throughout the ‘90s, the VMAs was the spot for parent-tweaking, kid-entrancing pop subversion. Mom and dad would blanche at sight of Madonna jerking herself across the stage in a wedding dress, and tut-tut at Nirvana beating themselves up with their own instruments. Incidents like these — engineered or otherwise — fooled us into thinking MTV were mavericks, and the predictable unpredictability helped strengthen MTV’s status as a Goliath-sized cultural gatekeeper. Fiona Apple brought this artifice and so many more down in 1997 with four words: “This world is bullshit,” delivered from the podium where she accepted her award for Best New Artist. “You shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything,” she said to sparse and uncomfortable applause. “Go with yourself. Go with yourself.” Apple would be heavily criticized by the press for this, but she was far from destroyed. Faced with true provocation, it was the VMAs, and pop music in general, that began to lose their lustre. -- Jordan Darville

NIRVANA BRING THEIR AXL ROSE BEEF TO THE STAGE

It was enough that, in 1992, Nirvana would take the VMAs stage to perform "Rape Me" and "Lithium," a ferocious one-two punch of rock unpredictability that still feels electrifying and vital to this day. Then, Dave Grohl took the mic, as Kurt Cobain tumbled through his drumset: "Axl! Hi Axl! Where's Axl?" The "Axl" in question, of course, is Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses—but why? As lore goes (and Nirvana's Krist Novoselic confirmed as fact in 2008), Cobain and Courtney Love had a run-in with the GN'R frontman backstage after the latter jokingly asked him to be the godfather to their child. Rose is, of course, a wild card, so he didn't like it. So Nirvana ended a furious performance with a bit of tomfoolery—the nerds poking fun at the jocks, on one of the biggest stages in cable TV. Who said MTV didn't get punk once in a while? -- Larry Fitzmaurice

THE CURVE HEARD 'ROUND DRAKE'S WORLD

There was a time when people watched the VMAs without tweeting about it or spending the next two weeks making memes out of its worst moments, but I wasn’t watching back then and frankly it sounds like hell. Case in point: Drake’s speech at the 2016 VMAs, in which he presented Rihanna with the Video Vanguard Award but couldn’t help but say that he’d “been in love with” her for years, was deeply uncomfortable. It was so inappropriate that it just about killed whatever friendship Drake and Rihanna had before that night. It was messy and corny and it made me want to hide behind my couch. But in the hands of Seinfeld2000, a mysterious Twitter icon who is admirably still committed to the bit years later, it was a Curb Your Enthusiasm gag, cut up with awkward silences, a shot of Chance The Rapper’s face turning sour, and an exec producer credit for Aubrey himself. Hopefully this year’s VMAs will give him some more fodder. Maybe the Jonas Brothers will say something about shrinkage.

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LIL MAMA CRASHES JAY-Z AND ALICIA KEYS' PARTY

The 2009 VMAs are remembered for many things; mostly, Kanye West taking the microphone from Taylor Swift and a bloodied Lady Gaga dangling from the stage while belting out “Paparazzi.” Looking back, both of those moments feel inevitable — or, at the very least, situations we can wrap our minds around in retrospect. The same cannot be said about JAY-Z and Alicia Keys’ performance which closed out the night. “Empire State of Mind” had just dropped, and it was about to become JAY-Z’s biggest pop hit. Everyone with access to a radio was feeling like a New Yorker, but Lil Mama — still riding the high off 2007’s “Lip Gloss" — was really feeling it. As evidenced by the Hennessy-fueled disruption earlier in the night, security at Radio City Hall wasn’t exactly protecting the stage (former Viacom president Van Toffler says they “didn’t want big bulky bodyguards on camera”). And so Beyoncé — who had already been put through the wringer that night — was tasked with the burden of keeping Lil Mama from crashing her husband’s performance. As immortalized by GIF history, not even queen Bey was powerful enough to restrain whatever Lil Mama was feeling, resulting in an excruciatingly awkward dance around a very confused JAY-Z and Alicia Keys. The performance has since been scrubbed from the internet, and the humiliating fallout triggered a near-suicidal depression for Lil Mama. But for those who witnessed it, it was the piece de résistance to a night of pure unbridled chaos. -- Salvatore Maicki

LADY GAGA GETS BLOODY WITH "PAPARAZZI"

I don’t think I’ve seen another live performance that has affected me as viscerally, or enduringly, as Lady Gaga’s bloody “Paparazzi” at the 2009 VMAs. That’s not an exaggeration; Every few months, always at the dead of night, I will find myself plugging it into YouTube’s search engine to confirm yet again that yes, she really did that — and no one has done it like that in the decade since! From the harmonies, to the crazed bunny headpiece, to that bi-color wig, to her wobbling around with a cane, to her thrashing on the piano, to the blood (!!!!!) that incited audible gasps from the audience and from thirteen-year-old me watching it from my living room couch in a Texas suburb — even after ten years of slimy cultural deluge, this one performance still sticks vividly in my brain folds.

Had an artist ever before used gore and shock to make her mark on the historically sanitized, hyper-polished pop stage of award shows? Maybe, I haven’t had the time to dig into it. But Gaga brought theatricality, drama and narrative, demanded us to look at something grotesque and maybe a little bit frightening — all within the first year of her career. The myth of the VMAs stage has always aligned closer to petty and messy; in 2009 with Gaga, it was near spectacular. -- Steffanee Wang

7 iconic moments in VMA history