clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

30 iconic VMA moments that defined pop music

Miley Cyrus performs at the VMAs with Robin Thicke
Miley Cyrus performs at the VMAs with Robin Thicke
Michael Loccisano/Getty

The MTV Video Music Awards turn 30 years old on Sunday. Unlike the Grammys, which purport to be graceful, elegant awards, the VMAs are best known for being an entertaining mess. They bring the biggest names and personalities in music into one room, then pit them against each other for attention. Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande are all scheduled to perform at this year's show on Sunday.

Awards are given for everything from Best Choreography to Best Video of the Year. The VMAs are marketed to younger demographics (typically teens and twenty-somethings). As a result, they are full of the pop icons and absolute insanity MTV believes the kids today just love. This is surprising, since the show exists to celebrate music videos, something most Millennials never really experienced on MTV.

In the 30-year existence of the VMAs, there have been mistaken awards, thrown shoes, some stellar performances, and one iconic interruption. These 30 big moments are the best VMA history lesson you could have. So click play.

1) Madonna performs "Like a Virgin" (1984)

At the very first VMAs in 1984, Madonna descended from the top of a cake in a fluffy wedding dress and veil and rolled on the floor while singing "Like a Virgin." Female pop stars have often made for the biggest moments at the VMAs, and that was true even in the very first show.

2) Guns n' Roses (1988)

Guns n' Roses was at the height of its fame when the band played "Welcome to the Jungle" live in 1988. Young Axl Rose wears tight leather pants, two hats, and dances with the mic stand. What more do you want out of your rock stars?

3) Bobby Brown drops a vial of something (1989)

While performing "On Our Own," a song from Ghostbusters 2, Bobby Brown dropped a vial of something that may or may not have been cocaine on the stage. Later, he claimed it was a "diamond bracelet" that fell off his wrist.

4) Bon Jovi goes acoustic (1989)

Just months before MTV aired the first episode of its hit show Unplugged, Bon Jovi performed an acoustic version of his hit song "Livin' On a Prayer" at the 1989 VMAs. Please note the seriously '80s hair.

5) Prince sings "Gett Off" (1991)

Before he was a symbol, Prince was one of the greatest pop stars ever. Watch him prove it in this 1991 performance.

6) Nirvana (1992)

The VMAs have never been purely for pop. They're for what's popular, and in 1992, Nirvana was putting grunge on the map.

7) Neil Young & Pearl Jam (1993)

Collaborations are a key feature in VMA history. One of the best is the Pearl Jam/Neil Young combo from 1993. Eddie Vedder's grunge hair is a particular highlight.

8) Michael Jackson kisses Lisa Marie Presley (1994)

It's expected that newlyweds will be lovey-dovey, but Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley were never a normal couple. "And they said it wouldn't last," the couple announced. Unsurprisingly, it didn't.

9) Meet Nathaniel Hornblower (1994)

The first important VMA interruption came in 1994 when rogue Swiss citizen Nathaniel Hornblower stormed the stage during R.E.M.'s acceptance speech. Hornblower was later revealed to be Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys.

10) Courtney Love throws a shoe at Madonna (1995)

In 1995 Courtney Love was at the height of her drug-induced sloppiness. Thus, it's not surprising that she threw a shoe at Madonna. It was surprising, however, that the two then did a weird joint interview afterward.

11) TLC performs a medley (1995)

Many artists have performed memorable medleys over the 30-year history of the VMAs. Justin Timberlake did a great one last year. But TLC's combination of its greatest hits is catchy and downright fun.

12) Oasis (1996)

Oasis is best known for its hit song "Wonderwall," which took over the world in 1996 and is now a choice cut for beginning guitarists everywhere. But at the 1996 VMAs, Oasis made a spectacular mess of follow-up hit "Champagne Supernova," with lead singer Liam Gallagher making an X with his fingers before spitting beer everywhere and storming off.

13) Fiona Apple declares the world bullshit (1997)

Fiona Apple didn't bother to write an acceptance speech when she attended the VMAs in 1997. She was awarded "Best New Artist" and quickly declared the entire world bullshit upon acceptance.

14) Diana Ross grabs Lil' Kim's breast (1999)

Lil' Kim wore a dress to the 1999 VMAs which didn't exactly cover her left breast. It was still surprising, though, when Diana Ross cupped Lil' Kim's breast while presenting an award.

15) *NSYNC and Britney Spears (1999)

Bubblegum pop had a resurgence at the turn of the century, and *NSYNC and Britney Spears led the way. Watch their first VMA performances here.

16) Eminem as Slim Shady (2000)

Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, performed his hit single "The Real Slim Shady" in a sea of look-a-likes. The move referenced his incredibly popular music video, and the audience loved it. Just listen to the roar at 1:43.

17) The rise of Britney (2000)

This is hairography at its finest. Britney had just released her sophomore album, and was quickly turning the VMAs into her own circus. She would dominate the buzz around the awards for the next few years.

18) Britney brings a pet snake (2001)

Britney actually wore a yellow snake for the second half of her "Slave 4 U" performance. The live python firmly sealed Britney's role as the queen of the VMAs and became one of the most iconic moments in the award show's history.

19) Michael Jackson christens *NSYNC (2001)

The VMAs can create pop stars, and in 2001 Michael Jackson, the reigning King of Pop, crowned Justin Timberlake as a new prince of pop by joining *NSYNC for its performance of "Pop."

20) Michael Jackson gets confused (2002)

In one of the most cringeworthy moments in VMA history, Britney Spears presented Michael Jackson with a cake for his 44th birthday. Jackson tried to accept an Artist of the Millennium award.

21) Beyoncé (2003)

Beyoncé was lowered from the ceiling to perform "Crazy in Love" with Jay-Z. It marked the beginning of her rise toward becoming the world's dominant star.

22) The Britney/Madonna kiss (2003)

Sadly, Beyoncé's performance was promptly forgotten, thanks to Madonna kissing both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

23) The collapse of Britney Spears (2007)

Fortunes turned quickly for Britney Spears. Four years and a head-shaving incident later, Spears gave a painful performance of "Gimme More."

24) Kanye interrupts Taylor Swift (2009)

Perhaps the most iconic moment in recent VMA history was Kanye West's interruption of Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for Best Female Video to announce that Beyoncé should have won.

25) Gaga bleeds (2009)

Lady Gaga's 2009 performance of "Paparazzi" is as Gaga as they come. Her fall and fake blood at the end were played perfectly and completely gasp-worthy.

26) Beyoncé performs "Single Ladies" (2009)

Beyoncé's 2009 performance of "Single Ladies" is flawless and iconic.

27) Bruno Mars's performance of "Valerie" (2011)

After Amy Winehouse's death, Bruno Mars paid tribute by performing "Valerie" at the 2011 VMAs. Mars, one of the few working artists with an incredible voice and great dance moves, gave a performance that is both entertaining and heart-wrenching.

28) Beyoncé announces pregnancy (2011)

Beyoncé pregnancy rumors have been swirling for as long as Beyoncé has been in the spotlight. So when she did officially announce her pregnancy after a performance of "Love On Top," America freaked out almost as much as Kanye did.

29) Rihanna and Chris Brown kiss (2012)

In 2012 Rihanna and Chris Brown were probably America's most-hated couple after Brown physically assaulted her. Kissing at the VMAs was just asking for trouble. Rihanna wrote "Nobody's Business" with Brown, presumably in response to the backlash.

30) The Miley twerk (2013)

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke were controversial individually before the 2013 VMAs, but one foam finger and some twerking later, they were infamous.  Not every year of the VMAs has had a single iconic moment that sears itself into the public consciousness, but Miley's 2013 twerking proved that the MTV Video Music Awards are still one of the best breeding grounds for popular culture.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.