MTV’s Video Music Awards are 30 years old this year! Beginning in 1984, in time, the annual show became a cultural landmark of pre-planned and unforeseen foolishness and iconic moments. I recalled the award show off and on when I was little, but I didn’t really start watching the show in its entirety until 1997. 1997 was the first year I sat down and absorbed this movement, and the following year I was so pumped and super excited for its return, a fresh VHS was in the VCR ready to record.
From 1998 to 2003 and then off and on with the last being 2009, I would tape the VMAs for recuerdo purposes and in having those watercooler moments on lock. Back when I was in middle school, the show was so much fun to watch. The next day we would talk about it at school and still recall it months later. I remember when it even used to air on Thursday nights, not on Sundays like it does now! And the pre-show used to be an event in itself being an hour and a half long with the entire MTV News staff present (some more OG memories. Do any of my millennials and Generation X-ers remember Kurt Loder, John Norris, and Serena Altschul? Oh hey Tabitha Soren!) If you weren’t doing major broadcast journalism on CNN, you wanted to be an MTV News anchor.
Though I adored the VMAs back in the day, with its great mix of the biggest music stars, past and present, and movie stars and comedians sprinkled in as presenters, the show has dwindled for me. I’ll always try to watch it when it airs, but like some pop cultural periodicals or news magazine shows today, they are hanging to every thread they can to maintain relevant. It seems since 2011, the show has got teen-y boppier and boppier. I know that’s not a word, but even for this year’s show commercial, I felt out of touch despite mainly recognizable names showed and the ones I’m referring appeared just as random. Speaking of OG status, Usher and Beyonce are such veterans at this point, I can’t believe it’s been sixteen years since Destiny’s Child’s “No, No, No” and seventeen for Usher’s My Way album.
There were complaints about 2013’s Brooklyn show, with many calling it a “hot mess” and that MTV was falling off, but in reality, it was a success, and why you might ask? We talked about Miley Cyrus’ performance of “We Can’t Stop” and Robin Thicke’s Beetlejuice tuxedo for months on end, and while for mainly all the wrong reasons, that’s exactly what we did in years past, making it culturally significant for better or worse. There were definitely VMAs from certain years that were utterly lackluster you literally wanted your MTV back, such as the Miami years in 2005-6; Las Vegas in 2007; 2002 was dismal; and 2012 might have been the most forgettable of all time at this point.
For the fourth year in a row, I’m having happy memories of when the VMAs were cool, and I locked in down to six in particular that are my favorites. As always, here’s to a childhood and era that’s bygone and but also treasured, and the VMAs for once being the coolest event on cable.
1. The 1999 MTV Video Music Awards
The ’99 VMAs were so epic, anyone that saw it knew it was going to be before it even aired. Even the commercial was epic with EVERYBODY scheduled to be there. The date was also perfect as it was September 9, 1999 (9-9-99). Though naturally held in New York City, they spiced up the Upper West Side in choosing the revered and beautiful Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Classic moments were Lil’ Kim’s purple exposed boob pastie outfit which Diana Ross awesomely violated; the Madonna drag show; Lauryn Hill’s solo performance; Pamela Anderson’s unnecessarily big ass pink hat (the original Pharrell “Arby” hat); the VMA debuts of Eminem, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Korn to name a few; Chris Rock’s opening dialogue; and the heartfelt appearance of the mothers of slain rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. Major points to MTV for getting them together in memory of their sons.
2. 1998 MTV Video Music Awards
The ’98 show was an underrated one, but if we are allowed to have chosen favorite years of our childhood, the aforementioned year would be one of them. Dawson’s Creek; Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody”, watching Daria and Doug, MTV James hosted by Tyrese; the start of TRL; “Ghetto Supastar” and Semisonic’s “Closing Time”, it was such a good year that sums up the greatness of being a child in the ’90s. The ’98 show had tons of great artists, many of whom returned to the limelight with solid records including Madonna during her Ray of Light era, Hole and their Celebrity Skin album, and Brandy and Monica performed the only televised version of their mega duet “The Boy is Mine”. When Marilyn Manson was shocking, he was also there and did “The Dope Show”; the late ODB nearly walked into a pyrotechnic disaster on stage; Backstreet Boys jammed to their own “Everybody”; Aerosmith won for “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing”; Mariah Carey and the greatt Whitney Houston purposedly wore matching dresses; and Ginger Spice reappeared after having left the Spice Girls in the spring as a refreshed Geri Halliwell.
3. 2009 MTV Video Music Awards
Ahhh, 2009 conjures the memories of one huge moment that continues to haunt its unsuspected chosen ones: Taylor Swift and Kanye West. What could be considered the most shocking VMA moment of all time when West interrupted Swift’s acceptance for her Best Female Video win, the media firestorm that followed was one for recorded history. West became public enemy number one and Swift as the first Country artist to win a VMA admittedly had a tainted experience. They would both respond to each other musically, but those seconds of Swift and West lives on. And funny enough, it wasn’t just that newfound feud that gained notoriety. Lil’ Mama jumped on stage during the end of Jay Z and Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind”; Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Pink gave fantastic performances and Beyonce did go home with Video of the Year for her super fun “Single Ladies”. They was also the wonderful tribute to Michael Jackson who untimely passed away that July. It was commenced by Madonna who shared memories of her time with the King of Pop and ended with his sister Janet Jackson who performed their legendary dance routine from their 1995 and VMA-winning “Scream”.
4. 2003 MTV Video Music Awards
A great year that had a spotlight on Beyonce who ruled the summer with “Crazy in Love”, her performance with a Jay Z cameo was hot and well rehearsed. It was just one of those years in which pop culture was everything and it seemed like the MTV roster reflected that. The Donnas received a surprising nod for “Take It Off”; the Hilton sisters were in attendance (the new celebutantes that even if you didn’t want to you paid attention to); Chris Rock returned to host; 50 Cent was the prince of rap; Johnny Cash received nods for his heart-wrenching cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”; and of course, there was the triple kiss of Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera who opened the show with a revamped cut of “Like a Virgin”. Naturally the camera zoomed in on Justin Timberlake who looked aloof causing audiences to nearly miss Aguilera. Later on Missy Elliott rapped on stage with the Spears, Aguilera, and Madonna and Elliott later won Video of the Year for “Work It”.
5. 1994 MTV Video Music Awards
This is a throwback from the early ’90s and is a total capsule of the era. They were appearances by Soundgarden who won for Best Rock Video; Snoop Dogg performed “Murder Was the Case” which was his defense at the time of serious charges. Salt N Pepa were the It Girls of rap; Madonna presented the first award with David Letterman; the amazing Michael Jackson famously opened the show with his then-wife Lisa Marie Presley and promptly kissed her. Roseanne hosted the show, one of the few comediennes to do so, and there was a tribute to Kurt Cobain who had committed suicide that spring.
6. 2000 MTV Video Music Awards
The 2000 show was somewhat of a hot mess but it includes: Britney Spears’ scorching “Ooops I Did It Again” performance which featured her bedazzled, flesh tone outfit that was the sparkplug on a conversation about an oversexualized media; a member of Rage Against the Machine climbed a large and tall stage prop during Limp Bizkit’s acceptance speech for Best Rock Video; the audience barely giggled at the Wayans brothers’ opening skit (Macy Gray later gave them the middle finger); it was the year of Eminem and “The Real Slim Shady”; and Spears was joined by Christina Aguilera (who earlier was shockingly joined by Fred Durst towards the end of her “Come Over Here Baby” sequence) introduced Whitney Houston who went to present Video of the Year to Eminem–but only before she yelped “Free! Free! Free!” when her then-husband Bobby Brown appeared on stage looking bored as hell. It was also the debut of Destiny’s Child at the VMAs who took home Best R&B Video for “Say My Name” and the surprising but deserving win for Aaliyah’s “Try Again” as the Best Female Video.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: 1997, 2012, 1995, Kelly Clarkson’s 2005 performance of “Since You’ve Been Gone”, Christina Aguilera’s “Hurt” and The Killers’ “When You Were Young” in 2006