Warren Beatty’s Best Picture flub at the 2017 Academy Awards may have been one of the more memorable moments at an awards telecast, but even with the academy’s controversial move to embrace popular movies with a new category, none of it will ever compare to the MTV Video Music Awards. Commonly referred to as the MTV VMAs, the network’s own trophy-giving ceremony has been going strong since its debut in 1984. And during just about every single telecast since, the event meant to celebrate music and popular culture’s most valued achievements has never strayed too far from shock, awe and outright controversy.
It would be impossible to identify every single one of the moments that qualifies for one of these three adjectives in the space afforded here, so instead, here’s a short list of the most memorable instances from over three decades’ worth of MTV VMAs.
MTV VMAs: Most shocking moments
Madonna performs ‘Like a Virgin’ at the inaugural ceremony
The single-named pop star wasn’t the only musician to perform at the MTV VMAs in 1984, but her rendition of “Like a Virgin” was by far the most talked-about. Donning a wedding dress cum bustier, along with various garters and other women’s lingerie, Madonna sang the song while standing atop a giant mock wedding cake. She then came down to the stage and writhed around on the floor, still singing, while briefly flashing the audience and the cameras.
Fiona Apple calls out celebrity culture
During her acceptance speech for the Best New Artist Video trophy in 1997, Fiona Apple admitted that she hadn’t prepared a speech, then launched into a tirade critical of the entire affair. She quoted the writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, adding that she was “going to use this opportunity the way I want to use it.” How’d she do that? By declaring that “this world is bullsh*t,” and viewers shouldn’t put any stock in celebrity culture.
Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus get gross
It wasn’t the first time Miley Cyrus would shock audiences at the VMAs, but it was surely one of the most striking. Following a performance of her song “We Can’t Stop” in 2013, Robin Thicke joined Cyrus on stage for his already-controversial song “Blurred Lines.” To the surprise of everyone in attendance, including Thicke, she began twerking on the singer’s crotch. Between the apparent cultural appropriation and the pair’s age different, it was… something.
Nicki Minaj confronts Miley from the stage
Two years later, after Nicki Minaj called out MTV for not nominating her “Anaconda” video because she was black, a war of words ensued online and in the press between her, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. Swift thought Minaj’s comments were about her, while Cyrus took the opportunity to share her opinion. Minaj and Swift later made amends, but when the former accepted the Best Hip-Hop Video award, she addressed Cyrus from the stage. “Back to this b*tch who had a lot to say about me the other day in the press,” she said. “Miley, What’s good?”
Kanye West storms the stage
A few years prior to this, in 2009, newcomer Taylor Swift took home the trophy for Best Female Video. Unfortunately for her and everyone watching, rapper Kanye West thought Beyonce should have won. So he stormed the stage, took the mic from Swift and declared: “Yo Tay, I’m really happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!” When Beyonce later won Video of the Year, she called Swift back on stage to let her finish.
Nirvana destroys the stage (and themselves)
In 1992, Nirvana was at the height of their grunge powers in the musical world. MTV was especially accepting of the band, gifting them with several trophies at that year’s ceremonies. Even so, singer Kurt Cobain and his bandmates briefly horrified MTV executives when they played a few bars from “Rape Me” during their set, before launching back into the agreed upon songs. At the end of the performance, bassist Krist Novoselic tossed his instrument up into the air and tried to catch it, but ended up having it land on his forehead. While he stumbled around the stage, Cobain and drummer Dave Grohl trashed their instruments.
Madonna returns with a vengeance, and Britney and Christina
Most Millennials remember where they were, or what they were doing, when Madonna returned to the 2003 MTV VMAs for a medley of “Like a Virgin” and “Hollywood.” Not so much because of Madonna herself, but because of who accompanied her: Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Madonna turned the tables on the first song by playing the groom, while Spears and Aguilera doubled as her brides, and at the end of the number, all three kissed.
Britney Spears enters adulthood
Two years before sharing the stage with Madonna and Aguilera, Spears was already an established act at the MTV VMAs. The year prior, she performed her first hit single “Oop!… I Did It Again,” but this time, it was the incredibly adult “I’m a Slave 4 U.” What’s more, the singer recreated much of the music video’s flare by doing part of the number with a live albino Burmese Python on her shoulders.
MTV VMAs 2018 date
The 2018 MTV Video Music Awards will air Monday, August 20 at 8 p.m.