53 Life-Altering Moments The VMAs Burned Into Your Brain Forever

Let's take a look back at Britney's snake, Madonna's make-out session, Michael Jackson's irreplaceable mark, and more VMA legends.

The VMAs don’t do boring. They don’t do passive. No one’s ever yawned during the VMAs — and that’s a scientific fact*. They’re not the classical music awards (no shade — if you’re offended by that, you’re probably much smarter than I am for listening to classical music.)

The VMAs take music to the next level, stunt without shame, go hard, and leave you Drake-level emotional. The VMAs have no chill. None at all. But you didn’t come here for that. So before the 2014 VMAs leave you in a temporary trance state in which you can only respond with the words “slayed,” “dead,” “yaaaaaass” and “I can’t,” on August 24, let’s take a look back at some of the VMA moments — some obvious, some deepfaves — that are probably burned into your brain, psyche, soul, and heart.

(Note — I haven’t delved into most of the VMAs of the 1980s, because the term “Fine Young Cannibals” may not mean anything to you and because there’s an excellent chance you weren’t born yet. In fact, your parents may not have even met yet in the ’80s. But a special shout-out goes to Peter Gabriel for winning 10 VMAs in 1987 for his revoluationary “Sledgehammer” video. He was nominated for 12 VMAs total and held the record for most VMA nominations until Lady Gaga earned 13 nominations in 2010. Also, if you’re just here from the Britney of it all, just skip down to 1999, or do a Ctrl+F Britney. I understand.)

1. In 1984, Madonna opened the very first VMAs ever the best way she knew how — by humping the Radio City Music Hall floor during “Like A Virgin.”

2. Madonna performs “Vogue” at the 1990 VMAs dressed in full Victorian regalia. All of the fans, all of the powder, all of the wigs.


3. Nirvana performed “Rape Me” and “Lithium” at the 1992 VMAs, and if you remember 1992, you remember this iconic moment in rock history, you remember Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic smashing their respective instruments, and you remember Dave Grohl trolling Axl Rose.

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4. Nirvana, Courtney Love and RuPaul: Just one big happy family at the 1993 VMAs.

5. The Moonman went to space for the 1994 VMAs. What did YOU do in ’94? Nothing? Oh really? That’s cute.

6. When the Beastie Boys (in strip mall CPA oversized suits) weren’t aggressively tearing through “Sabotage” at the 1994 VMAs, they also took stage-crashing to new heights (years before someone whose name rhymes with “Sanye Best” famously did) when MCA, dressed as Nathaniel Hornblower, interrupted R.E.M.’s win to claim “I had all the ideas for Star Wars and everything.”

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7. 1994 was also the year Michael Jackson proclaimed “And just think, nobody thought this would last,” and then engaged in some serious PDA with then-wife Lisa Marie Presley in front of the entire VMA viewing public. A simultaneous cringe attack ensued, and they divorced the following year.

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8. Snoop Doggy Dogg rolled onto the 1994 VMA stage in a wheelchair to proclaim his innocence and perform a dramatic staging of “Murder Was The Case” backed by a church choir.

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9. Michael Jackson opened the 1995 VMAs with a jaw-dropping 15-minute medley of “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Scream,” “Beat It,” “Thriller,””Black or White,” “Billie Jean,” “Dangerous,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “You Are Not Alone,” with an assist from Slash.

10. TLC won four VMAs in 1995 and sealed the deal with a crazy-sexy-cool performance of “Creep,” “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” and, of course, “Waterfalls.” You know you’re doing the shoulder dance right now.

11. Ughh, there’s no end to the amount of feels Diddy‘s 1997 VMA “I’ll Be Missing You” tribute to Biggie, with Faith Evans, Sting and 112 still gives me.

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12. Fiona Apple won Best New Artist at the 1997 VMAs, but she was like “nah” and called bulls**t on the whole thing.

13. Bestie alert! Busta Rhymes and Martha Stewart presented an award together at the 1997 VMAs. Don’t act like you didn’t see that one coming a mile away.

14. Everyone always remembers the back of Rose McGowan’s 1998 VMA dress, but honestly? The front really doesn’t get enough credit, IMO.

15. The Beastie Boys accepted the Video Vanguard Award at the 1998 VMAs, and MCA used the opportunity to condemn the U.S. for firing the missiles into the Middle East, calling for non-violent resolution.

16. This wasn’t No Doubt‘s first VMA, but I bring this up because in 1998, this lewk was considered flawless. (And still is, IMO.)

17. *NSYNC made their first appearance at the 1999 VMAs. YOU’RE WELCOME, WORLD!


18. The 1999 VMAs were also the first VMAs for Britney Spears, who opened *NSYNC‘s “Tearin’ Up My Heart” performance with “…Baby One More Time.” Oddly, she became a one-hit wonder and was never heard from after that. JKJKJK! A hair flip, a midriff, and a VMA mainstay and pop legend were born!

19. Furthermore, the 1999 VMAs were an iconic year for Diana Ross, Li’l Kim, and Li’l Kim’s boob. Don’t judge Lady Di. You’d probably cop a feel too if the Queen B sanctified it.

20. THE 2000 VMAS: BRITNEY! BODY SUIT! “SATISFACTION”! DON’T RUIN THIS WITH ADDITIONAL WORDS! LET’S JUST LIVE IN THIS MEMORY! Also, LOOK AT THEIR FACES! THAT’S THE UNIVERSAL SIGN FOR YASSSS!



21. Additionally, Britney and Christina Aguilera squashed their non-existent beef by presenting a VMA together and subliminally encouraging everyone to CTFO.

22. J.Lo and Diddy and J.Lo’s all-white-everything and J.Lo’s abs at 2000 VMAs still break my heart. I still miss those days, you know?

23. I can tell you that this is what Li’l Kim wore to the 2000 VMAs; I just can’t tell you why.


24. Eminem performing “The Real Slim Shady” and “The Way I Am” at the 2000 VMAs: This is Michelangelo-level VMA mastery.

25. Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford scaled a setpiece at the 2000 VMAs, perhaps seeking a better view of Limp Bizkit beating the band for the 2000 Best Rock Video. He was promptly arrested.

26. 2001! THE YEAR OF THE SNAKE! AND BRITNEY! AND ‘SLAVE 4 U’! YOU COULD CUT DIAMONDS WITH THOSE ABS! THOSE EXTENSIONS ARE GOD’S GIFT! LITERALLY NOTHING ELSE THAT YEAR MATTERED!

27. Except for when Michael Jackson surprised everyone except *NSYNC during their “Pop” performance.


28. Despite the fact that everyone in this photo should be retroactively prosecuted for the fashion crimes committed at the 2001 VMAs, this pic of Li’l Kim, Mya, Xtina and Pink (dressed as a sexy Robin Hood), still warms my heart.

29. Christina Aguilera came to the 2002 VMAs wearing a precariously wrapped scarf, a puffy newsboy cap and almost no brows. Oh, you don’t get it? Do I have to explain fashion for you? Because this is legendary, actually.

30. Think you can recall a finer, more quintessentially early-aughts display of hip-hop and R&B stuntin’ than Diddy, Usher, Pharrell, Busta Rhymes, and Ginuwine‘s 2002 VMA performance of “Bad Boy for Life,” “I Need a Girl,” “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II.” Really? Because I’d love to see that.

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31. Britney Spears, dressed as a young dominatrix presented Michael Jackson with a celebratory VMA cake for his 44th birthday at the 2002 VMAs. Britney referred to Michael Jackson as the “artist of the millennium,” and Michael, on cue, accepted the gesture — and the non-award (which probably shouldn’ve existed anyway). Regardless, everybody got cake.

32. It was the 2003 VMAs, and Madonna was feeling randy and was maybe even feeling 22. So she kissed Britney Spears. But, not content to kiss just one pop princess, she also kissed Christina Aguilera in one of the most iconic moments in VMA history. Why have one tongue in your mouth when you could have two? Or three?



33. Entering stage left is for basics. Beyonce descended from the ceiling — because she is an angel from heaven — to briefly allow her immortal feet to touch the ground for her 2003 VMA performance of “Baby Boy” and “Crazy in Love” with Jay Z.

34. The 2004 VMAs were in Miami, which meant SOMEBODY had to arrive dressed in all-white everything on a yacht. That somebody was Diddy, who made one of the most unforgettable VMA arrivals ever. Slightly more forgettable? The fact that Bruce Willis was there, too.

35. In 2004, before Jay Z pledged his allegiance to Tom Ford, he and secret girlfriend Beyonce took the Bonnie and Clyde lewk seriously and literally. It’s as though they sensed they’d become the only two people on earth who’d become rich enough to later negate any and all past questionable fashion choices.

36. R. Kelly‘s “Trapped In The Closet” — a saga of infidelity, deception, closeted homosexuality, and little people — felt like a gift in and of itself. But R. Kelly playing EVERY SINGLE ROLE in an EXTREMELEY DRAMATIC manner live at the 2005 VMAs? Well, Robert, now you’re just spoiling us.


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37. The 2007 VMAs were in Vegas, and if you bet that Rihanna was about to make her worldwide domination official, well, then you were right. That Rihanna reign hasn’t let up since.

38. What backpack? Kanye had already shed the pink Polo shirt, but he made his first departure into experimental Yeezusness at the 2008 VMAs, where he closed the show with a dramatic, transcendent performance of “Love Lockdown,” inching closer to the God we know today.

39. Rihanna went creepy, crawly steampunk and pulled off one of the most thrilling undead performances since “Thriller” for her 2008 VMA “Disturbia” performance, which included a dash of “Seven Nation Army.” You’re still worshiping this, right?

40. Katy Perry had a small role at the 2008 VMAs, performing with the house band. She won none of the VMAs she was nominated for that year, but she’s appeared, performed, been nominated and/or won an award at every VMA since. (In 2011, she earned nine nominations, becoming the first artist ever to be nominated for four separate videos in one year.) VMAs without Katy Perry? No thanks.

41. Janet Jackson opened the 2009 VMAs with a highly emotional tribute to her brother, and to watch her was to watch Michael live again through her.

42. Beyonce performed “Single Ladies” at the 2009 VMAs, it was obviously flawless, and no wigs were ever seen again, and no faves were ever heard from again. All else was basic.

43. In her first-ever VMA performance in 2009, Lady Gaga performed “Paparazzi,” staged a bloody, Baroque mock death, and brought new meaning to “slayed.” The bar for VMA performances had been raised. Bring the dramatics, and bring a mop and bucket.

44. Ew, Kanye! Why you gotta be so rude?? Look on the bright side, though: At least Taylor Swift cemented her place in our hearts as America’s sweetheart forever at the 2009 VMAs (really, she deserves her own star on the American flag), and at least Kanye introduced us to the “Kanye shrug.”

45. Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good widdle boy who won Best New Artist in 2010?

46. Who wore a meat dress to the 2010 VMAs? And a meat hat? Who made it not weird to use the words “meat” and “dress” together in a sentence? WHO WON EIGHT MOONMEN IN A SINGLE YEAR!?

47. Sadly, nothing could bring back Amy Winehouse, but Bruno Mars2011 VMA performance of “Valerie” was a touching artistic tribute to the late singer.

48. ATTENTION! LADY WITH A BABY COMING THROUGH! ALL HAIL THE FUTURE PROPHET, BLUE IVY!

49. In case you needed another reason to cry after Beyonce announced her pregnancy at the 2011 VMAs, Adele destroyed what was left of everyone’s emotions with her astonishing performance of “Someone Like You,” which won her three Moonmen.

50. SLAYLOR SWIFT! Slaying once again at the 2012 VMAs with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” this time with a delightful British accent at the “so, he calls me up…” bridge. (Subtle ex-boyfriend shade!) Brilliant.

51. Regardless of the fact that One Direction was also there to do one thing — perform… “One Thing”… and win three VMAs.

52. HI, HI, HI, *NSYNC AT THE 2013 VMAS!

53. What else happened at the 2013 VMAs? Oh yeah, just this.

The 2014 MTV Video Music Awards are a wrap! Stick with us for the most talked-about moments, red carpet photos, the VMA winners list and more.

More From the 2014 VMAs

* Okay, it’s a hyperbolic assumption and not a fact. But still — they’re not boring!