If the Oscars are a time to celebrate film and the Grammys are a time to celebrate music, the VMAs are a time to celebrate pop culture at its delightfully trashiest. Every year, people excitedly await the MTV award show to see the craziness that is bound to occur. And every year, new scandals break that crowd out their predecessors – although, as we are about to see, some years are crazier than others.
These scandals then become part of our cultural heritage, like opera to the Germans or buttery cuisine to the French. Whether they get enshrined into the SNL canon via a parody starring Maya Rudolph or turned into a viral meme, these moments are references that become part of the cultural vernacular. Who hasn’t, at a friendly potluck, defended the hard work of their friend’s ignored lentil salad by saying, “I’m really happy for you and imma let you finish, but this one of the greatest salads of all time.” Or something.
And so, as an homage to the scandals past and those sure to come at the end of the month, we have compiled a list of the ten most scandalous moments in VMA history. From nudity to rudeness to plain provocation, these are the scandals we’ll still be referring to when we’re sitting in a nursing home fifty years from now.
10. Kanye West Crashes Taylor Swift’s Acceptance Speech
In 2009, Taylor Swift won best female video with “You Belong With Me,” beating out several other female pop stars, most famously Beyoncé. That same year, Bey was nominated for “Single Ladies,” which albeit not one of the “best videos of all time,” was definitely more worthy than Taylor’s uninspired tale of revenge over a villain so parodic even the Disney Channel would be like “tone it down.”
Kanye West apparently felt the same way, because in the middle of her speech, he jumped up, grabbed the microphone, and told the world that she didn’t deserve the award. Swift, only twenty years old at the time, was too stunned to act.
9. Bruno Drops Down Onto Eminem
Also in 2009, Eminem got a faceful of Sacha Baron Cohen’s butt, as his gay alias Bruno. In order to present the award for Best Male Performance, Cohen descended from the ceiling on wires, dressed in a feathery angel costume. He landed on top of Eminem, who started yelling and eventually stormed out of the theater.
Unfortunately for us, the mishap was confirmed to be rehearsed by the participants, with the rapper claiming that he laughed for “hours afterwards.” But for a few, fun hours after the show, Eminem’s surprise same-sex physical contact was all people could talk about.
8. Britney Spears Performs “I’m A Slave 4 U” With A Python
The turn of the millennium was when Britney Spears was inventing the now-clichéd transformation from Mickey Mouse clubber to sex symbol. In 2000, she performed “Oops… I Did It Again” at the VMAs. And although on that album she was already a little sexified, it was still coy, tongue-in-cheek sex appeal, not the later total raunch.
In 2001, Britney brought the nasty. She entered the stage in a cage with a tiger that she then writhed out of and had an albino python wrapped around her neck like a sarong. All this time, she’s singing “I’m A Slave 4 U,” a departure from the previous mere suggestiveness of her music.
7. Rose McGowan’s Non-Dress
You can’t show up at the VMAs on the arm of one of the industry’s most controversial artists, Marilyn Manson, wearing something subtle and forgettable. Rose McGowan realized this in 1998 when she showed up at the VMAs in a chain and mesh number sans bra or underwear – well, she had on a leopard print string that just barely covered her privates. The rest of her body was on display, exposing herself to an entire generation of young men who presumably had never witnessed the world of adult entertainment.
6. Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” Performance
In one of the best ever VMA performances, Lady Gaga finished off her 2009 rendition of “Paparazzi” by staging a fake hanging. As her limp body rotates through the air, the viewer catches a glimpse of her gooey, blood-filled eyes.
Unlike many live performances, which have to depart from the music’s theme to make something memorable, Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” was faithful to the song’s themes. The flash bulbs imitate the harassment of tabloid photographers and the final hanging echoes macabre inflections of lyrics like: “I won’t stop until that boy is mine.” This performance is another reason why 2009 was such a good year for the VMAs.
5. Diana Ross Grabs A Handful of Lil’ Kim
We were tempted to give Lil’ Kim a slot all to herself, but Diana Ross’s behavior begged for this to be a two in one. In 1999, Li’l Kim showed up to the VMAs in a purple jumpsuit that excluded her left breast, which she covered with a matching pasty.
During the ceremony, Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige, and Li’l Kim were slotted to present “Best Hip Hop Video.” When Li’l Kim came out onto stage, Ms. Ross was so amused by Lil’ Kim’s outfit that instead of simply greeting her, she reached out and gave her a proper greeting. Lil’ Kim, far from being put off, burst out laughing.
4. Madonna Sings “Like A Virgin”
The first VMAs were in 1984. Since it was such a new enterprise, the producers were having difficulty attracting headlining talent. Hosts Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd were fogies relative to MTV’s typical audience being in their thirties at the time. They did book a relatively unknown artist though – Madonna.
In her performance of “Like A Virgin,” Madonna slinked off a 15 foot wedding cake. When one of her white bridal shoes fell off, she lunged after it and then rolled around on stage, pretending as if she had meant to do that all along. The audience peeped her frilly panties and the performance started the trend for audacity at the VMAs.
3. Li’l Mama Crashes The Stage During Empire State of Mind
Remember Lil’ Mama? Yeah, neither do we. She had one single, “Lipgloss,” back in 2007 that got to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. But that didn’t stop her from having the moxie to crash Jay Z and Alicia Keys’ stage during the crescendo of “Empire State of Mind” at the 2009 VMAs.
Li’l Mama claimed that the song elated her so much that she couldn’t help but run on stage. Alicia Keys has said that she appreciated Lil’ Mama’s enthusiasm, but would have liked her to enthuse from her seat.
2. Madonna Kisses Britney and Christina
Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera performed a mashup of “Like A Virgin” and “Hollywood” at the 2003 VMAs. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, like Madonna twenty years earlier, descend from a wedding cake. Then Madonna emerges, dressed in a top hat and tails, and dances with them.
Near the end of their performance, she looks over at Britney and kisses her. She then proceeds to do the same to Christina. People would normally not have been that scandalized, but kissing on the lips between two mega stars was a little taboo.
1. Lady Gaga’s Meat Dress
In 2011, Lady Gaga received the CFDA’s Fashion Icon of the Year Award in a custom Mugler gown, whose dangerously low-cut bodice might have exposed a little more than necessary. In short, Lady Gaga is no newbie to provocative fashion.
In 2010, she showed up at the VMAs in a dress made up of 40 pounds of thin cut Argentine beef, complete with a meat purse and a meat fascinator. The dress was preserved like jerky and inserted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Hame, because what is more rock n’ roll than wearing raw meat?