Here’s a fact: In under three decades, MTV’s Video Music Awards have given us more iconic, bizarre, meaningful, meaningless, and awesome moments than literally any other award ceremomy on television. We’ll see if this year’s ceremony can live up to all 28 others tonight on MTV, but first, let’s remember the best moments in the VMAs’ kickass, hard-rocking history.
10. Taylor Swift’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy with Kanye West
As I remember it, the most mystifying part of the Taylor Swift/Kanye West acceptance speech debacle was the staging. As Swift attempted to thank MTV and her fans while brandishing the Best Female Video trophy for “You Belong to Me” in 2009, West suddenly appeared to her right — at a perfect camera angle, in record time — and snarked, “Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’ma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.” The moment seemed ridiculous, yet well-choreographed. Was it fixed? I think not, but any moment that provokes heated debate about Network-style ratings stunts deserves a spot on this list.
9. Pee Wee Herman gets the joke
It took one porno theater masturbation scandal to make Pee Wee Herman a cult hero, and thus, his post-arrest reemergence at the 1991 VMAs was received in a sensational roar by the captive audience. After he soaked in the adulation, he asked one of the great rhetorical questions of our time: “Heard any good jokes lately?” Cheeky, little man. Cheeky.
8. Britney Spears “does it again” for the first time.
Forget the “Gimme More” fiasco and even the “I’m a Slave 4 U” snake dance of ’01; Britney’s definitive VMA moment is her sudden stripdown at the 2000 VMAs during a colossal version of “Satisfaction”/”Oops… I Did It Again.” To see Spears rip off her bedazzled blazer and slacks to reveal what looked like nothing but body glitter was shocking and scandalous — even after you realized it was a flesh-toned bodysuit. At the very least, the performance was a welcome delight after the drudgery of watching the Wayans brothers‘ abysmal hosting.
7. Bon Jovi strums up a new generation of MTV greatness
If you can spawn the genesis of an entire MTV series with just one performance, you’ve earned yourself a place in history. When Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora strummed and trilled onstage without any electrical accompaniment, their stirring versions of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead Or Alive” inspired the birth of MTV Unplugged, arguably the network’s most respected institution. Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett, and Lauryn Hill owe massive thanks to the Slippery When Wet hunks for kickstarting the album series that afforded them major comeback opportunities.