The MTV Video Music Awards are this weekend. The only reason why I know that is because I’ve been wanting to write this column and looked up when the awards ceremony would be this year so I could post it beforehand.
That’s the extent of my knowledge of MTV and today’s music scene. I can’t remember the last time I actually tuned in to watch.
It’s easy to understand how someone like me could be so apathetic. MTV hasn’t played videos in years and doesn’t even stand for “Music Television” anymore, it’s fair to ask whether the Video Music Awards have outlived their usefulness.
It’s also a reminder of what the show used to mean. Edgier and hipper than the Grammys, the VMAs used to be mandatory viewing for anyone who liked music. Additionally, so many great, memorable and controversial moments happened on the show that you felt like you missed out if you didn’t experience it as it aired. Madonna writhing around on stage in a wedding dress. Prince giving us “Under the Full Moon” the sequel to Under the Cherry Moon that we didn’t know existed. Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth burying the hatchet — in each other. Kanye being Kanye. The list goes on and on.
And, of course, there have been plenty of less-than-stellar moments. Some have even managed to kill off an artist’s or band’s careers. Here are some of the biggest ones:
Britney Spears, “Gimme More,” 2007 MTV VMAs
When it comes to iconic performances and moments, Britney Spears has had some of the biggest in the history of the MTV VMAs.
Her back-to-back performances at the 2000 and 2001 shows were the equivalent of a pop cultural atomic bomb. There was no going viral back then — and good thing for that, because the sight of her stripping out of her suit and showing off her flesh-colored bikini in 2000 or dancing with a snake in 2001 would have broken the internet. And that’s before we even talk about 2003, when she kissed Madonna on stage (oh, and Christina Aguilera was there too).
By 2007, however, things had changed considerably for the onetime pop princess. Spears was in the midst of a well-publicized breakdown, with the media gleefully reporting on her every misstep. She seemingly hit rock bottom in February 2007 when she walked into a hair salon in Tarzana, CA, grabbed some clippers and shaved her head.
Rehab beckoned and, after competing her program, she set about making her comeback. And no stage seemed more appropriate for her triumphant return than the VMAs. Surely, Spears would come up with another brilliant, provocative and iconic performance and consign her recent troubles to a mere footnote in her life story, right?
Unfortunately, she hadn’t performed before a large audience since 2004, and it showed. The once bold, confident and bewitching performer was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the Spears that showed up was nervous and tentative as she lip-synced her way through a rendition of her comeback single, “Gimme More.” Whether it was because she didn’t really want to be out there or was somewhere else, mentally or emotionally (or chemically – we don’t know), Spears looked like a reanimated zombie on stage, half-heartedly going through the motions. Worse, while she was in great shape for someone who had just had two kids, she hadn’t regained her pre-baby body, which led to plenty of body-shaming from critics and fans of her formerly taut form. The crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of it either — arguably, the audience shots featuring a confused looking 50 Cent, Nelly and Kid Rock were more entertaining than what was happening on stage.
While Spears had plenty of defenders (e.g. the “Leave Britney Alone” video that went viral), most people panned her listless performance. Things got worse the following year, when she lost custody of her sons and was placed on a psychiatric hold at UCLA Medical Center. Her highly controversial conservatorship began later that year, an arrangement that only recently ended. For most of the next decade-plus, she alternated between performing in Las Vegas and recording a series of forgettable albums and singles. She also may or may not have dated Fred Durst. So I guess the VMAs weren’t rock bottom, after all.
NSYNC, 2002 MTV VMAs
When Justin Timberlake was announced as a solo performer at the 2002 VMAs, it raised a lot of eyebrows. The NSYNC co-lead singer was already starting to become the main focus of the band’s videos, albums and performances as his superior songwriting ability and on-stage charisma dwarfed the others. For the band’s 2001 album, Celebrity, Timberlake had co-written the band’s three singles and had taken center stage in the videos and on most of the promotional material. Even the album cover showed him front and center compared to the others.
So when word came out that the band was taking a hiatus and he was recording a solo album, it seemed like a natural next step. Unless you were an NSYNC fan, of course. Surely, that was a sign that Timberlake was going to pull a Michael Jackson and go solo, right?
Well, not at first. “There’s no reason my solo career and NSYNC can’t coexist in the same universe,” Timberlake insisted to the New York Post in November 2002. “NSYNC is in no danger. The break we’re on was a conscious move. We all wanted to do it, and we were ready to do it. Performing at stadiums every night for 50,000 fans takes a little out of you.”
At the VMAs that year, all seemed well. Despite it being his first performance as a solo artist, Timberlake looked like a seasoned pro and brought down the house with his rendition of “Like I Love You,” the lead single from his solo debut album, Justified. He didn’t get the big headlines that year, thanks to the performance listed in the “Honorable Mention” section of this piece. Nevertheless, it was obvious to everyone watching that he was perfectly capable of doing this on his own — including his bandmates who had a front row seat to watch Timberlake’s coming out party.
Indeed, when Timberlake and three other members of NSYNC showed up later to present the Viewers’ Choice Award (an award NSYNC had won the previous three years but weren’t up for that year because of their hiatus), the atmosphere seemed awkward. Chris Kirkpatrick, always Justin’s best friend in the group, tried to hype him up to the crowd. This drew a good-natured smile from Joey Fatone, however, J.C. Chasez, the other frontman in NSYNC, barely cracked a grin.
That probably should have been a sign that all wasn’t well. And as it turned out, it wasn’t. The band’s hiatus ended up becoming a permanent one, as Timberlake went on to become a superstar (although his star has definitely faded in the last several years). The full band has only performed twice since 2002: singing the national anthem at a charity event in 2004 (according to Lance Bass, the band had a meeting afterwards in which Timberlake officially left the group) and doing a one-off reunion at the 2013 VMAs when Timberlake received the Video Vanguard Award). Kirkpatrick, Fatone and Bass did perform at WWE star Alexa Bliss’ April 2022 wedding to singer Ryan Cabrera — let’s put it this way, there’s a reason why JT and JC did most of the singing.
“Unskinny Bop” “Talk Dirty to Me,” 1991 MTV VMAs
In many ways, the 1991 VMAs represented the end of an era. Grunge and gangsta rap were on the horizon, but hadn’t yet gone mainstream. As such, there were a lot of winners, nominees, presenters and performers that year that would be out-of-style by the time of the landmark 1992 show. For instance, did you know Gerardo’s “Rico Suave” was nominated for Best Male Video and Best New Artist in 1991? Or that C+C Music Factory got seven nominations and were one of the big winners on the night? Or that Warrant got nominated for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Video (and it wasn’t for “Cherry Pie“)?
Meanwhile, one of the performers that night was Poison. The band’s 1990 album, the triple-platinum Flesh & Blood, produced two big hits, “Unskinny Bop” and “Something To Believe In,” which reached #3 and #4 on the Billboard 100, respectively. So they were a natural choice to perform at the 1991 VMAs (although, interestingly enough, they weren’t nominated for any awards that night, which speaks to the critical dissonance that has always followed Poison around).
Whether they were in the best shape to perform is another story. The foursome had long been known as wild, decadent and volatile. Band members already didn’t like each other very much — throw in some coke, alcohol and other chemicals and things could get explosive. At a sportsbar in New Orleans shortly before the VMAs that year, singer Bret Michaels and guitarist C.C. Deville got into a fistfight. “Me and him were having a few words, having a good time, next thing you know – maybe a couple drinks, a little substance here – next thing you know a few words, and we are beating the living crap out of each other,” Michaels recalled in a 2015 interview.
The night of the VMAs went much the same way. For instance, Deville seemed like he was somewhere else that night, having rambled incoherently during an earlier spot in the show with “Downtown” Julie Brown. Then, when the band took the stage, the show was in the middle of a commercial break. Once they were back on air, host Arsenio Hall was supposed to introduce them and they were supposed to perform “Unskinny Bop.” However, Deville started playing before the end of the break, and when MTV came back from commercials, Poison were already a minute or so into their performance. Ultimately, they realized what was happening and stopped playing, whereupon Hall improvised a quick intro for them to then start their performance over.
Michaels, however, tried to get the crowd riled up and asked them if they were ready to “talk dirty to me.” Deville, evidently, took that to mean the band was going to play its 1987 hit “Talk Dirty To Me” and started playing that riff. The band had no choice but to follow him and made the most out of it, launching into one of their best-known songs, albeit one that was already four years old. “It ain’t perfect, but it’s rock ‘n roll,” Michaels said once the song ended.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of things. An angry Michaels confronted Deville backstage and the two got into another fistfight, which resulted in Deville’s termination from the band. They eventually replaced him with Richie Kotzen and released the ill-fated 1993 album Native Tongue, which saw the band try for a more mature sound amidst the grunge revolution. That album was a dismal flop and they eventually brought back Deville, becoming a nostalgia act in the 2000s. They’re currently opening for fellow 80s hair metal icons Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe in a 2022 stadium tour.
Rage Against the Machine, 2000 MTV VMAs
Plenty of people were annoyed when Limp Bizkit won Best Rock Video at the 2000 VMAs, beating the likes of Metallica and Rage Against the Machine (and since this was 2000, Korn, Kid Rock and Creed were also nominated).
But only one person had the wherewithal to do something about it. After the winner was announced, Rage bassist Tim Commerford stormed the stage, climbed up the scaffolding, and staged a one-man protest. Apparently, the machine he was raging against was MTV for having the gall to reward a band like Limp Bizkit.
We were up against Limp Bizkit, one of the dumbest bands in the history of music. We’re up against them and their singer made the video. So it was Limp Bizkit vs. Rage, Fred Durst-directed video vs. Michael Moore [director of the “Sleep Now in Fire” video]. And I’m sitting there with Michael and I’m like, ‘Hey man, if that camera doesn’t come over here, I’m climbing up that structure and I’m gonna sit there like a f—ing gargoyle and throw a wrench in this show.’ And he’s like, ‘Tim, follow your heart.'”Tim Commerford, 2015 interview.
Unfortunately for Commerford, the authorities were less than pleased with his stunt. Commerford and his bodyguard were arrested and spent the night in prison. While Limp Bizkit took his actions in stride (“This guy is rock n’ roll. He should be winning the award,” Durst said on stage) Commerford’s bandmates were upset. Lead guitarist Tom Morello and lead singer Zack de la Rocha had both advised him against doing anything. De la Rocha, in particular, was especially upset about the stunt, leaving the show immediately afterwards and telling Rolling Stone that he was humiliated.
One month later, de la Rocha announced his departure from the band, effectively bringing Rage to an end. “I feel that it is now necessary to leave Rage because our decision-making process has completely failed. It is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively as a band, and from my perspective, has undermined our artistic and political ideal,” he said in a statement.
While the band would reunite for several tours over the next 20-plus years, they haven’t recorded an album since before their initial breakup. Clearly one machine they aren’t raging against is the nostalgia tour complex.
Guns N’ Roses 2.0, “Welcome to the Jungle/Madagascar/Paradise City,” 2002 MTV VMAs
During dress rehearsals for the 2002 show, reporters and fans waiting to get into the theater heard something very familiar and very interesting: the opening riff to “Welcome to the Jungle.” Then they heard a guy who sounded very much like Axl Rose start singing. So either Guns N’ Roses were about to make a surprise performance or MTV had hired a great cover band.
Sure enough, word leaked out that it was the real deal and that GNR would, indeed, perform. Host Jimmy Fallon even started teasing it in the middle of the show, and when it came time to introduce the band, the future Tonight Show host could barely contain his excitement. “Ladies and gentlemen, Guns N’ F—-ing Roses!” Fallon shrieked while jumping up and down like a crazed fan.
It was an introduction fit for a king, and at one time, GNR could have credibly laid claim to the crown — especially when it came to MTV. After all, Guns N’ Roses had once been one of the biggest bands in the world, and a major reason for that was MTV. Their epic videos had become must-see events for anyone with cable and their excellent live performances, to say nothing of their dangerous, wild antics offstage had led to plenty of memorable VMA moments.
By 2002, though, the classic version of the band was dead. Axl Rose had been a hermit for much of the late 90s/early 00s, hard at work on an album that was beginning to rival the likes of Smile by virtue of its seemingly never ending recording process.
And most of his old bandmates were long gone. When they took the stage at the VMAs only Rose and keyboardist Dizzy Reed were left from the Use Your Illusion era lineup. Surrounding them were a bunch of hired guns, including a dude that looked like an alien, a guy with a KFC bucket on his head, the bass player from The Replacements, and the drummer from Primus.
The new lineup ran through a medley consisting of two songs off Appetite for Destruction and a new song off its long-delayed album Chinese Democracy. Unfortunately that wasn’t the only running being done, as Rose (sporting the worst set of dreadlocks this side of Chris Kirkpatrick) thought he was still in the shape he was in during the 80s and early 90s. He did some wind sprints up and down the stage, predictably getting tired and straining his voice.
Nevertheless, the band got a great reception and fans seemed thrilled to see them again. When Rose finished the performance, he had an interview with MTV’s Kurt Loder, where it was widely assumed Rose would triumphantly announce that Chinese Democracy was about to hit stores soon. Surely, it was part of a solid comeback plan that would catapult the new GNR back to the top of the heap, right?
Instead, he revealed the album, which had been gestating since the mid-90s, wasn’t close to being done and that fans would have to keep waiting. “You’ll see [the album], but I don’t know if ‘soon’ is the word,” he said.
In fact, it would be another six years before it came out. By that time, any momentum the new GNR might have had from the VMA performance was long gone.