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The MTV VMAs in five scandalous performances

Music

Doja Cat, BTS, J Balvin. The first names of the artists performing at the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards just dropped. Even though this year’s ceremony will be filmed without an audience, the artists still feel the pressure to produce a memorable show. While the VMAs aim at awarding the best music videos of the year, they have been the stage of show-stopping and scandalous performances from their very first edition in the 1980s. From Madonna’s somersaults in a wedding dress in 1984 to Miley Cyrus twerking on stage in 2013, let’s look back at five performances that marked the show’s history.

1. Madonna, Like a Virgin, 1984

Madonna - “Like a Virgin”, VMAs 1984

In 1984, 26-year-old Madonna was already recognised as one of the most important artists in the music industry. After the commercial success of her first songs – among which was Holiday –, Madonna released her second studio album entitled Like a Virgin. The project turned out to be a triumph and topped the charts in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New-Zealand, Spain, the UK and the US. The American network MTV – which was championing a rather rebellious attitude by encouraging sex jokes and smoking on-screen – invited the pop star to the first edition of the MTV VMAs, launched only three years after the creation of the network. That night, Madonna shared the stage with Eddy Murphy, Cyndi Lauper and Eddie Van Halen. When the “material girl” arrived on stage to perform her single Like a Virgin, standing on a giant cake and wearing a wedding dress that read “Boy Toy”, all eyes were laid on her. After the first few verses, Madonna started taking off parts her costume, removing her veil and singing the very suggestive lyrics to her song: “I was beat, incomplete/I’d been had/I was sad and blue/But you made me feel, shiny and new/Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.” Later in the performance, Madonna started rolling around on stage, exposing her underwear and garter holder to the view of a very puritan America. For Freddy DeMann, her manager at the time, the pop star had just signed the end of her career. Yet, her performance was largely covered by the media, owning her the title of “queen of provocation”. After the VMAs, she became a real sex-symbol and influenced the fashion of the 1980S with underwear worn over tee-shirts and stressed jewellery.  

2. Britney Spears, Oops I did it Again, 2000

Britney Spears - “Oops I did it Again” 2000 VAMs

In the year 2000, the VMAs had already become a real show-business institution and were already associated with scandalous performances. That night, the show invited Janet Jackson, Eminem, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, NSYNC, Nelly, Christina Aguilera and “America’s sweetheart” Britney Spears to perform on stage. After making her debut in the “Mickey Mouse Club” alongside Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears stole the heart of the Americans, quickly becoming associated with the “good girl” trope. In 2000, the pop star gained international success with her first studio album entitled …Baby One More Time, a rather suggestive project aiming at dissociating her from her childlike image. At age 18, the young Britney Spears got up on the stage of the VMAs wearing what – at first glance – appeared to be nothing more than a black sequin suit, and started singing a very sensual cover of Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. All good up to this point. When she got to the second verse, the pop star ripped off her costume and revealed a matching pair of skin colour sequin bra and trousers. She also modified the lyrics to the Stones song, resonating as a cry from the heart: “When I’m watching my TV, and that girl comes on and tells me, how tight my skirt should be, but she can’t tell me who to be.” Britney Spears then moved on to performing her song Oops I did it again, surrounded by a dozen shirtless dancers and light effects that showed-off her barely covered body.  With this performance, Britney Spears wanted to let everyone know she was not a little girl anymore, and that she was not that innocent.

3. Missy Elliott, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera pay tribute to Madonna, 2003

Missy Elliott, Brintey Spears and Christina Aguilera in a tribute to Madonna at the 2003 VMAs

This is undoubtedly one of the most scandalous moments in the show’s history – and there were plenty. In 2003, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott paid a musical tribute to Madonna. Britney Spears got up on the stage of the VMAs and sang Like a Virgin in a wedding gown on top of a giant cake, as a reference to the now-iconic 1984 Material Girl performance. She then was joined by her ex Club Mickey co-star Christina Aguilera, also wearing a wedding dress. When the song ended, organ sounds started playing in the room, as Madonna emerged from the giant cake dressed as a groom, wearing a tuxedo and a top hat. The queen of pop then started singing the first notes of her song Hollywood, initiating a number of seduction with the two other singers, alternating between promiscuous poses and dances. But the performance really climaxed when Madonna exchanged not one, but two passionate kisses on the lips with both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, maintaining her title of “queen of provocation”.

4. Lady Gaga, Paparazzi, 2009

Lady Gaga - “Paparazzi” at the 2009 VMAs

In 2009, Lady Gaga was just at the beginning of her career as an international artist. Her debut album The Fame was a tremendous commercial success and ranked number one on the charts in Austria, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and in the UK. Her first two singles, Just Dance and Poker Face were broadcast on every radio and played in every club, promoting her to the rank of international pop star. Nominated seven times at the VMAs in 2009, Mother Monster – as her fans call her – had gotten her public used to extravagant costumes and show-stopping performances. But that night, she went even further. On stage, Lady Gaga danced around a marble double staircase and crystal chandeliers, recreating the opulent atmosphere of the Paparazzi music video. After a spectacular piano interlude, the pop star walked back to the centre stage with red liquid flowing from her chest. In a very dramatic performance, the show ended with the singer’s voice breaking, and her bloody corpse hung a few meters over the ground. In 2007, huge celebrities such as Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears were harassed by the media. They were followed day and night, everywhere they went, and every one of their faux-pas made the headlines of the gutter press, widely contributing to their mental health issues. With the song Paparazzi, and especially this performance, Lady Gaga wanted to shed light on the dangers of this phenomenon, going as far as staging her own death.

5. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke, 2013

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs

By 2013, one would think that the VMAs had become a rite of passage for young pop stars to break free from their childlike image. After having started her career on Disney Channel and met international success by playing the role of Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus also wanted to let everyone know she was no little girl anymore. She stormed back in the music industry in 2013 with her Bangerz album, featuring the party, sex and drugs anthem We Can’t Stop, along with the power ballad Wrecking Ball, which music video made the headlines of the media at the time. In the video, we could see the 21-year-old singer in the nude, making out with a sledgehammer and swinging around on a wrecking ball. After that, the audience was expecting Miley Cyrus to put on a not-so-traditional show at the 2013 VMAs. Little did they know, her performance would include prancing around the stage in a skin colour two-piece, and twerking in front of the 36-year-old American singer Robin Thicke while singing the very problematic lyrics to Blurred Lines: “You’re a good girl/I know you want it/I hate these blurred lined/the way you grab me/must wanna get nasty.” A performance that landed quite far away from her debuts on Disney Channel, or her most recent and tamed down songs, Malibu and Slide Away.