14 Random Moments From VMA History

“Please welcome the star of My Best Friend’s Wedding and a guy who ate everything at my best friend’s wedding: Dermot Mulroney and the big guy from Blues Traveler, John Popper.” Award shows are often stiff or phoney or any number of other pejoratives, but when a random assortment of talented artists are combined with host like Chris Rock – the comic behind the above quote – they can at least be momentarily amusing. For whatever its flaws might have been, MTV’s Video Music Awards broadcasts once upon a time were spiked with random moments of this sort. Moments that were not necessarily funny, even if they were trying to be, but amusing just the same. Moments that were unintentionally awkward, random or just plain weird – and we love them for it.

For instance:

John Popper Wears Antlers And Ad-libs;
Beck Makes Bad Puns And Quotes Gary Wilson

1997 VMA Best Male Video Presentation And Post-Show Interview 

Let’s begin with the scene set by Chris Rock above. Blues Traveler’s “Carolina Blues” played in the background as Dermot Mulroney and John Popper walked out to present Best Male Video. So far, so normal. But then instead of performing their vaguely requested routine, Popper immediately began ad-libbing about the fact that he’s not following the teleprompter and is unfamiliar with the songs MTV asked him to play because he doesn’t watch television. When Dermot tries to wheel it in (“well that is all to say that we are here to announce the nominees…”) Popper interjects in joking exasperation: “I think this is exactly the kind of thing that MTV tries to pull to get you to do something – you don’t even know what it is!”

“They forgot to write copy for Dermot and myself,” Popper explains now twenty years later, “so I tried to swing it. I sent Dermot a sweater for leaving him out in the cold. He couldn’t get a word in.” Making it all the more comically awkward and random were the antlers John wore on top of his signature fedora for no apparent reason. When asked by the press about the antlers at a post-show press conference he feigned ignorance:

Beck won, and though more subdued, his acceptance speech began just as awkward with him attempting a pun about winning “male video.” (Commenting on the gendering of awards is a theme for him: he mentioned it again in interviews later that night and in his acceptance speech the previous year. This is particularly interesting two decades on given the VMAs are ditching gender specific awards this year: Beck was a trailblazer!)

In total Beck took home five Moonmen that night, more than anyone else: Best Direction in a Video, Best Choreography in a Video and Best Art Direction in a Video with “The New Pollution;” and Best Male Video with “Devil’s Haircut.” The mere fact that Beck won that much facing off against more mainstream artists (Will Smith, Smashing Pumpkins, Missy Elliott, Nine Inch Nails, Babyface, R. Kelly, Jamiroquai) was itself unexpected. By show’s end MTV couldn’t keep track of his tally, leading to more impromptu randomness in his post-win interview. “We don’t really know the mathematics just yet but what we do know that 6.4 equals make out,” Beck dead-panned in reference to a Gary Wilson song that surely went over the heads of the bulk of MTV’s viewership.

Of course he did, he’s Beck.

Beck’s version of “The New Pollution” that night was one for the ages, though again a bit out of place amongst fellow performers (The Spice Girls; Puff Daddy with Faith Evans, 112, Mase and Sting; Jewel; Marilyn Manson; Lil’ Kim, Da Brat, Missy Elliott, Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes and Angie Martinez). A minute and a half in Beck starts break-dancing, then has a stagehand come out with a mirror so he can comb his hair. He cools himself with an Asian folding fan; he cracks a whip as he sings “like a whip-crack sending me shivers,” he jumps like he’s in Van Halen, he throws he jacket off, he alternates between moves like Jagger and splits like James Brown, he struts like he owns the stage.

And own he did.

Fiona Apple Declares “This World Is Bullshit”

1997 VMA Best New Artist Acceptance Speech 

Here’s another flashback from twenty years ago: Fiona Apple wins, quotes Maya Angelou and then declares, “this world is bullshit.”

Tell us what you really think!

“You shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything,” Apple elaborated. “Go with yourself.”

Van Halen Break-Up While Presenting To Beck

1996 VMA Best Male Video Presentation 

The original Van Halen lineup played their last show September 7, 1984. David Lee Roth was replaced by Sammy Hagar after that, and various other incarnations have toured since. So when the VMAs got the core four to appear together in 1996 it was viewed as a big deal. It didn’t last long though.

The reunion came on the heels of Hagar parting ways with the band after disagreeing over the Twister soundtrack. David Lee Roth was back in, they recorded two new songs for Best Of – Volume I, then made their first public appearance of the reunion to present the Best Male Video award at the 1996 VMAs. Eddie starts off as scripted by MTV, but Roth is quick to interrupt him. “Nah, nah, nah. Instead of the best award thing we have to make an announcement,” Roth says, going off teleprompter. Eddie looks annoyed. “We have to address a subject here. This is the first time we’ve actually stood onstage together in over a decade.” The crowd cheers. They awkwardly shake hands and hug. Eddie continues as planned, but when its Michael Anthony’s turn to speak Roth interrupts him. “Have you noticed how things have changed a lot since the last time we were up here? It used to be, ‘I Want My MTV!’ and now it’s like, ‘Gimme your fucking MTV or I’ll blow your head off man.”

Eventually they get through announcing the award. Beck wins and comes to stage to accept, but as he does Roth is squirming around on camera, directly behind Beck. And that was it. The Van Halen reunion evaporated right there on television in back of Beck as he clumsily pieced together his speech.

“I felt his onstage antics were embarrassing and disrespectful to Beck,” Eddie explained to MTV a few months later. “Backstage he basically spit in my face. We get shuffled off to the first mob press conference and everyone was yelling and screaming questions and Dave wasn’t answering any of them. I just kinda walked up to him and say, ‘Look, here’s what is happening. Two songs for Best Of Volume One. Warner Bros. would like us to do two videos and that is it. If you think we’re going on tour in the summer, forget it.”

Wayne Coyne Introduces His Space Bubble To The World

2004 VMA Best Hip-Hop Video Presentation 

Long before Wayne Coyne shot confetti out of Miley Cyrus’ crotch as the finale of the 2015 VMAs he brought his now signature “space bubble” to the mainstream by walking over the VMA audience en route to awarding OutKast Best Hip-hop Video.

Unlike today, giant inflatable balls of this sort were virtually unheard of. Artists ranging from Sugarland to Akon, P!NK to Diplo have all copied the act from Coyne in years since. But at the time even Coyne had previously walked over just one audience in his plastic ball: The Flaming Lips’ 2004 Coachella crowd. Suffice to say: the randomness of Wayne descended from space to help Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah present this award can not be put into words.

The Polyphonic Spree Levitate

2004 VMA Performance

If there’s one thing that made Coyne’s space bubble walk not so strange it’s that earlier the same night The Polyphonic Spree levitated while performing “Hold Me Now.” Not really of course (they had harnesses under their robes), but unexpected just the same. What’s stranger than the performance itself was the mere fact that MTV actually had the Spree perform at the VMAs. (And also that they were introduced by Mandy Moore and Marilyn Manson.)

Elsewhere that night, Sasquatch helped The Beastie Boys give a Moonman to Yellowcard (remember them?) for the MTV2 Award. That category – with nominees also including Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand – was one of four The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” was nominated for and lost. (Karen and co.’s non-Yellowcard losses were more understandable: Best Cinematography in a Video and Best Editing in a Video went to Jay Z “99 Problems,” and Best Art Direction in a Video went to “OutKast “Hey Ya!”).

Krist Novoselic Hits Himself In The Face

1992 VMA Performance 

Nirvana were famous in part for destroying their instruments. One of the most famous examples came during their performance of “Rape Me/ Lithium” at the 1992 VMAs when Krist Novoselic discovered that playing the bass might be a better idea than throwing it in the air mid-song. See for yourself at 4:13 in the video below:

In 2008 Novoselic recounted what happened in his Seattle Weekly blog:

“Nirvana showed up for the production of the awards show early in the day at UCLA, west of Hollywood. The show was in the sports arena, and there were mobile houses set up for the performers off an athletic field.

We settled into our trailer. In the music world, you show up on time only to wait around a lot. Why not have a beer to take the edge off? Instead of a cold, sudsy treat, I found cans of warm cheap beer. Arg! Might as well let it cool down in the mini-fridge for a while.

I walked around and checked out the stage area. Other bands were showing up. I said hello to the fellows in Pearl Jam and the Black Crowes. Sammy Hagar said hi. There was Howard Stern in a suit made to let his bare buttocks hang out.

I eventually made it to the food service area, where Kurt and Courtney were at a table with their newborn daughter, Frances. They told me that Axl Rose had walked by and Courtney started teasing him. She yelled, “Axl, Axl—you’re the godfather!” Upon hearing this, Axl apparently got very annoyed, walked over to Kurt, and demanded that he keep his woman in line. Kurt turned to Courtney and sarcastically asked his woman to keep in line and left it at that. Axl then split. Of course, Kurt and Courtney were musing over Axl’s response in the context of society’s patriarchal tendencies. My thought was that Rose shouldn’t have gotten bent out of shape. He should have walked over and asked to kiss the baby or something!

At the same time, Kurt wanted to play the tune “Rape Me” and was adamant about it. The MTV people were upset. We were being asked from all corners not to. I thought we should play something off Nevermind, do the gig, and leave. Easy, right? No. Kurt was very stubborn and refused to play another tune. There was quite a swirl around this issue.

I went back to the trailer and had a still-warm beer. Yuk, but I drank it anyway. To resolve the song controversy, we said we were going to do “Lithium,” but we decided among the band to pull a prank and play a few chords of “Rape Me” at the beginning. Even though the issue was resolved, the back and forth between their people, our people, us and them, or whoever—it was draining.

I was walking toward the stage and came across my now-friend and colleague, Duff McKagan. I think Duff was also under the influence. He must have heard something from Rose and had a terse word for me. I was already a little bent out of shape and instantly replied with the same sentiment. The production people grabbed me and we continued toward the stage.

I was now even more shook up. One should take the stage in a good frame of mind, but I wasn’t there. Nirvana gets introduced, and we start playing our prank, then switch into “Lithium.” I’m plugged into some awful bass rig that’s distorting terribly. I can barely hear what I’m playing, and the tone deteriorates into an inaudible mess. Fuck it—time for the bass-toss schtick. Up it goes!!!!! I always try to get good air—I bet I hit over 25 feet, easy! But no matter how high it went, I was not on my game— the only time I’ve ever dropped it was then in front of 300 million people. Ouch! I was fine, but I faked like I was knocked out, perhaps expressing my inner torment over a taxing evening. (Maybe I was just embarrassed.)

I stumbled offstage toward the green room with my hands on my forehead. I walked straight into the bathroom and looked at a bloody forehead in the mirror. I washed my face off and put a paper towel to my head. Paramedics came in and put a little bandage on, then handed me a long medical release form to sign. Standing behind them was Brian May, the guitarist of Queen, with a glass of chilled champagne. I signed the release just to get the medics away from me so I could take a sip of Mr. May’s wonderful medicine. Ahh, yes!!! Moments later Dave Grohl burst in. He’d been looking all over for me, only to find me enjoying a calm glass of bubbly with Mr. May. It was a relief for all!

I met Duff properly in the late 1990’s. And it was a nice exchange—considering we had met quite improperly in 1992. I’ve had a great year here at the Weekly. One of my best days was when I unexpectedly came across Duff’s new column—what a pleasant surprise!

I hope you like the story of that infamous moment in rock music. I still have that bass guitar, too. I don’t play it much. The neck is a little bent!!!”

Neil Young And Pearl Jam Rock The Free World

1993 VMA Performance

Krist’s misfortune the year before didn’t stop fellow Seattle-ites Pearl Jam from smashing guitars and stands during a performance backing Neil Young in 1993. It’s a devastating performance unlike any other in VMA history, most of all for Young’s metaphorical guitar attack.

What tone!

Weird Al “Woos” Audience

1989 VMA Best Video of a Song from a Motion Picture Presentation 

A Different World’s Jasmine Guy and Weird Al were met with typical “woo” cheers upon presenting in 1989. Less typical: Al responded to each by “woo”-ing back as obnoxiously as possible. U2 and B.B. King won but weren’t there to accept, so Al grabbed to Moonman from Jasmine and ran off stage.

Perhaps the weirdest thing of all from this incident:
the realization that B.B. King won a VMA!

The Olsen Twins Award The White Stripes

2002 VMA Breakthrough Video Presentation 

In 2002 trends were changing away from the teenpop that had dominated the VMAs the past few years and The White Stripes became the flagship artist to prove MTVs point. The rock duo won “Breakthrough Video,” “Best Special Effects in a Video” and “Best Editing in a Video.” The Hives and The Vines were up for awards as well, and both performed, as did Guns n Roses (or at least a band calling themselves that). This was also the year of one of the more talked about Bruce Springsteen reunions with the E Street Band. Overall there was a noticeable effort to include acts of varied styles, ranging from Cake to P!NK to OutKast to Coldplay to No Doubt to Eminem to Moby.

Despite this, and although 2002 was far and away the most rock-oriented VMAs after the ‘90s, bands like The Strokes and the White Stripes were still awkward fits. Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than when everybody’s favorite fake sibling rock duo accepted their award from everybody’s favorite child-star sibling twins. “Thanks Mary-Kate and Ashley,” words no White Stripe fan would have imagined hearing Jack say at anytime previous (as the lyrics to “Little Room” played out in real time).

The White Stripes didn’t fare quite as well the next year. “Seven Nation Army” lost to Coldplay’s “The Scientist” for Best Group Video in 2003. They also lost to Linkin Park’s “Somewhere I Belong” for Best Rock Video and to Queens of the Stone Age’s “Go with the Flow” for Best Special Effects in a Video. However they did win Best Editing in a Video, beating Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” Missy Elliott’s “Work It” and Radiohead’s “There There.” In turn: “Hurt” won Best Cinematography in a Video, “There There” won Best Art Direction in a Video and “Work It” was “Video of the Year.”

Imagine that: there was a time when artists ranging from The White Stripes to Johnny Cash, Radiohead to Missy Elliot, all won VMAs on the same night. And all anybody remembers is Madonna kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

In 2004 The White Stripes’ Michel Gondry-directed “The Hardest Button to Button” video was nominated in four categories, losing all of them: Best Special Effects in a Video and Best Direction in a Video (both awarded to Jay-Z), Breakthrough Video (to Franz Ferdinand) and Best Editing in a Video.

In 2005 The White Stripes, Modest Mouse, U2 and Coldplay all lost Best Cinematography in a Video to Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams;” The White Stripes and U2 lost Best Direction in a Video to the same Green Day video; The Killers and Weezer lost Best Rock Video to the same video; and The Killers and U2 losing Best Group Video to, yep, the same damn video. The White Stripes and The Killers also lost Best Art Direction in a Video to Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” Draw your own conclusions.

Lou Reed Pleas For More Rock N’ Roll On MTV

2006 VMAs Best Rock Video Presentation 

As ill fit as The White Stripes et al may have seemed at the VMAs, perhaps nobody in VMA history has ever looked and acted more out of place than notorious Mr. Crankypants Lou Reed. In 2006 he played “White Light/White Heat” at the MTV ceremonies backed by Jack White’s then newest band, The Raconteurs. Though the Velvet Underground song stuck out from the other performances, it’s when Lou spoke that he seemed most out of place.

Reed presented the Best Rock Video with P!NK. She took it as an opportunity to sing to George W., “Dear Mr President/ Were you a lonely boy?” He took it as opportunity to advocate for rock. “You know P!NK, I love you. And I love rock n’ roll. And I’d love if MTV would play more rock n’ roll.” The award went to AFI – probably not what Mr. Reed had in mind, but then again when asked afterwards what rock n’ roll specifically he wanted MTV to play he couldn’t name one band.

The Black Keys Are Proud Of Fergie

2010 VMAs Breakthrough Video Post-Show

In 2010 The Black Keys’ “Tighten Up” won Breakthrough Video. But, proving the point above about how out of place these nods to rock bands in the 2000s were, their award was labeled for another group, The Black Eyed Peas.

How did they respond? By posting on Facebook, “We are super proud of fergie!!!”

Other VMA highlights that year include MGMT and Florence and the Machine losing Best Rock Video to 30 Seconds to Mars, and Broken Bells and Kesha losing Best New Artist to Justin Bieber.

President Obama Calls Kanye West “A Jackass”

2009 VMAs Post-Show

There were many losers at the 2009 VMAs. Bat for Lashes, Chairlift, Cold War Kids, Passion Pit and Death Cab for Cutie were all nominated in the Breakthrough Video category and lost (to Matt and Kim’s “Lesson learned”). Gnarls Barkley’s “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” was also nominated in that category and lost, as it did its two other nominations: Best Special Effects in a Video and Best Art Direction in a Video (Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” taking both). The most famous 2009 loser though was of course Beyonce, who lost Best Female Video to Taylor Swift – at which point Kanye West “imma let you finish”-ed Taylor.

Except Beyonce wasn’t really a loser that night: “Single Ladies” won “Video of the Year” and two other categories – placing Beyonce in a tie with Lady Gaga and Green Day for most awards at the 2009 VMAs. As for Taylor, she won not just her most famous Moonman, but also sympathy attention. But the biggest winner of all was we the American people, for now we had the presidential seal that Kanye is “a jackass.”

Nevermind the so-called “iconic” VMAs moments (ie Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie kissing in 1994, Marilyn Manson’s backup dancers dressed as police kissing in 1998, Madonna kissing Spears and Aguilera in 2003, Macy Gray’s promotional dress in 2001, Lady Gaga’s meat dress in 2010, Madonna faux-masturbating in a wedding dress in 1984, Lady Gaga hanging herself in 2009, Miley twerking in 2013, Prince showing his ass in 1991, Howard Stern showing his ass in 1992, Lil Kim showing her breast in 1999, Miley showing her nipple in 2015). When the leader of the free world weighs in on a VMA antic, now that’s iconic…

Nathaniel Hornblower Bum Rushes REM

1994 VMA Best Director Acceptance Speech

Hey kids, it’s all been done before. Yep, even Kanye West storm trooping Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech was a flashback to a simpler time: 1994. As REM was approaching the podium to accept their award for “Everybody Hurts,” Beastie Boys’ Adam “MCA” Yauch alter-ego Nathaniel Hornblower leaped in front of them to rep Spike Jonze. “This is an outrage, because Spike is the director that has just — I’m from Switzerland, OK? Let me just tell everyone that.” He continued to ramble incoherently and claimed he “had the ideas for Star Wars and everything.”

Fast forward to 2009, the year the VMAs tried to make good on videos they snubbed in the past with an interesting retrospective category: Best Video (That Should Have Won a Moonman). Björk’s “Human Behavior,” Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” were among the nominees. “Sabotage” won: testament that Hornblower was right all along!

Michael Jackson Accepts An Award That Doesn’t Exist

2002 VMA “Artist of the Millennium” Acceptance Speech

The VMAs coincidentally fell on Michael Jackson’s birthday in 2002 so MTV took it as an opportunity to have a torch-passing segment. The plan: Britney Spears presents Jackson with a birthday cake and flimsy treble-clef thingy (that happened to vaguely looks like a trophy).

While waiting backstage for his appearance in the segment Jackson heard Spears utter the phrase “artist of the millennium” and assumed that was a category – and he just won! Jackson came out, grabbed the treble-clef thingy as if it’s his trophy, and continued with his acceptance speech for an award that never existed.

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