The MTV Video Music Awards are almost here.
For roughly 1,600 years (or maybe just like 30ish), we’ve been treated to this magnificent ceremony that mixes ridiculous costumes, promotional thirst, the occasional Diana Ross boob handle and all the “won’t somebody please think of the children” over-the-top gasping you can handle. It’s an award show for children that adults take super seriously and there’s loads of decadent fun to be had. Heck, sometimes they even give out these shiny things called awards. Time permitting, of course.
This year’s go-around goes down on August 30 in Los Angeles and to mark the occasion we’re taking a look back at every single Video of the Year winner that’s ever existed. You’ll be stunned (STUNNED!) to learn that Kim Mitchell’s “Go For A Soda” clip did not win a VMA for Best Video. We’re as outraged as you and understand if you choose to proceed no further.
The Cars – “You Might Think” (1984)
Groundbreaking for its time (the technology used to shrink The Cars down to soap size eluded scientists until the mid ’80s), “You Might Think” employed a variety of visual effects that dazzled viewers with OH WHO AM I KIDDING THIS VIDEO IS BUCKETS OF OKAYISH MEH PROPPED UP BY HISTORICAL CONTEXT. It feels wrong to point out that it looks like one of those shitball “you be the star!” custom birthday videos Grandma bought you from the bargain mall, but tease-a-louise that’s just how it feels. There’s something about mega-80s graphics that somehow make something more dated than a monochrome photo from the 1840s. I’m glad that this video blazed a trail, but who am I helping by pretending to be doused in razzamatazz? Thank you for your service, “You Might Think.” I wish you well and will appreciate you from afar.
Don Henley – “Boys of Summer” (1985)
The Don Henley “Boys Of Summer” video is like something a marketing dude from Gillette would need to be hospitalized for because he lost too much fluid via yuppie jizz at the very thought of it. Ugh. French New Wave meets Eagles guy meets “insight” you get from whoever is holding court at Red Lobster’s lounge section.
Dire Straits – “Money For Nothing” (1986)
I can’t imagine how apeshit dads got when this video came on. “HONEY! WE NEED TO TAKE ALL OF THE MONEY OF THE LAWN MOWER BUDGET AND BUY A COMPUTER! NO! SIX COMPUTERS!” There’s something incredible about how this promo switches back and forth from its impressive digital world to the blandness of Dire Straits concert footage. Look at those hip young gunslingers! The youthful sex they must have with much moxie and vigour! The director tries to trick you with glowing headbands, but no one’s buying it. It’s like if they added CGI explosions to a PBS show about boat maintenance.
Reminder: Dire Straits once did a video that was mostly sports bloopers. THE BALLS ON THOSE GUYS. God bless ’em.
Peter Gabriel – “Sledgehammer” (1987)
This is a song about a penis. Be sure to write that down if you’re a historian that likes to keep track of which songs are about penises and which are not. There’s little in the way of non-symbolic dongs in the video, but there’s still a reliable assortment of visual gags with varying levels of quality. If you’re going to have roast-ready chickens prancing along, a pop video is a sensible place to put them. The cruel thing about “Sledgehammer” (and to a lesser extent, “Steam”) is that it’s a super fun video that does not prepare you for how incredibly boring Peter Gabriel can be. On a separate note, we hope the creature made out of sledgehammers is doing alright.
INXS – “Need You Tonight/Mediate” (1988)
Oh late ’80s Michael Hutchence, you were like Dr. Sexy Man M.D., weren’t you? So much so that people just let INXS continue doing “their thing” (read: make increasingly underwhelming follow-up albums) even when the moment had gone. By the way, the Canadian entertainment press were so insanely thrilled when J.D. Fortune won Rock Star: INXS that it still boggles the mind today. He’s our O’so Krispie and we were some dummos to get super worked up about it.
Neil Young – “This Note’s For You” (1989)
Long before Eminem faced the expressive eyebrow wrath of Steve Harvey, Neil Young was making fun of Michael Jackson for being so gawshdarn flammable. This video’s actually pretty charming because it’s Neil Young: Video Goofball. Shakey co-stars with a Spuds McKenzie look-a-like? Sign me up! “This Note’s For You” is a parody of corporate tentacles in popular music and it tackles its subject matter with all the grace of a ’90s era Cracked comic. Who would bat an eye if the Whitney Houston stand-in held her butt while mouthing the word “diarrhea!” at the camera? The silliness on display can’t be undersold and that includes the “big reveal” at the end. Safecracker’s touch, Neil.
Sinéad O’Connor – “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)
This video operates with a revolutionary concept: Faces are neato burrito! It’s still weirdly devastating to see Sinéad O’Connor have tears roll down her face. Really, two minutes of exposure to this video will turn anyone into a flash flood of ugly sobbing. It’d be amazing to see Prince do a shot-for-shot remake of this video (he wrote the song, after all) but that prospect seems unlikely at best.
By the way, it took until 1990 for someone other than a straight white dude to snag the Video of the Year prize. That’s messed up.
R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion” (1991)
Tarsem Fever: Catch it! (Or don’t!) Full points to director Tarsem Singh for tapping into what I want from a music video: An angel Sisqo hair double and dramatic milk-based imagery. Also Michael Stipe’s dancing is in top shelf form in this clip. It’s like he’s casually elbowing and backhanding ghost children square in the middle of their invisible faces. It’s a good thing R.E.M. weren’t blowing up in 2015 instead of decades before because there would be so many terrible Stipe dance videos where a teen smacks a cup of coffee out of some poor transit worker’s hand and escapes via Stipemotion.
Van Halen – “Right Now” (1992)
As a dimwitted child I was blown away by “Right Now.” (SO PROFOUND!) I was also (if not more) blown away by the Crystal Pepsi commercial that used the exact same format to let me know that THE WORLD OF COLA WAS CHANGING FOREVER BUT REALLY JUST FOR LIKE A YEAR BUT GET EXCITED BEVERAGE ENTHUSIAST! The points Pepsi made about clear refreshment always struck me as more valid than Van Halen rawkin’ out over hot takes on bomb factories. “Right Now” is really just over-the-top proto-Upworthy style garbage that would have engulfed your Facebook feed if it came out today. Sammy Hagar’s “VOA” is a million times better and you should watch it (wait for it…) right now.
Pearl Jam – “Jeremy” (1993)
I’m 99.9999% sure Weird Al did a hilarious voiceover of this video during his pseudo-annual ALMusic special on MuchMusic. This may also be a hallucination that’s eating away at my brain. The evidence is probably living on a VHS cassette in my parent’s garage next to my mom’s double tape set of Princess Diana’s funeral.
Aerosmith – “Cryin’” (1994)
Was it really that hard for Aerosmith to cast someone of voting age as this video’s go-to “sexy teen?” That’s an impressive haze of sleazy, even for a promo that co-stars Stephen “where my e-cigs at?” Dorff. Also, what happened to Alicia Silverstone’s character after she does the big ol’ suicide goof-n-spoof? Does someone help her back up onto the bridge or does she start a new life living above greenscreen traffic and offer up work route tips to the local radio stations in the area? “WBUZ has a traffic copter? Ha! Eat shit cuz KFZZ has a traffic angry teen model on our morning team!”
TLC – “Waterfalls” (1995)
Anyone else still in mourning over the end of the short-lived reality series Totally T-Boz? It wasn’t all that interesting, but it did feature T-Boz judging a TLC-themed contest at a mall which is what cable television is made for. Anywho, the video for “Waterfalls” holds a special place in everyone’s heart thanks to the song kicking ass and liquid mercury TLC. If you go back and watch, “Waterfalls” is like a bulked-up budget version of a video you’d see at a school assembly. “Did you know you can contract HIV even if you own a briefcase? It’s true! The ’90s!” Going back to the liquid mercury, it’s outrageous that Terminator Genisys did not focus on a universe where a T-1000 style Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was still around. Fix this, Lifetime!
Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight” (1996)
Seeing as I was a potato-faced prairie alternatween when this video came out, I’m contractually obligated to overrate this a bit. Tom Kenny and Jill Talley are amazing in this. They’re just pulling feelings out of the viewer (or just me) via this whole A Trip To The Moon homage. Also for all of his “Nosferatu but as a tea shop owner” fetish chic stuff he was doing in the Adore era, I think Billy Corgan looked just as at home as a dramatic goof in the old timey clouds in this video. There’s a part of me that worries Corgan beat James Iha with an umbrella during filming because he gave a casual glance at D’Arcy that Billy read six million things into. Making videos is hard, I guess.
Jamiroquai – “Virtual Insanity” (1997)
The video for “Virtual Insanity” isn’t really all that revolutionary. It’s just a man in a carnival prize hat that has the floor (or I guess the walls) move around on him in an entertaining fashion. I’m not sure why it melted my brain when I saw it, but it did. All that was left was soupy brain with question mark chunks floating around. It’s still a remarkably entertaining video but I’d like to use this moment to attempt to launch a class action suit on behalf of folks that got Traveling Without Moving for Christmas and were disappointed that it was kinda crap.
Madonna – “Ray of Light” (1998)
Depending on your level of nostalgia high, “Ray of Light” has either aged fantastically or it just looks like your mom’s work friend on a night out (in front of a green screen). Can you blame us for going so nuts over this? We were just happy to have fun Madonna back.
Lauryn Hill – “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (1999)
“Doo Wop (That Thing)” toppled the mighty “Wild Wild West” informercial that Will Smith knocked out that year. TAKE THAT HORSES & MECHANICAL CREATURES! The concept for this video is straightforward but executed beautifully with some remarkable touches. There’s also something to be said for how incredible of a face actress Ms. Lauryn Hill is in the 1960s scenes. The Sister Act 2 pedigree pays off yet again! Fingers crossed that we got a Lauryn Hill video 13 years from now where one side of the screen is 1998 and the other is 2028.
Eminem – “The Real Slim Shady” (2000)
Eminem was hailed as a dark artistic genius in this era, but he also had a penchant for knocking out Meet The Spartans level music videos. Y’know, as one does. For the bulk of Em’s career, an alarming number of his promos look like they were made for $500 with 1/3 of that spent on potato chips. Mr. Mathers bounds around to provide zany yuks like putting a pretend bum on an *NSync stand-in because he’s quite the rascal. By the way, the most year 2000-y thing about this video is the reminder that Carson Daly impersonator was a job someone could have and receive money for. “I will give you money because you resemble Carson Daly” was something people used to say and it wasn’t because of prescription pill abuse or anything like that. It was a grim age.
Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink – “Lady Marmalade” (2001)
Featuring Lil’ Kim getting sexy while wearing a George Washington wig! “Lady Marmalade” is one of those sexy videos that are more academically sexy (sexy performers! sexy outfits! sexy sexburgers for sexfast!) than actual hubba hubba lust generators. Full points to Missy Elliott for being a team player that appears in the clip mainly to point out who everyone is and the name of the movie and all that. There’s tons of money to be made with a GPS where Missy just points out directions in her “Lady Marmalade” voice.
Eminem – “Without Me” (2002)
“I just settled all my lawsuits… FUCK YOU DEBBIE!” The crown jewel of Eminem’s collection of a gag-a-minute videos, this one has the best hit-to-miss ratio and should be applauded for having the crappiest Dick Cheney look-a-like in the history of Dick Cheney look-a-likes. (The dude looks like someone kidnapped from a bench outside of Reitmans.) Was the world richer a place for having Bizarre and Osama bin Marshall dance together? It’s hard to say. Best to leave that to the historians.
Missy Elliott – “Work It” (2003)
Missy Elliott sure loved that one Rachel Dratch looking child dancer, eh? Who could blame her? She’s a treasure. There’s all sorts of amazingness in the “Work It” promo (dancing! bees in the DJ booth! a discount Prince stand-in!) but the highlight is unquestionably how the video/radio edit changes “chocha” to “chacha.” Parents could rest easy knowing that children would never crack the “call before you come/I need to shave my chacha” code. Tasteful chacha talk for everybody!
OutKast – “Hey Ya!” (2004)
Andre 3000’s clear irritation with this song is such a bummer. It’s like if someone created a fleet of unicorns and scowled whenever someone asked to pet one. Oh well, he outranks the rest of us by like 3000 so what can you do? Anyway, “Hey Ya!” features Andre Benjamin showing you that you can make a version of Paul McCartney’s “Coming Up” video that won’t have you jumping into a volcano out of embarrassment (Editor’s Note: I love the “Coming Up” video). Every Andre alter-ego pulls his weight and could anchor an issue of Tiger Beat. (Pressing Question: Is Johnny Vulture still single?) Ryan Phillippe appears in the video which is a thing that sounds like bullshit but is 100% true.
Green Day – “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (2005)
Panic! At The Disco – “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” (2006)
Look at these dandy theatre kids go! It’s a shame P!ATC weren’t an ’80s proposition. They would have fit in nicely as a New Wave or New Romantic or New Dorkus group. (Shit, they could have been a player in the sophisti-pop game.) This video’s delightfully terrible and jampacked with so many unchecked “I’m an artistic young man” ideas that are nowhere near as clever the Panic Pals think they are. The wonderful spinoff of that is that it’s too daffy to hate, so there’s solid replay value.
Rihanna featuring Jay Z – “Umbrella” (2007)
Making a quality video doesn’t have to be exhausting work. Just get Rihanna to be a badass and trot out some sparks every now and again. I will say the murky CGI fluid expulsion shots are a bit much and seem to be catering to a very niche fetish we’d rather not know about. They could have trimmed that is our official critique.
Britney Spears – “Piece of Me” (2008)
Wilderness era Britney! Yup, this was the video where she goofed on paparazzi goobers and does low impact dancing in a bathroom. (There’s something very ketchup on spaghetti about the way Britney says “derriere.”) It’s a serviceable promo but nothing spectacular. The music video equivalent of a bowl of baby carrots, essentially.
Beyoncé – “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” (2009)
Did you know that a wedding is nullified if “Singles Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” isn’t played at the reception? It’s an oppressive rule, but that’s been the law since 2009. You have no idea how much pressure wedding DJs are under. The choreography (which has been burnt into your brain like you’re part of a BeyHive sleeper cell) is iconic, but the real star is Beyoncé’s cyborg claw hand. What does she do with it off camera? Either way, let’s all look forward to Beyoncé using it when she becomes the President of the United States.
Lady Gaga – “Bad Romance” (2010)
Y’know that bit of “Started From The Bottom” where Drake mentions he wears everything single chain even when he’s in the house? “Bad Romance” is sort of Lady Gaga’s music video version of that. This is industrial strength 2010 Gaga aesthetic blasted out of a firehose so hard that the camera’s tipped over and the cameraman’s gurgling. All in a mostly good way, of course.
Katy Perry – “Firework” (2011)
The New England Journal of Medicine recommends against trying to give birth to fireworks.
Never Forget: Any video where Katy Perry doesn’t go Just For Laughs Gags on a vulnerable planet is a colossal victory for everyone involved.
Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris – “We Found Love” (2012)
This Melina Matsoukas helmed promo feels like something Jonas Åkerlund would heat up in the microwave for guests he didn’t think much of. Don’t worry too much for Rihanna. She’s spoiled for quality videos.
Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors” (2013)
Christ, The 20/20 Experience: Hugh Downs Is Watching era of JT is awful, isn’t it? We were so excited to have him back that we didn’t even ask if he had any tunes. “Mirrors” is one of the recent JT promos that smacks of being unintentional self-parody with zero fun behind it.
Miley Cyrus – “Wrecking Ball” (2014)
Our reigning champ! (Well, unless you read this after the VMAs.) Miley Cyrus essentially does Natalie Imbruglia one better by bypassing cold, shamed and naked on the floor to fly nude through the air on a piece of machinery. We trust Miley got a tetanus shot before or after going on her metal licking spree. Odds are she’s sobbing in the video because she knows that millions of unsatisfying parody clips are on their way. Stay strong, Miley!