The MTV Video Music Awards is coming up on Sunday, which means that a lot of people are currently talking about their favorite moments from the show’s checkered history. For me, the best VMAs ever — actually, it’s my favorite awards show ever of any kind — occurred in 1992, a year when Nirvana, Guns ‘N’ Roses, and Pearl Jam gave iconic performances and Def Leppard and Bryan Adams were still considered cool enough to get invited.
As I remembered it, the 1992 VMAs was the fulcrum between the ’80s and ’90s, a show where you can actually watch one era end and another begin in real time. Grunge was ascendent and stadium-rock was fading, but because culture was slower then, the ’92 VMAs wound up capturing both in a state of flux.
And then there was the mythology of what occurred backstage — first, Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose nearly came to blows when Rose insulted Courtney Love, then Cobain unexpectedly reconciled with his rival Eddie Vedder while on-stage Eric Clapton played “Tears in Heaven.” Meanwhile, a colorful cast of ’90s randos — host Dana Carvey, Howard Stern as Fartman, Luke Perry, Eddie Murphy, Wilson Phillips, “Beatles wig”-era Elton John, Bobby Brown, “Van Hagar”-era Van Halen, Boyz II Men — milled about in the background.
I reference the ’92 VMAs so many times in my book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me that I turned it into a running joke. But here’s the thing: I just recently re-watched the ’92 VMAs for the first time since I was 15, and I discovered two things:
- It was way better than I remembered.
- It was also way, way worse than I remembered.
When it comes to the VMAs, people only ever remember about 10 percent of what happened. (This is probably true of everything, but it’s especially of the VMAs.) This selective memory is good for MTV, because it reenforces the VMAs’ reputation as a “hip” awards show where important cultural moments happen all of the time. Meanwhile, the other 90 percent gets lost — though in a way, that stuff is more interesting, because the non-iconic, forgettable stuff tends to be what’s unique to that particular time. In the case of the ’92 VMAs, people remember Nirvana playing “Lithium” and Pearl Jam doing “Jeremy,” and they forget about the preponderance of baby boomer rockers and sexist jokes, and how there’s virtually no acknowledgement of rap.
Ultimately, the VMAs are an important historical document not just for what was progressive, but for also for what now seems dated. Re-watching the ’92 VMAs, in particular, was like discovering an early ’90s version of Mad Men. In 20 years, the 2016 VMAs will probably be just as embarrassing. In fact, let’s hope they’re embarrassing, because that will mean we’re still moving forward.
So, in the interest of preserving the good and the bad of pop-culture history, here is a complete rundown of the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.