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Ultimately, the VMAs are an important historical document not just for what was progressive, but for also for what now seems dated.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.
:19: We open with Dana Carvey as George Bush, who lost the presidential election two months after the VMAs, officially ushering in the Clinton ’90s. How do we know that 1992 was unofficially part of the ’80s? Carvey does a “not” joke and it sort of kills. Comedy immediately improved once the Clinton administration commenced.
5:25: The first act of the night is the Black Crowes, who seemed like a logical opener for the VMAs in September 1992 and at no other time before or since. In terms of ’90s rock history, the Black Crowes don’t really get their due as an important transitional band from the hair-metal ’80s to the alt-rock ’90s. Four months before the VMAs, the Crowes had a No. 1 album with The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, and was probably a bigger band that night than Pearl Jam or Nirvana (though not for much longer afterward).
Also, Chris Robinson ends the song by singing “please weed” instead of “please me.” Given that The Chronic was still three months away from being released, this was the height of subversion in the fall of ’92.
15:39: Carvey just made a joke about horny Japanese people, which is the first of many #problematic jokes this evening from the VMAs host. Later, while in character as Garth from Wayne’s World, he schwings in the direction of Cindy Crawford and En Vogue.
I’m not here to condemn the eternally affable Carvey. His comedy was a product of its time. Little did Carvey know that people would still be watching this show 24 years later, and that his words could potentially be weaponized against him in accordance with changing social morés and greater cultural sensitivity. In 2016, an ill-timed schwing can get you fired.
16:16: Could Eddie Murphy really get away with dressing like this in 1992?
The Answer is: Yes, surprisingly. Boomerang was a bigger hit than I remember, apparently.
17:53: Eric Clapton wins Best Male Video for “Tears in Heaven.” The other nominees are John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and “Weird Al” Yankovic. “Weird Al” is the only nominee under the age of 40.
19:08: Let’s consult this handy graphic graciously provided by a major soft drink company that lists the nominees for the Viewer’s Choice Award.
The next time you feel like whining about the multitude of worldwide platforms available to each of us for expressing whatever pointless opinions enter our brains, remember there was a kid in poor old 1992 who was willing to pay 95 cents in order to express his preference for “Let’s Get Rocked.”
20:18: Here is Shannen Doherty and John Corbett, two people who were alive in 1992 and therefore eligible to appear at the VMAs.
23:22: Carvey, in character as the Church Lady, refers to Bobby Brown half-jokingly as “Satan.” Whitney Houston should’ve listened to Dana Carvey.
29:01: While reading off a list of upcoming performers from the teleprompter, MTV VJ Duff gets an unsolicited kiss on the neck from Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis, who was convicted on misdemeanor charges of sexual battery and indecent exposure just three years earlier, and apparently went on to harass at least one female record executive not long before the band’s 1991 breakthrough, BloodSugarSexMagik. At the time, nobody cared about any of this, because there was no internet to remind them that it ever happened.
33:49: Carvey-as-Garth banters with Bono, who appears remotely with U2 from a concert at the Silverdome in Detroit. Carvey is needling Bono with references to 1988’s Rattle and Hum, and Bono laughs through gritted teeth. U2 is in the midst of its “ironic” Zoo TV ’90s phase, which was a reaction to the pronounced earnestness of Rattle and Hum. Bono takes Carvey’s ribbing with the implicit understanding that being able to laugh at Rattle and Hum will allow U2 to eventually put it behind them. But here we are nearly a quarter-century later, and people still have not tired of mocking U2.
41:44: These were the most dangerous men in music in 1992.
Is Metallica’s Black Album the Law & Order: SVU of metal albums? Discuss.
45:20: Def Leppard seemed wrong for the 1992 VMAs when I watched it in 1992, and they seem even more wrong in 2016. It’s unfair and inaccurate to label Def Leppard a hair metal band, but as a pop-rock act produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange that was unabashed in its ambition to play stadiums, they feel as out of place here as Frank Sinatra would’ve been at Woodstock. I suspect even Def Leppard sensed this. What else explains Joe Elliott’s decision to dress like Ice-T’s character in New Jack City?
48:14: It’s taking a long time to get to Nirvana.
50:44: Here is Jean-Claude Van Damme and Halle Barry, two more people who were alive in 1992 and therefore eligible to appear at the VMAs.
53:49: “Now for all your lawn care needs, it’s Nirvana!” Carvey says. I have no idea what that means but it seems very alternative. I’m sure I found it appropriately random, man, at the time.
56:12: Nirvana, in case you’re wondering, still sounds incredible.
58:02: Bass toss!
58:38: Everyone remembers Krist Novoselic getting hit in his damn face with his own bass during Nirvana’s iconic performance of “Lithium” at the VMAs, but I’m actually a bigger fan of Dave Grohl heckling Axl Rose from the stage. Hi, Axl!
The timeline is fuzzy, but I believe this occurred after the Kurt Cobain vs. Axl Rose stand-off backstage. Here’s what I wrote about it in my book:
It started when Courtney Love shouted a snarky comment at Axl, asking him to be godfather to her unborn child, Frances Bean. Axl (allegedly) told Kurt, “You shut your b*tch up or I’m taking you to the pavement.” Kurt then turned to Courtney and sarcastically barked, “Okay, b*tch, shut up.” Then Stephanie Seymour, Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue star and Axl’s girlfriend, turned to Courtney and said, “Are you a model?” To which Courtney replied, “No—are you a brain surgeon?”
This actually happened! It wasn’t made up by a screenwriter attempting to condense the cultural tensions of the early ’90s—specifically, ascendant Seattle grunge vs. rapidly sinking LA hard rock—into a hackneyed confrontation between cultural icons. This encounter really occurred. Rose was an aggressor who secretly didn’t want to fight but felt obligated to put up a front in order to assert his band’s shrinking authority. Cobain was the antagonist who explicitly didn’t want to fight, and he proved to be a superior nonfighter.
For my book, I consulted my friend Steve Gorman, the former drummer for the Black Crowes, whose trailer was situated between the trailers for Nirvana and Guns ‘N’ Roses.
“It was just in the air that there was this war going on,” he told me. “I remember the vibe actually being really serious. Do people actually care that a junkie and a poser are going to fight? I picture it now like the Anchorman fights.”
I know Steve was trying to de-romanticize the incident for me, but in fact he did the opposite.
68:27: Whenever some important pop culture event happens, subsequent accounts tend to overstate the immediate impact, as though the world instantly changed in the aftermath. In fact, 10 minutes after Nirvana played the VMAs, Elton John (!) was on stage playing a song that nobody remembers from his pre-Lion King ’90s comeback LP, The One, and this guy was behind him playing wanky synthesizer solos.
Remember: Grunge didn’t actually kill hair metal. It didn’t even kill off third-tier Elton John records.
76:23: This Pearl Jam performance is pretty amazing even though Eddie Vedder is working himself a little too hard and bordering on Jack Black-like affectations a couple of years before Jack Black was a thing. Like, when he’s singing “Jeremy,” Eddie probably doesn’t need to mime the gun.
Apparently, Pearl Jam wanted to play “Sonic Reducer” by the Dead Boys instead, but didn’t have the juice to make requests yet. Pearl Jam was just coming into its own as the new biggest band in the world when this performance took place. The following year at the VMAs, Pearl Jam was allotted 10 minutes to perform two songs, including an ungodly “Rockin’ in the Free World” with Neil Young. The only artist who gets allotted that sort of time now is Beyoncé.
84:45: Shout-out to the music-sharing technology of 1992.
85:12: A stilted, possibly pre-taped clip of Michael Jackson performing live overseas is given a wildly hyperbolic introduction by Carvey, who calls him “the greatest man who ever lived.” The following summer, Jackson was publicly accused for the first time of sexual molestation of a minor.
[Pause to switch YouTube links for the second half of the 1992 VMAs. Feel free to grab a beverage. We have lots more to get into here.]
4:20: Bryan Adams is now the second pop-rocker produced by “Mutt” Lange to appear on this show. I’m shocked that he’s not playing the power ballad from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Inviting Adams to appear on an ostensibly hip awards program in 1992 and having him play one of the lesser known singles from Waking Up the Neighbours just seems egregious, like MTV wanted the 1992 VMAs to look dated as it was happening.
8:47: #hottakefrom1992: Fartman is not funny.
10:35: Fartman is going on for far too long.
18:31: En Vogue doing “Free Your Mind” is the one performance from the 1992 VMAs that could almost square with what the VMAs are now. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if En Vogue was invited back this year just so Grimes could live-tweet about how empowering they are.
28:56: A recurring, painfully unfunny bit featuring David Spade’s a-hole receptionist character from Saturday Night Live reaches its nadir with a cameo from Ringo Starr, who hilariously stops by to promote his new solo album, [checks Google] Time Takes Time. The premise is that Spade doesn’t recognize one of the Beatles, which was sacrilege to anyone over 35 in 1992 but perfectly reasonable for MTV’s core audience of middle-schoolers.
31:55: Of all the many great moments at the 1992 VMAs, the best might very well be the historic Annie Lennox-Kris Kross peace summit.
33:07: Clapton is playing “Tears in Heaven,” but more interesting is what’s happening backstage during this song, which is the reconciliatory slow dance between Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, later included in Pearl Jam Twenty.
In the documentary, Vedder says he doesn’t remember what Cobain said during this encounter. But Cobain repeated what he said verbatim to Michael Azerrad in Azerrad’s 1993 Nirvana biography, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana:
I stared into his eyes and told him that I thought he was a respectable human. And I did tell him straight out that I still think his band sucks. I said, “After watching you perform, I realized that you are a person that does have some passion.” It’s not a fully contrived thing. There are plenty of other more evil people out in the world than him and he doesn’t deserve to be scapegoated like that.
Slow dancing with Eddie Vedder while telling him that he thinks his band still sucks was the ultimate power move by Cobain, who had just finished mind-screwing Axl Rose. No person has so thoroughly won at an awards show more than KC at the 1992 VMAs.
38:30: The nominees for Best Alternative Video: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Soup Dragons. Somehow, the Chili Peppers are still the worst band on that list.
42:15: Wilson Phillips and Boyz II Men present Nirvana with the award for Best New Artist, the night’s signature “passing the cultural torch” metaphor. Cobain seizes the moment to make a veiled reference to Lynn Hirschberg’s infamous Vanity Fair profile of Courtney Love, alleging that she took drugs while pregnant with the Cobains’ daughter Frances Bean, which hit newsstands one week prior. “Don’t believe everything you read,” he says, smirking. He is truly settling all scores this evening.
49:13: Remember how the torch was passed to Nirvana a few minutes ago? Never mind, Van Halen just beat Nirvana for Video of the Year, for “Right Now,” a video that Sammy Hagar initially hated so much that he threatened to beat up the director. As penance, Hagar wore this terrible suit.
51:30: The night’s climactic performance is GNR and Elton John doing “November Rain,” which was not even nominated for Video of the Year. Forget complaining about Crash or Birdman winning Best Picture — the greatest awards show injustice of all-time is “November Rain” not getting a Video of the Year nod. How is that even possible? The only video up to that point that was as grandiose and overhyped as “November Rain” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Whenever MTV ranked the best videos of all-time afterward, “November Rain” routinely ranked at or near the top. Seriously, who can explain this to me?
54:50: This performance is so extravagant that Axl has a goblet on his piano.
60: Finally, “November Rain” is over. I suspect it will take hours for all 85 musicians, backing singers, snake handlers, and goblet cleaners to exit the stage. It also feels like an era has concluded. The VMAs will never be so white, male, and rock-centric again. Like the man says, “nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.”
Steven Hyden is Uproxx’s Cultural Critic and the author of Your Favorite Band is Killing Me and an upcoming book on the rise and fall of classic rock. Say hello to him on Twitter.