Instead of introducing viewers to the latest and greatest in upcoming and established bands, MTV is now a candy-coated shell of its former self. However, one institution from MTV’s heyday that is still around is the Video Music Awards, which began in 1984 with an explosive rendition of Madonna’s iconic “Like a Virgin” and remains MTV’s largest annual event. By the time the 1989 VMAs rolled around, it was well on its way to being a musical institution. Hosted for the second time by a grinning and charismatic Arsenio Hall, that year’s awards ceremony would go down as one of the most iconic in history. Even in 1989, at the height of its power, MTV was able to perceive that big hair was on the cusp of being supplanted, leading the network to expand the VMA categories to include Best Heavy Metal Video, Best Rap Video, Best Dance Video, and Best Post-Modern Video. However, the possibility of new Moonmen trophies was overshadowed by some truly outrageous moments.
One of the early oddities came when Weird Al Yankovic decided to call out standard issue audience praise by screaming back at them after each announcement. Sharing the stage with an uncomfortable Jasmine Guy, Yankovic refused to relent. With the closing move of pretending to snatch the Moonman from Guy’s grasp, it’s safe to say that the comic made an impression.
However, this form of verbal rebellion was one of the more tame things to happen at the show. While he was introducing Cher’s performance of “If I Could Turn Back Time,” comedian Andrew Dice Clay decided that this stage was the perfect place to perform some truly filthy nursery rhymes and test the censors’ limits for what could be said on television. Unfortunately for Clay, this got him banned from the MTV stage for life. This was the beginning of the end for Clay: between the fallout from the awards show and his clashing with SNL‘s Nora Dunn, he couldn’t adapt to a more PC-observant culture.
At least Clay didn’t resort to any sort of violence. At the time, Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crüe were two of the biggest rock bands in the world, and their rivalry was the stuff of rock legend. The powder keg decided to explode during the show, stemming from a rumor that Motley Crüe frontman Vince Neil’s wife had been assaulted at an L.A. nightclub by Guns N’ Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin. While Crüe presented Guns N’ Roses with the award for Best Metal Video without incident, violence broke out between the two bands after Axl Rose and Neil performed with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to close out the show. Neil recounted the incident in the band’s autobiography, Dirt:
“When Izzy walked offstage, looking like a cross between Eric Stoltz in Mask and Neil Young, I was waiting for him. ‘You f—ing hit my wife!’ ‘So f—ing what?’ he spat. All my blood rushed into my fist, and I decked him. I decked him good, right in the face. He fell to the ground like a tipped cow… Axl came snarling after us like an overdressed Doberman. ‘Come on, motherf—er, I’m going to f—ing kill you!’ he yelled at our backs.”
While the violence eventually dissipated before the spat really escalated, it was this kind of swaggering bravado that typified the era, and it felt organic. With lion-sized rocker personas, there was bound to be a clash. This wasn’t Kanye stealing the spotlight from Taylor Swift in her moment of glory; this was pure rock n’ roll id.
This is not to say that the music was completely overshadowed by the egos. Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora took the stage to acoustically perform their hits “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.” It was a risky move, as viewers knew them for their anthemic, rousing performances, but it ended up being one of the most iconic moments in VMA history, and is even credited for inspiring MTV’s Unplugged, one of the most popular series in the channel’s archive.
As we look ahead to this weekend’s VMA Awards, it is stark to see the change in what is considering shocking. While moments in the past felt like the real outcomes of rockstar hubris, all of the faux-outrage-generating moments of today feel like they were grown in a petri dish of pop culture. With the Kanye/Swift showdown, Madonna and Britney’s kiss, or Miley Cyrus (hosting this year) and Robin Thicke’s twerkfest, there wasn’t an earned awe in the face of entertaining debauchery; they elicited merely an eyeroll in the face of desperate bids for credibility. Whether the MTV machine churns out another of these moments at Sunday’s show, it is safe to assume that nothing that occurs will be as relevant 25 years later as the 1989 VMAs are.