Every awards ceremony has its reputation, and MTV’s Video Music Awards proudly wears the badge of scandal.
Where the Oscars are elegant and the Golden Globes rowdy, the VMAs are all about testing the boundaries of what culture deems “decent” and reveling in youthful (and, yes, sometimes immature) freedom.
This reputation was cemented from the first VMAs broadcast in 1984, when a then-26-year-old Madonna sensually writhed on stage in a wedding dress to “Like A Virgin.” At the time, she was told her antics would ruin her career — when in fact the opposite happened. It’s now one of the most well-known moments not only from the VMAs, but from the now 55-year-old’s legendary career.
Countless pop stars and rockers have followed in Madge’s footsteps, with each new year bearing the promise of an ever-shocking performance.
So when Miley Cyrus took the VMAs stage on Sunday and proceeded to provocatively dance (with teddy bears, no less) before removing even more clothing, was she committing the offense the Internet has claimed, or simply upholding 30 years of VMAs tradition?
With her striptease, 20-year-old Cyrus didn’t do anything her predecessors haven’t already. In 2000, Britney Spears was not yet 19 when she ripped off a pantsuit at the VMAs to reveal a sparkling, flesh-toned body stocking underneath.
As host network MTV has said of the memorable moment, Spears’ “striptease (not to mention the accompanying panting and grinding) served notice that Britney was no longer the pigtailed schoolgirl of the ‘... Baby One More Time’ video, but rather a full-grown, supremely sexy woman.”
The singer followed up that headline-making move by dancing seductively with a snake in 2001. In 2003, as a callback to the VMA original “Like a Virgin” performance, Spears and Christina Aguilera wore wedding white for the performance. And then there was the famous Spears kiss with Madonna. When that scene threw Spears back into the crossfire, the pop star told CNN that she was just “performing and expressing myself.”
And need we remind you of Nirvana’s havoc-filled performance of “Lithium” in 1992, or Diana Ross feeling up Lil Kim’s bare breast in 1999? (If you need a refresher, recall that Lil Kim was wearing a violet bodysuit that exposed one breast, which was covered with nothing more than a matching purple pasty.) Howard Stern, Marilyn Manson, Prince and Lady Gaga (the latter was at this very same show!) have all bared their bums for MTV’s viewers.
To be sure, Cyrus’ Sunday performance took notes from all of the above and combined them into one show-stealing set.
But that’s more or less what the VMAs have historically been: A place to go wild (within reach of censors), and a platform for young stars to show the world that they’re now adults, perhaps even one that feels comfortable bending over in front of an audience and dancing in a latex two-piece.
Yet the reaction to Cyrus appears to be more eviscerating than previous years. Some viewers were in awe that this is the same Cyrus who was once the Disney Channel’s teen queen on “Hannah Montana,” and others aghast at the provocativeness of her performance.