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.
“Raise your hand if you feel personally victimized by Miley Cyrus’ #VMAs performance,” tweeted E! Online.
“Do you think (Miley’s dad) Billy Ray Cyrus woke up with an achy breaky heart this morning after his little girl’s performance at the VMAs last night?” said Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelly.
Judd Apatow, posting a picture of Cyrus from her 2012 movie “So Undercover,” tweeted that he’ll “always have this version of Miley. Let’s live in the past and heal.”
Cyrus herself has been silent about her set and its overwhelming reaction, but anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the star wouldn’t be too surprised by her routine.
Although she rose to fame on “Hannah Montana,” a role she landed at just 13, Cyrus has always had a rocky relationship with the squeaky clean image she was expected to uphold. At 15, the singer/actress came under fire after she posed topless for Vanity Fair, holding a sheet to her chest as she gazed at the camera.
The following year, Cyrus was criticized for her Teen Choice Awards performance, during which she danced atop an ice cream cart — complete with a pole — while singing her hit, “Party in the U.S.A.” The moment would infamously become known as Cyrus’ “pole dance.” She was 16.
In the days following her 18th birthday in 2010, Cyrus was subjected to more scrutiny when a video surfaced of the star smoking a bong apparently filled with salvia. The attention has only increased in the years since, as Cyrus has tried to transition from her Disney days into being a grown-up pop star, complete with an eye-catching haircut and the occasional middle finger thrown up in photographs.
While her critics have been vocal about their discomfort with her behavior, Cyrus has said that she’s simply being herself.
Speaking on her new album, “Bangerz,” to Billboard magazine, she said that she feels like “I can really be myself. … I really have more of a connection of who I am, and I feel like I can maybe express that more in my music now.”
Basically, we’re hearing Britney Spears 2.0. The moves Madonna and Spears once performed at the VMAs are now an indelible part of pop culture history, moments that make the VMAs appointment-viewing after 29 years. (BuzzFeed, for example, has come up with an astonishing 95 reasons why the “VMAs are absolutely nothing without Britney Spears.”)
Will Cyrus’ 2013 performance receive the same fate? It’s far too early to tell. But if the legacy of the MTV VMAs is any indication, she’s going to express what she wants — whether we like it or not.
Breeanna Hare | CNN