Sadly, between Madonna’s floor-rolling, Kanye’s speech-interrupting, Gaga’s meat-dressing, Beyoncé’s baby-bumping, and Miley’s foam-fingering, the artists who actually win Moonmen (or Moonpersons, as they are now known) at the MTV Video Music Awards are usually quickly forgotten. This year’s Video of the Year VMA nominees are Drake’s “God’s Plan,” Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” the Carters’ “Apes***,” Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” likely winner Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” and Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse.” We will probably forget about all of these nominees halfway through Cardi’s opening performance.
Come on, does anyone even remember that Missy Elliott’s “Work It” was named Video of the Year 15 years ago, the year that Madonna swapped spit with Britney? Or that Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” picked up top honors five years ago, the year of Miley and Robin Thicke’s Twerkgate scandal?
Well, we’re here to remind you. These videos deserve your respect. They should not be tossed into the trash bin of pop history like one of Lil’ Kim’s discarded purple pasties. So before the VMAs crown the 2018 winner, let’s reflect with a visual history of the category. Don’t interrupt, let us finish, and watch all of MTV’s BEST VIDEOS OF ALL TIME. Of all time!
1984: The Cars, “You Might Think”
You might think (heh) that it looks like a Flying Toasters screensaver now, but 34 years ago, this video was pretty darn cutting-edge. “You Might Think” was actually one of the first videos to use computer graphics, and it cost $80,000, which was about three times the average music video budget back in ‘84. Believe it or not, “You Might Think” beat out an even more expensive classic video, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” for this inaugural honor.
1985: Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer”
David Lee Roth apparently canceled himself out with his two nominees for “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” thus clearing the way for the solo Eagle’s much more somber Jean-Baptiste Mondino mini-movie. Technically, “The Boys of Summer” beat out pretty much every star in American pop music, since it was also up against USA for Africa’s all-star charity video, “We Are the World.”
1986: Dire Straits, “Money for Nothing”
Incredibly, director Steve Barron had to compete against himself in the Video of the Year category, as another video he directed (and another one of the 1980s’ most celebrated videos), A-ha’s “Take on Me,” was also nominated. In any other year, A-ha, who had to settle for the Viewer’s Choice Award, would have been a shoo-in — but 1986 was a very, very good year for music video. Godley & Creme’s groundbreaking morphing-technology clip “Cry” and Robert Palmer’s iconic supermodel romp “Addicted to Love” were also 1986 Video of the Year nominees.
1987: Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer”
This stop-motion masterpiece still holds two illustrious MTV records: the most VMAs wins in a single night (nine), and the most plays in the history of the cable channel. Remember when MTV played music videos?
1988: INXS, “Need You Tonight/Mediate”
The second half of the Aussie rockers’ breakthrough video, “Mediate,” was an obvious homage to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” But the first half was thoroughly modern (for 1988, that is), with visual effects created by cutting up 35mm film, photocopying the individual frames, and layering those images over the original footage. How INXS-ive!
1989: Neil Young, “This Note’s for You”
This win was a massive upset, since “This Note’s for You” was basically one giant F-U to M-T-V. The satirical video blasted corporate advertising — even parodying Michael Jackson’s fiery Pepsi commercial accident, which caused it to be temporarily banned from MTV. Ironically, it ended up winning the Video of the Year award over Jackson’s own “Leave Me Alone” (and Madonna’s infamous Pepsi campaign song, “Like a Prayer”). Also ironically, “This Note’s for You” later lost the Best Concept Video Grammy to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Fat” — another Michael Jackson spoof.
1990: Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”
Sometimes, less is more. While other nominees this year — including the David Fincher-directed “Janie’s Got a Gun” for Aerosmith and “Vogue” by Madonna — were grandiose affairs, O’Connor (who was the first female artist to win this award) captivated the MTV generation with her teary-but-unflinching camera stare-down, bare head, and one-take performance. O’Connor later revealed that her tears were real; she was thinking of her deceased mother when she lip-synched the line, “All the flowers that you planted, mama/All died when you went away.”
1991: R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”
This was first video in which notoriously camera-shy frontman Michael Stipe agreed to lip-synch. Apparently, this was a good decision: “Losing My Religion” was nominated for nine VMAs and won six. The young filmmaker who directed this, Tarsem Singh, went on to lens movies like Jennifer Lopez’s thriller The Cell as well as big-budget TV commercials for (wait for it) Pepsi. What would Neil Young think?
1992: Van Halen, “Right Now”
Diamond Dave-era videos like “Hot for Teacher” and “Panama” were classics, but incredibly, it wasn’t until the Van Hagar years that this band won a Video of the Year VMA. Sammy Hagar didn’t like the “Right Now” video at the time, probably because he wasn’t actually in it, complaining: “People ain’t even going to be listening to what I’m saying because they’ll be reading these subtitles.” (Rock fans hate reading, right?) Anyway, “Right Now” turned out to be the biggest video of Van Halen’s career. It even beat out Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for top VMA honors.
1993: Pearl Jam, “Jeremy”
When Epic Records initially rejected “Jeremy” as a potential single off Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten, Eddie Vedder and company took matters into their own hands and had Vedder’s friend, photographer Chris Cuffaro, do his own version, which Cuffaro financed himself. Unfortunately for Cuffaro, that’s not the “Jeremy” video that won four trophies at the ‘93 VMAs. Instead it was this later one, depicting a bullied child who eventually commits suicide, that got all the glory. While it wasn’t exactly a feelgood video, “Jeremy” truly connected with the disenfranchised Generation X of the ’90s. But the Cuffaro’s simpler version exists on YouTube, if you care to see what might have been.
1994: Aerosmith, “Cryin’”
This video did even more for Alicia Silverstone’s career than it did for Aerosmith’s. After director Marty Callner spotted Silverstone in The Crush and cast her in a trilogy of ‘Smith vids — this one, “Amazing,” and “Crazy” — Silverstone caught the attention of Clueless director Amy Heckerling. And the rest was history. (Side note: Much like the late, great Nathaniel Hornblower, we still think the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” totally got robbed that year.) Aerosmith, an actual rock band, will surprisingly perform at this year’s VMAs.
1995: TLC, “Waterfalls”
1995 was another good year for music video: Michael and Janet Jackson’s astounding, Mark Romanek-directed “Scream” and Weezer’s Happy Days homage “Buddy Holly” by Spike Jonze were also nominated. The director of this video, which won four VMAs, did all right for himself: F. Gary Gray’s went on to direct the musical box office smash Straight Outta Compton.
1996: Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”
Titanic almost caused this video to sink: “Tonight, Tonight” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris had trouble finding period costumes in the L.A. area for this production (which was inspired by an entirely different movie, Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon), because Titanic director James Cameron had rented them all. Thankfully, Dayton and Faris were able to find and/or doctor enough costumes to make it work, as Tim Gunn might say… and eventually at the VMAs, “Tonight, Tonight” was king of the world! Incidentally, Dayton and Faris got their own Oscar glory a decade later, with their film Little Miss Sunshine.
1997: Jamiroquai, “Virtual Insanity”
It may look like singer Jay Kay is boogie-ing on a giant conveyor belt in this video, which scored 10 VMA nominations and four wins, but it was all a very clever illusion created by director Jonathan Glazer utilizing moving walls. Jamiroquai recreated the dizzying effect with an actual moving floor for their insanely cool performance at the 1997 VMAs.
1998: Madonna, “Ray of Light”
Until 2016, Madonna held the record with the most VMA wins (21), and five of those are for this warp-speed clip lensed by Jonas Akerlund. Akerlund went on to direct six other videos for Madge: “Music,” “American Life,” “Jump,” “Celebration,” “Ghosttown,” and “Bitch I’m Madonna.” Akerlund is also the guy who brought us another “Bitch” video: the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” which came out on Madonna’s Maverick Records label.
1999: Lauryn Hill, “Doo Wop (That Thing)”
1999 was a good year for Ms. Hill: Along with her four VMA wins, she won five Grammys (including Album of the Year and Best New Artist). She never replicated that success, but she returned to the MTV airwaves three years later with her polarizing and unhinged MTV Unplugged special. That won no awards.
2000: Eminem, “The Real Slim Shady”
While “The Real Slim Shady,” which was co-directed by Eminem’s mentor Dr. Dre, wasn’t banned from MTV like “This Note’s for You” was, it probably wasn’t a favorite among many MTV regulars — including Total Request Live host Carson Daly, one of many public figures lampooned in the video and song. Tommy Lee, Will Smith, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Fred Durst, and *NSYNC were all targets of Shady’s scorn as well.
2001: Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa & P!nk (feat. Missy Elliott)
VMA viewers could have been forgiven for mistaking this clip for a Twister Sister video, thanks to Christina’s Dee Snider-like frightwig of blond corkscrew curls. Xtina rocked the totally twisted look at various awards shows that year, including the Blockbuster Awards and MTV Movie Awards, despite many dismayed fashion critics’ cries of “We’re not gonna take it!” Last year, P!nk received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award for her solo work.
2002: Eminem, “Without Me”
Shady continued to piss off his peers two years after his first VMA victory, sparring at the awards with techno star Moby (“I will hit a man with glasses,” he said in one classy acceptance speech) and foul-mouthed Conan puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. An award for me to poop on, indeed.
2003: Missy Elliott, “Work It”
Madonna, Britney, and Xtina stole poor Missy’s thunder with their onstage liplock, but this Dave Meyers-directed epic featuring cameos by Timbaland, Eve, Mr. Wiggles from the Rock Steady Crew, and a bunch of live bumblebees deserves its due. Fun fact: According to an MTV interview with Meyers, Missy got totally drunk on the set, when he forgot to replace the wine in her glass with water during multiple takes of the restaurant scene.
2004: Outkast, “Hey Ya!”
MTV decided that this Ed Sullivan spoof starring eight Andre 3000s was definitely cooler than being cool: It won four VMAs in 2003. Director Bryan Barber told MTV that playing the multiple roles of the Love Below band members Benjamin Andre (keys), Possum Jenkins (bass), vocalist Ice Cold 3000 (vocals), Dookie Blasingame (drums), and Johnny Vulture (guitar) really wore Andre out during the 23 takes it took to get this video right. But clearly it was all worth it.
2005: Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
The car used in this Samuel Bayer-directed clip, a 1968 green Mercury Monterey convertible, is the very same automobile that Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool drove to the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards to pick up their six trophies, including Best Group Video and Best Rock Video. What a wild ride.
2006: Panic! At the Disco, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”
“What a beautiful wedding,” indeed. This circus-themed ceremony, starring the Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque, was a great start to Panic!’s MTV career; it was, incredibly, the first video the band ever made. Even more incredibly, band members Brendon Urie and Ryan Ross had the flu while making it. Panic!, along with Aerosmith, will represent rock at this year’s VMAs.
2007: Rihanna, “Umbrella”
This song was originally penned with another MTV darling, Britney Spears, in mind. Well, Brit Brit’s loss was definitely RiRi’s gain, as this became the Barbados singer’s big breakthrough hit and a quintuple VMA nominee. However, we do think Britney totally could have rocked the silver bodypaint, custom-mixed by makeup guru Pamela Neal, that Rihanna wore in this memorable shoot. In 2016, Britney and Rihanna were the stars of the VMAs, with Britney returning to perform for the first time since ’07 and Rihanna receiving the Video Vanguard Award.
2008: Britney Spears, “Piece of Me”
2007 was a very bad year for Britney at the VMAs. Following her public meltdown that included a bizarre head-shaving incident and an umbrella attack, she was somehow forced by handlers, who clearly didn’t have her best interests at heart, back onto the VMAs stage — even though it was obvious that she was not ready for prime time. Her show-opening “Gimme More” performance was a critically panned, potentially career-killing disaster. The brass at MTV got their watercooler moment, but they must have felt some guilt over the whole thing, because the following year, they invited Britney back and lavished her with three Moonmen for “Piece of Me,” arguably one of the weakest videos of her career.
2009: Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)“
This was the crazy year when Kanye West, angered that Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” had won for Best Female Video over “Single Ladies,” bumrushed Swift’s speech. But people forget that Bey actually took home the top honor that year — beating out Kanye’s own “Love Lockdown” in the process.
2010: Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”
The basic plot of this bathhouse tour de force, directed by Francis Lawrence of Hunger Games fame, was Gaga — in a faux polar bear-fur jacket, razorblade sunglasses, and 12-inch Alexander McQueen platform shoes — getting kidnapped by a gang of supermodels who drug her and sell her to the Russian mafia. Typical Gaga, then. She’s made 30 dazzling music videos during her career, but “Bad Romance” is still the one by which all of Gaga’s other videos must be judged.
2011: Katy Perry, “Firework”
Katy, who hosted the VMAs last year, has proven by now that she isn’t all about whipped-cream bras, teenage dreams, and blue wigs, you know. This heartstring-plucking video, dedicated to the It Gets Better Project, was one of the first to showcase her more serious and sensitive side. It was also a nominee for Best Video With a Message, a new category introduced in 2011, along with Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” P!nk’s “Perfect, “Rise Against’s “Make It Stop,” and Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” However, “Firework” ultimately lost out in that race to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”
2012: Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris, “We Found Love”
This is possibly the best illustration of the old “art imitating life” cliché in VMAs history. When the video was released in October 2011, the similarities to Rihanna’s real-life drama with on/off boyfriend Chris Brown were impossible not to notice. Her co-star, Brown lookalike Dudley O’Shaughnessy, bleached his hair blond for the shoot, and he and RiRi even reenacted a portion of the police report account of her 2009 car fight with Brown. Yet despite all of its sensationalism and exploitation of their personal lives, “We Found Love” humanized Rihanna and Brown, in a way. It remains one the VMAs’ finest champs.
2013: Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Who doesn’t love this eight-minute epic celebrating the decades-spanning love story of JT’s beloved maternal grandparents, William and Sadie Bomar? The Floria Sigismondi-directed, extremely haunting clip warrants multiple viewings, preferably with a box of extra-ply tissues at the ready. The real-life William died in December 2012 after a long battle with heart trouble and dementia; one scene in the “Mirrors” video, when the fictional Sadie’s wedding ring falls off and her grandson deftly catches it, hints at Justin’s intention to carry on the Bomars’ legacy and enjoy a union with his own bride, Jessica Biel, that’s as successful as the one his grandparents shared for 63 years. Sob.
2014: Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”
We think the 2015 VMAs host’s pool-party twerkfest “We Can’t Stop” was the real jam, but MTV honored this hammer-licking tighty-whiteys spectacle instead. Miley, who’d caused such a fuss twerking up on Robin Thicke at the previous year’s VMAs, attempted to clean up her act and make a social statement by dispatching a homeless youth, Jesse Helt, to accept the award on her behalf. But she still couldn’t avoid controversy, when it was later revealed that Helt had a criminal past. Helt’s TV appearance prompted police to send out a warrant for his arrest for probation violation, and he was eventually sentenced to six months in jail.
2015: Taylor Swift feat. Kendrick Lamar, “Bad Blood”
Swift premiered her eye-popping, high-budget “Look What You Made Me Do” — which was widely believed to be about her 2009 VMAs nemesis Kanye West — at last year’s VMAs. However, it was shut out of all the major categories this year. (It is up for three technical awards, for editing, art direction, and special effects). Three years ago, Swift won top honors for this all-star video that was widely believed to be about another one of her frenemies, Katy Perry.
2016: Beyoncé, “Formation”
As she dedicated her VMA “to the people of New Orleans,” Bey broke the all-time record for most wins at the VMAs, surpassing the above-mentioned Madonna, with a total of 24. “Formation,” from her ground-breaking visual album Lemonade, also won for Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Choreography, and Breakthrough Long Form Video, among others. Hopefully Kanye is now satisfied!
2017: Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”
This Dave Meyers-directed stunner video, which also won the Grammy Award for Best Music Video this year, got a lot of attention for casting a real-woman model with actual visible stretch marks. But its lightning-quick three minutes and three seconds are packed with iconic imagery, from a Last Supper Da Vinci reenactment (with Lamar in Jesus’s center chair), to an amusing Grey Poupon transaction, to a scene that is quite literally pure fire. Sit down and watch this deserving winner over and over again.
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