The 45th annual American Music Awards ceremony airs live on ABC this Sunday, and will feature performances by such heavy hitters as Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Selena Gomez, Niall Horan, P!nk, and even Diana Ross. The AMAs are, of course, always wild and unpredictable … but will any of this year’s moments be as memorable as these shockers from the awards show’s history, listed chronologically below? We’ll soon find out.
Prince’s Bizarre Purple Reign (1985)
When Prince, who dominated the AMAs in 1985, accepted his award for Favorite Black Single (yes, that was a category in the ’80s) he uttered only four words — “Thank you very much” — before walking right back to his seat, but he made a massive impressive thanks to his massive sidekick: hulking, bearded bodyguard Lawrence Gibson. Host Lionel Richie had a one-word reaction: “Outrageous!” Prince got a little chattier when accepting his trophy for Favorite Pop Album, saying, “For all of us, life is death without adventure, and adventure only comes to those who are willing to be daring and take chances.”
Good Golly! Little Richard Lets It Rip (1989)
While presenting the Favorite Soul/R&B Single award with Eddie Money, Richard went wildly off-script to complain that he’d never won an AMA. “Don’t you think it’s time I won?” he shouted, rhetorically. He then demanded that the audience give him a standing ovation if they agreed. Incidentally, Richard did receive the American Music Award of Merit — basically the AMAs’ lifetime achievement accolade — eight years later. And as for which artist actually won the award that Richard and Money handed out in 1989? It was Freddie Jackson, for “Nice ‘n’ Slow,” but pretty much no one remembers that.
Guns N’ Roses: Anything Goes (1990)
Back when big hair and leather pants were all the rage, and rock ‘n’ rollers wore a supermodel on each arm as their most fashionable accessories, GNR won some big-time AMAs. A fresh-faced Slash and Duff McKagan took the stage to accept their band’s awards at the 1990 ceremony, looking more than a little blitzed while swigging beer and smoking cigarettes. Slash seemed shocked and overwhelmed when GNR received their first award of the night, but was composed enough on their second trip up to the podium to remember to thank several people. However, most of his speech was bleeped out, as the show’s producers didn’t want to let his F-bombs fly during the family-friendly program, and they cued up the music encouraging the rockers to make a hasty exit. (Videos below contain profanity.)
Garth Brooks Doesn’t Give a Hoot (1996)
Another unforgettable moment in AMAs history was one that the show’s producers would probably rather forget. Famed country crooner Garth Brooks rejected his Artist of the Year award in 1996 in an effort to show solidarity with his fellow artists. “I cannot agree with this,” he emphatically told the audience. “Without any disrespect to the American Music Awards and without disrespect to any fans who voted, for all those people who should be honored with this award, I’m going to leave it right here,” Brooks said before walking away from the podium and leaving his trophy behind. He later said he thought that Hootie & the Blowfish should’ve won Artist of the Year. Huh? Now that’s crazy.
Pat Boone Is Hell Bent for Leather (1997)
To promote his bizarre album of jazzy remakes of heavy metal classics, In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, conservative crooner Boone joined Alice Cooper onstage wearing S&M gear, complete with studded dog collar. The stunt led to his temporary dismissal from the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and caused Cooper to cry out, “Does this signify the death of heavy metal?” We only wish Duff and Slash had been at the 1997 AMAs to witness this.
Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake are Blue Jean Babies (2001)
The ultimate ’90s pop power couple brought their bad fashion into the new millennium with matching denim-on-denim disasters at the 2001 AMAs. The moment became so unintentionally iconic, Katy Perry and rapper Riff Raff recreated the look 13 years later at the MTV Video Music Awards (see inset at left). Who wore it best? Or worst? We’ll let you decide.
Kanye West: AMAs and Heartbreak (2004)
Garth Brooks isn’t the only artist to abruptly walk away from the AMAs. The notoriously temperamental Kanye stormed out of the awards ceremony in 2004 after Gretchen Wilson beat him out for the Favorite New Artist award. The rap star later told reporters, “I felt like I was definitely robbed, and I refused to give any politically correct bulls*** comment. … I was the best new artist this year.” He also implied that there was a massive conspiracy against him, criticized the AMAs’ voting process, and promised never to return. (We’d applaud Kanye for sticking to his guns … except he did return, of course, in 2008.) Months later, when Kanye visited the press room backstage at another awards show, the Billboard Music Awards, he was still talking about the AMAs’ perceived snub — although this time, he semi-apologized, as seen below.
On a somber related note, Anna Nicole Smith’s slurry Kanye introduction at the 2004 AMAs was just plain sad. Thirteen years later (and a decade after her death), it’s tough to watch.
Kathy Griffin Is a Clay-Mate (2004)
When presenting onstage with American Idol Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken, the comedian was ready to have Clay make an honest women of her. Alas, this union was not meant to be. Griffin later told E! that her attempts to befriend the singer/politician backfired, and he was “not very nice.”
Adam Lambert Kissed a Guy and Some Viewers Didn’t Like It (2009)
Who can forget the controversial kiss that Adam Lambert shared with his male bandmate during his glamtastic 2009 AMA performance? This American Idol runner-up pushed boundaries with sexually suggestive choreography that included dancers crawling on the ground on a leash, fetish-club-kid costuming, and plenty of bumping and grinding. But it’s the moment when Lambert grabbed his keyboardist Tommy Joe Ratliff by the hair and gave him a big smooch on the lips that had everyone talking. As the openly gay singer pointed out, he had no qualms about doing it because “women performers have been pushing the envelope” for decades, but the backlash was immediate, with ABC canceling his scheduled appearances on various other shows.
“Me kissing a guy on the f***ing AMAs was like, such a scandal, and I really don’t think it would be now,” Lambert told Yahoo Entertainment in an interview earlier this year. “People just did not know what to do! I got pulled off of Good Morning America the next day, and they censored the kiss [with male bandmate Tommy Joe Ratliff] on ABC when I got interviewed about it — even though right beforehand, they had been showing Madonna and Britney making out [on the VMAs]. Like, huh? The double standards there were running wild! I just don’t think it would be that way now. No one would care.”
Lady Gaga Leaves the Audience Speechless (2009)
Lady Gaga left plenty of people “speechless” following her 2009 AMA performance. During her “Bad Romance”/“Speechless” medley, Gaga put her dancers through their paces before she paused and walked over to a giant glass cube containing her piano. She proceeded to violently shatter the glass with her microphone stand, climbed over it to reach her piano bench, and then pounded the ivories as she smashed glass bottles on the piano itself. As if that weren’t dramatic enough, the piano spewed out some serious pyrotechnics while her band performed from the safety of their own elevated glass cubes — wearing dark uniforms and gas masks, just in case. The bizarre display earned Gaga a standing ovation, which she deserved simply for surviving such a literally shattering performance. It’ll be interesting to see what the tamer, Joanne-era Gaga does when she performs at the AMAs this Sunday.
J.Lo Hits a New Low (2009)
Jennifer Lopez was wearing sensible flat boots — not high heels, as the title would suggest — when she performed “Louboutins” at the obviously very eventful 2009 AMAs, but she fell on her famous backside anyway. (See the 3:06 mark below.) Producers edited the flub out of the West Coast broadcast later that night, but honestly, they should have kept it in just to show what a pro J.Lo really is: She hopped right back up and didn’t miss a beat. Impressive!
LMFAO Aren’t Sorry for Party-Rockin’ With the Biebs and the Hoff (2011)
LMFAO proved that they know how to end a party as well as get the party started at the 2011 AMAs. The “Party Rock” crew pulled out all the stops during their lengthy performance that closed out the ceremony, and had the entire audience dancing with glowsticks and rocking 3D glasses by the night’s end. Not content to party all by themselves, they invited Justin Bieber onstage to bust out some impressive dance moves in Day-Glo yellow pants, then frontman Redfoo started a trend when he pulled off his pants to reveal his smiley-face underwear during “Sexy and I Know It.” Next thing you know, everyone was dancing around in their undies. Amid all the chaos and people ripping off their pants willy-nilly, David Hasselhoff appeared and joined in on the fun by ripping off his own pants. “We love you, party people! I wanna wiggle with David Hasselhoff!” shouted Redfoo. Well, who doesn’t want to wiggle with the Hoff?
Stop! Gangnamtime. MC Hammer Bumrushes PSY (2012)
When it was announced that K-pop YouTube sensation PSY would perform at the 40th annual American Music Awards with a very special “international superstar” guest, fans’ imaginations immediately lurched into overdrive. Who would it be? Madonna? Gaga? Rihanna? Nope! It was … MC Hammer. Yes, MC Hammer. The guy who kind of was the PSY of the late ’80s/early ’90s, come to think of it.
Lady Gaga and R. Kelly’s Impeachable Performance (2013)
Given that Gaga has always been such an advocate for women’s right and causes, and in recent years has been very open about her experience with sexual assault, it’s downright puzzling that just a few years ago she thought it was a good idea to join forces with an accused sexual predator to record a song in which she blithely invited him to do whatever he wanted with her body. At the time, their apparently Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky-inspired AMAs number seemed to make a strong case for Kelly to film about 50 more chapters of “Trapped in the Closet” with Gaga, but now a performance about sexual impropriety in the Oval Office hits a little too close to come, and just comes across as icky and very ill-advised.
Hello, Kitty! Miley’s Cat-tastic Performance Wins the AMAs (2013)
The only duet that got more attention at 2013’s AMAs than Lady Gaga and R. Kelly was Miley, in a kitty-printed two-piece, doing “Wrecking Ball” … with a lip-synching, weeping, animatronic space-cat. If there’s anything bigger on the internet than Miley Cyrus, it’s cats, so basically, the internet broke during this performance. And the cat literally got Miley’s tongue at the very end. Classic.
Green Day Is Seeing Red (2016)
After many years in which there wasn’t a single rock band on the AMAs, last year’s show had three — count ’em! three! — rock acts on the telecast. Foremost among them was Green Day, who in the days following Trump’s election actually found a way to channel the politics the hosts swore we wouldn’t be getting into a song, chanting a line originally by fellow Bay Area punks MDC, “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” But more than that, here was a band getting back to its roots with a blast of energy that seemed to take it for go-for-broke granted that their radio smash days are behind them and they can just punk it up again.
Additional reporting by Laura Ferreiro and Chris Willman.