Content warning: this post mentions sexual assault.
Madonna’s first performance of “Like a Virgin” should have been her undoing. At least that’s what she was told. The singer, then 26, debuted the single at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards in 1984. Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler hosted the show. Cyndi Lauper was the most-nominated artist, and Herbie Hancock took home the most awards. But no one remembers that. what of do they remember? Madonna wriggling on the floor in a lace bustier and tulle skirt. Her belt read, “Boy Toy.”
Since its inception nearly four decades ago, the VMAs have been the bad boy of award shows, a place where stars would party, feud, and sometimes find common ground. “It was very different than your father’s music business,” MTV cofounder John Sykes told Uproxx in 2015. “We saw an opening for a counterculture awards show that would not follow the rules of the traditional ceremonies people were used to see.”
The show has also always been sexy. Several skin-baring outfits and performance stunts come to mind, but rarely are these displays lacking meaning: many have used sexuality at the show to reclaim power, make feminist statements, or assert independence.
It began that very first year, with Madonna and a lost stiletto. The performance started out with the pop icon slithering down a three-tiered cake, but as she neared the stage, her shoe dela slipped off. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just intend I meant to do this,’ and I dove onto the floor and I rolled around,” Madonna said on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in 2012. “And as I reached for the shoe, the dress went up. And the underpants were showing. I didn’t mean to.”
Viewers at the time were sensationalized. Madonna’s team was scrambling, and her manager, Freddy DeMann, claimed her career would be over. “I couldn’t compute everything that had happened,” Madonna said, “and since I didn’t really have a career yet, I didn’t feel like I had lost anything.” That wasn’t, of course, how things went. In fact, when “Like a Virgin” hit the Billboard Hot 100 a few months later, it would stay at No. 1 for six weeks.
Subsequent performers have attempted to re-create that must-see moment to varying degrees of success: Lil’ Kim and purple pasties in 1999; Britney Spears and her python in 2001; Normani and Teyana Taylor in 2021. Even Madonna tried to outdo herself in 2003, with help from Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Stars’ antics at the VMAs haven’t, however, always been well received. MTV was especially under fire in 2004: less than a year prior, Madonna kissed Spears and Aguilera on stage in the award-show opener, and then came Janet Jackson’s beleaguered wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl halftime show, which the network produced.
Conservative viewers had it with MTV. Complaints rolled in to the Federal Communications Commission. The American Family Association called for boycotts of MTV sponsors. “MTV is blatantly targeting our children with shows that constantly encourage a message of sexual promiscuity, dishonesty, drunkenness, rudeness, rebellion, and profane language,” AFA chairman Don Wildmon said at the time.
MTV didn’t shirk the backlash, which one might expect from a network that prides itself on subverting the status quo. Following its season of acute controversy, MTV reportedly nixed potentially sensitive segments, and labels pulled back on provocative music videos. “Laguna Beach” almost didn’t happen after the school board started to have second thoughts. An MTV spokesperson acknowledged the criticism, telling Rolling Stone, “We have to pay attention to what’s happening in the culture.”
But where was the outrage when men performers asserted sexuality? Why weren’t there news cycles devoted to Eminem grabbing at his crotch for the near entirety of his performance of “The Real Slim Shady” in 2000? And why did Miley Cyrus receive vitriol for twerking at the 2013 VMAs but not the (much-older) Robin Thicke for suggestively standing behind her ela? “Even people around me really judged me,” Cyrus said years later in The New York Times. “People that I really loved and thought were my friends judged me for it.”
Cyrus questioned the lack of criticism her coperformer received. “It was funny, because I got so much of the heat for it, but that’s just being a woman. He acted like he didn’t know that it was going to happen. You were in rehearsals! You knew exactly what was going to happen. .” She also claimed it was Thicke who picked out her infamous outfit — a nude latex bra and underwear — because it matched the nudity in her (now-maligned) “Blurred Lines” music video. “He wanted me as naked as possible,” Cyrus said.
Thicke just laughed it off. “The whole point was to excite and provoke and entertain,” he told Star a few weeks after the award show. “I thought it was silly and funny. She was being humorous and naughty. But it wasn’t sexually charged at all.”
The unfortunate reality is that as fun and flirty as the VMAs are, there is a dark side. One of the most memorable outfits to appear at the award show consisted of a black thong and sheer dress worn by Rose McGowan in 1998. It was viewed as a provocative, boundary-pushing stunt, but it was actually a form of protest against Harvey Weinstein , who had allegedly assaulted her the year prior.
“That was my first public appearance after being sexually assaulted. I was like, ‘Is this what you want?'” McGowan said on “The Dr. Oz Show” in 2018. “I’ve never worn something like that before or since . That was a political statement. Of course, there was on Twitter at the time or Instagram, no way to speak for yourself.”
(It’s worth noting McGowan attended the VMAs that year with her boyfriend at the time, Marilyn Manson, who now faces allegations of abuse and sexual assault. “I am profoundly sad today and disgusted,” McGowan said in an Instagram video following the Manson allegations “When he was with me, he was not like that, but that has no bearing on whether he was like that with others before or after.” In her caption, McGowan wrote, “When I say Hollywood is a cult, I mean the Entertainment industry including the music industry is a cult. [sic] protect the rot at the top.”
There’s no denying the VMAs, along with award shows in general, has lost some of its spectacle in recent years. Viral moments are harder for attendees to achieve, and the pandemic certainly didn’t help, with the 2020 award show done completely virtually. Even then, viewership was higher that year than in 2021, which saw the number of those who tuned in dip below one million for the first time ever. (In contrast, the 2011 VMAs, which had the highest viewership, brought in over 12 million viewers.)
The show is, however, seeing growth in social engagement and cross-platform viewership, in line with changing media habits. And sex appeal is still thriving. At least year’s show, Megan Fox solidified her return to the spotlight with a new addition to the naked-dress canon. Later on in the evening, Normani gave Taylor a gravity-defying lap dance in a tribute to Jackson. So the show isn’t getting any tamer, but viewers may be growing desensitized.
Ahead of the 2022 MTV VMAs on Aug. 28, look back at some of the show’s sexiest moments to date.