The very first MTV Video Music Awards aired way back in 1984. The annual awards show doesn't like to dwell on its age, though — pop music is consumed by many but chiefly geared toward the young, so MTV must stay as perpetually hip as its target demo.
The network's nostalgia is selective and artfully curated: You'll see the occasional "retro" block featuring Daria's back-in-fashion '90s angst or marathons of shows like The Hills (which only went off the air in 2010), while so many other TV series, ex-veejays and dated music video fashion moments were never spoken of again. MTV's decades' worth of programming is actually a treasure trove — or more accurately, a time capsule, revealing what we once collectively cared about at any given time.
The 2015 VMAs are fast approaching, and even the iconic Moonman statue has gotten more work done to stay fresh: Jeremy Scott has turned him into a rainbow-hued happy hippie, in keeping with host Miley Cyrus' nonprofit foundation (and her Instagram aesthetic). The show's live broadcast on August 30 will likely provide tons of surprises and GIF-able moments, but before we whip/nae nae our way into the festivities, let's revisit some standout MTV Video Music Awards performances from shows past.
Madonna, "Like A Virgin" (1984)
Madonna performed "Like A Virgin" at the very first VMAs, and an outfit-related mishap led to a now iconic performance choice. According to Billboard, as the singer descended from her 17-foot-tall cake, one of her stillettos slipped off. "So I thought, 'Well, I'll just pretend I meant to do this,' and I dove on the floor and I rolled around," Madonna said. "And, as I reached for the shoe, the dress went up. And the underpants were showing."
Her improvised writhing led to some classic stage humping – this would barely draw a raised eyebrow today, but it was very controversial at the time. While Madge's career has evolved over the years, her onstage fashion choices still lead to unplanned tumbles.
Nirvana, "Lithium" (1992)
The grunge trailblazers blew the world's collective minds with their sophomore album, Nevermind, but their 1992 performance of "Lithium" made history for Dave Grohl's outburst at the end.
After Kurt Cobain held his buzzing guitar aloft, threw it and flopped all over the drum set, Grohl got on the mic and searched for Guns 'n Roses frontman Axl Rose, yelling "Hi Axl! Where's Axl — HI AXL!" Some people misheard confused his greeting for "hi a---hole," which was almost certainly intentional on Grohl's part.
According to Loudwire, bassist Krist Novoselic later explained that the jab was in response to a backstage squabble involving Axl, Nirvana and Cobain's wife Courtney Love.
Guns N' Roses feat. Elton John, "November Rain" (1992)
In a world where the internet has whittled down our attention spans and hard rock no longer reigns supreme, the fact that the VMAs dedicated nine uninterrupted minutes to a rock ballad is almost unfathomable. But they actually did, and — with the help of an orchestra and the one and only Elton John on piano #2 — it was nothing short of epic.
Salt-N-Pepa feat. Spinderalla, "Push It" / "None of Your Business" / "Whatta Man" / "Shoop" (1994)
Prior to Salt-N-Pepa's 1994 performance, Madonna had a VMAs monopoly on the whole "woman frankly addressing her own robust sexuality onstage" thing. The rap duo's medley was brash, playful and just pop enough to stay mid-90s-primetime wholesome.
Michael Jackson (1995)
The Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award honors artists who've made consistently outstanding contributions to the art of music videos. The dazzling medleys from Vanguard Award recipients Justin Timberlake in 2013 and Beyonce in 2014 were — at least in part — inspired by the King of Pop's 1995 triumph, as he commanded the stage with a string of beloved hits.
Eminem, "The Real Slim Shady / The Way I Am" (2000)
Back in 2000, a successful white rapper with serious skills and the street cred to match was as rare as a unicorn. But Eminem lined the New York City street with dozens of blonde, saggy pants-wearing lookalikes in an "I am Spartacus"-like salute to collective rebellion.
Britney Spears, "I'm a Slave 4 U" (2001)
The track's opening lines chastise the public for looking at Britney Spears like she's a little girl – but how many little girls can wield a Burmese python like a sexy accoutrement? The all-grown-up performance saw the pop star sharing a cage with a tiger and riding a human zebra. It was Britney at the top of her game, though it did draw PETA's ire for bringing exotic animals into the show's hectic environment.
Usher feat. Lil Jon + Ludacris, "Confessions Part II and Yeah!" (2004)
Usher is a reliably electric performer, and in 2004 he played to two of his biggest strengths: His way with a soul-baring ballad (in a fake rainstorm, no less) and his incredible dancing skills. Yes, we've all heard "Yeah!" at roughly 1,088 clubs and house parties in the years since, but back then the track was just cementing its anthem status.
Lady Gaga, "Paparazzi" (2009)
Matching the grand-scale excitement of the "Paparazzi" music video is no small feat, but Mother Monster definitely got it done. Everything about the number was massive, from the enormous, opulent set to Gaga's live vocals to her stage theatrics and final "death."
Kanye West, "Runaway" (2010)
One year after his famous "I'mma let you finish" interruption (back when Katy Perry still mistook Taylor Swift for a harmless kitten), Kanye West returned to debut the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy track with a visually-arresting performance. The ballerinas and Pusha T in his salmon-colored suit were great, but it was all about Kanye owning his own douchebaggery in his signature hyperbolic style.
Justin Timberlake and *NSYNC (2013)
Who'd have guessed a lifetime spent onstage as a child pageant contestant, Mickey Mouse Club cast member, musician and frequent SNL guest star would result in a stunningly charismatic performance that also looks effortless?
Everyone would have guessed, actually, but that didn't make it any less fun to watch. Justin nailed the medley in honor of his Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, and even let his fellow NSYNC members share the stage for about 90 seconds — enough to set Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and many home viewers' pulses racing with nostalgic joy.
Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke and 2 Chainz (2013)
Things started innocently enough, by Miley Cyrus standards: She sang "We Can't Stop" flanked by her BANGERZ Tour squad of furries, intermittently sticking that infamous tongue out. But things went from 0 to WTF the second Robin Thicke walked onstage in his "sexy Beetlejuice" Halloween costume and Miley rubbed herself all over him throughout their "Blurred Lines" duet. By the time 2 Chainz joined the action, the stage show was pure unmitigated chaos.
Was it a "good" performance? Not exactly. Was it the wild, parent-shocking spectacle MTV purports to serve at the VMAs, yet rarely produce anymore? Absolutely, and they likely aim to recreate that magic when Cyrus returns to host in 2015.
Bey brought her self-titled surprise visual album to life with a 14-minute spectacle that was gorgeous, emotional and seamlessly produced. When Jay Z presented her with the Video Vanguard award afterward and called her the "greatest living performer," what we'd just witnessed was Exhibit A.