Content warning: this put up mentions sexual assault.

Madonna‘s first efficiency of “Like a Virgin” ought to have been her undoing. At least that is what she was instructed. The singer, then 26, debuted the single at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards in 1984. Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler hosted the present. Cyndi Lauper was the most-nominated artist, and Herbie Hancock took dwelling the most awards. But nobody remembers that. What do they keep in mind? Madonna wriggling on the ground in a lace bustier and tulle skirt. Her belt learn, “Boy Toy.”

Since its inception almost 4 many years in the past, the VMAs have been the unhealthy boy of award reveals, a spot the place stars would occasion, feud, and typically discover widespread floor. “It was very completely different than your father’s music enterprise,” MTV cofounder John Sykes instructed Uproxx in 2015. “We noticed a gap for a counterculture awards present that may not comply with the guidelines of the conventional ceremonies folks have been used to seeing.”

The present has additionally all the time been attractive. Several skin-baring outfits and efficiency stunts come to thoughts, however hardly ever are these shows missing which means: many have used sexuality at the present to reclaim energy, make feminist statements, or assert independence.

It started that very first 12 months, with Madonna and a misplaced stiletto. The efficiency began out with the pop icon slithering down a three-tiered cake, however as she neared the stage, her shoe slipped off. “So I assumed, ‘Well, I’ll simply fake I meant to do that,’ and I dove onto the ground and I rolled round,” Madonna mentioned on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in 2012. “And as I reached for the shoe, the costume went up. And the underpants have been exhibiting. I did not imply to.”

Viewers at the time have been sensationalized. Madonna’s staff was scrambling, and her supervisor, Freddy DeMann, claimed her profession could be over. “I could not compute all the things that had occurred,” Madonna mentioned, “and since I did not actually have a profession but, I did not really feel like I had misplaced something.” That wasn’t, in fact, how issues went. In truth, when “Like a Virgin” hit the Billboard Hot 100 a number of months later, it could stay at No. 1 for six weeks.

Subsequent performers have tried to re-create that must-see second to various levels 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 assist from Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Stars’ antics at the VMAs have not, nonetheless, all the time been nicely obtained. MTV was particularly below hearth in 2004: lower than a 12 months prior, Madonna kissed Spears and Aguilera on stage in the award-show opener, after which got here Janet Jackson‘s beleaguered wardrobe malfunction throughout the Super Bowl halftime present, which the community 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 focusing on our kids with reveals that consistently encourage a message of sexual promiscuity, dishonesty, drunkenness, rudeness, revolt, and profane language,” AFA chairman Don Wildmon mentioned at the time.

MTV did not shirk the backlash, which one would possibly anticipate from a community that prides itself on subverting the establishment. Following its season of acute controversy, MTV reportedly nixed probably delicate segments, and labels pulled again on provocative music movies. “Laguna Beach” nearly did not occur after the faculty board began to have second ideas. An MTV spokesperson acknowledged the criticism, telling Rolling Stone, “We have to concentrate to what’s occurring in the tradition.”

But the place was the outrage when males performers asserted sexuality? Why weren’t there information cycles dedicated to Eminem grabbing at his crotch for the close to entirety of his efficiency of “The Real Slim Shady” in 2000? And why did Miley Cyrus obtain vitriol for twerking at the 2013 VMAs however not the (much-older) Robin Thicke for suggestively standing behind her? “Even folks round me actually judged me,” Cyrus mentioned years later in The New York Times

. “People that I actually liked and thought have been my associates judged me for it.”

Cyrus questioned the lack of criticism her coperformer obtained. “It was humorous, as a result of I received a lot of the warmth for it, however that is simply being a girl. He acted like he did not know that was going to occur. You have been in rehearsals! You knew precisely what was going to occur.” She additionally claimed it was Thicke who picked out her notorious outfit — a nude latex bra and underwear — as a result of it matched the nudity in his (now-maligned) “Blurred Lines” music video. “He needed me as bare as potential,” Cyrus mentioned.

Thicke simply laughed it off. “The entire level was to excite and provoke and entertain,” he instructed Star a number of weeks after the award present. “I assumed it was foolish and humorous. She was being humorous and naughty. But it wasn’t sexually charged at all.”

The unlucky actuality is that as enjoyable and flirty as the VMAs are, there’s a darkish aspect. One of the most memorable outfits to look at the award present consisted of a black thong and sheer costume worn by Rose McGowan in 1998. It was considered as a provocative, boundary-pushing stunt, however it was really a type of protest in opposition to Harvey Weinstein, who had allegedly assaulted her the 12 months prior.

“That was my first public look after being sexually assaulted. I used to be like, ‘Is this what you need?'” McGowan mentioned on “The Dr. Oz Show” in 2018. “I’ve by no means worn one thing like that earlier than or since. That was a political assertion. Of course, there was no Twitter at the time or Instagram, no method to converse for your self.”

(It’s value noting McGowan attended the VMAs that 12 months along with her boyfriend at the time, Marilyn Manson, who now faces allegations of abuse and sexual assault. “I’m profoundly unhappy right this moment and disgusted,” McGowan mentioned in an Instagram video following the Manson allegations. “When he was with me, he was not like that, however that has no bearing on whether or not he was like that with others earlier than or after.” In her caption, McGowan wrote, “When I say Hollywood is a cult, I imply the Entertainment business together with the music business is a cult. Cult’s [sic] defend the rot at the prime.”)

There’s no denying the VMAs, together with award reveals typically, has misplaced a few of its spectacle in recent times. Viral moments are tougher for attendees to attain, and the pandemic definitely did not assist, with the 2020 award present performed fully just about. Even then, viewership was increased that 12 months than in 2021, which noticed the variety of those that tuned in dip beneath a million for the first time ever. (In distinction, the 2011 VMAs, which had the highest viewership, introduced in over 12 million viewers.)

The present is, nonetheless, seeing growth in social engagement and cross-platform viewership, in keeping with altering media habits. And intercourse enchantment continues to be thriving. At least 12 months’s present, Megan Fox solidified her return to the highlight with a new addition to the naked-dress canon. Later on in the night, Normani gave Taylor a gravity-defying lap dance in a tribute to Jackson. So the present is not getting any tamer, however viewers could also be rising desensitized.

Ahead of the 2022 MTV VMAs on Aug. 28, look again at a few of the present’s sexiest moments so far.

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