Last week’s MTV Video Music Awards may have suffered from disappointing ratings (this year’s viewership was only half of last year’s all-time high 12.45 million) and a dearth of big wow moments, but there’s no shortage of bonkers events to look back on in the show’s past.
In fact, we recently caught up with MTV Music Group President Van Toffler to discuss some of the wildest, wooliest, and most unforgettable water-cooler moments from the VMAs’ nearly three-decade run — and got some previously unpublished revelations on everyone from Britney Spears (did you know that she wasn’t actually Madonna’s first-kiss choice back in 2003? Or that her 2001 snake-charming had a seriously unfortunate side effect?) to Kanye’s infamous speechus interruptus. Read on (with video links in the headers, when available).
Toffler: “There’s no way any of us could have predicted that — we didn’t orchestrate it. He came with a bottle of alcohol, so he was in a festive mood to begin with. But we all were in shock in the [production] truck when he walked up on stage and took the mic from Taylor. I remember turning to one of the producers and going, ‘Do we not have security?’ [But] we don’t put those big bulky guys on camera in front of the talent. Maybe this guy thought Kanye belonged on the stage.
I said to our line producer, ‘You need to go talk to Kanye and probably have him exit the building, and I will go deal with Taylor.’ And she was about to perform right after that break! She was a champ. I would be lying if I said she and her mom weren’t crying when I saw them, but she pulled it together. This was one of the most absurd VMA moments for me, having to talk to her and her mom, and they’re crying and upset, and this was her first time on the VMAs, and she had been used to working on country shows with polite artists. This was a little bit more chaotic than she was used to. And then I walked back behind the stage to find Beyoncé crying about the incident. Ultimately I talked to her and her dad and then went back to Taylor after her performance, and an hour later Beyoncé brought Taylor back out so she could have her moment.
It all played out okay in the end, but there was a lot of drama in between. Beyoncé had the wisdom to bring Taylor out on stage, and Taylor stayed to have her moment instead of leaving.”
“It was a long road to get to that Britney and Christina kiss, because they weren’t necessarily the first couple of people who were on the hit list. This may be the first time it’s revealed, but originally J. Lo was in the mix. That didn’t happen. And the thing about Britney and Madonna was they had history, so it was not easy to get them together on the stage. Both Britney and Christina obviously respected Madonna, so only she could pull that off. You have to have that kind of pull.”
“Last year I called Gaga’s manager and I suggested to him, ‘It’d be great if Gaga could come in and do something different, almost counter-intuitive, and do a killer intimate version of “You and I” as opposed to a massive well-choreographed, full of explosions, tons of dancers kind of performance.’ A few days later he calls me back, and says, ‘Yep, she’s in for “You and I,” she loves that, but she’s going to do it as a man—as her alter-ego.’ Most responsible executives would say ‘Huh?’ but I was like, ‘Great, see you at rehearsal in a couple of weeks!'”
“We definitely didn’t expect Kurt Cobain to go into ‘Rape Me’ as his song choice. And even after that, Krist Novoselic ended the performance bleeding. He didn’t expect the bass to land on his face, but we had to keep going with the show. Luckily he was all right and was taken care of, because we still had Fartman, the Chili Peppers, and Elton and Axl to go. We’re like, ‘Look, we have another two hours left of this thing. Let’s strap in!’ He probably should have practiced that one in rehearsal, but he didn’t.”
“I remember Beyoncé showed up to rehearsal, and she was wearing really loose clothing. We like to know the wardrobe choices that our artists are making — we’ve learned the hard way sometimes. I remember asking her manager about it, and she said, ‘Don’t worry, she’ll show you the day of.’
She said to our director that she didn’t want to have a cutaway. She said, ‘Take a close-up of me at the end of the song. No audience applauding shot—I want you tight on me.’ That is what we knew. And then on the red carpet, she had kind of indicated what was going on. It wasn’t until an hour before the show that we figured it out, and the rest of the world figured it out. Most of the artists didn’t know, and we got that great [reaction shot] of Kanye after the reveal with Jay.”
“The ‘Real Slim Shady’ performance with all the lookalikes was our idea, and to Eminem’s credit he embraced it. Based on the lyrics of the song and the idea of the song, he was the only performer we had walk outside the venue into the venue, and everybody flipped out.
He can stand on stage by himself and rap and it’s compelling, but we wanted a way into it, and we used the environment of New York City and Sixth Avenue. At the rehearsal, not all the lookalikes had the blond hair he had at the time, so everybody had to dye their hair.
We’ve had stranger casting calls. I don’t know if you remember Marilyn Manson’s ‘The Dope Show,’ but he had a lot of freaky looking folks on stage with him. And Blink-182 brought a bunch of little people on stage with them.”
“I think that idea came from her camp. Some of these venues are uncomfortable having live animals in the room. Crazy people? Yes. Live animals, it’s a little bit funky. She was totally prepared to do it, and she rehearsed with it. Little known fact: She actually broke out in a rash in rehearsal. I don’t know whether it was the snake or what, but she made it through. That’s the beauty of make-up.”
“When the guy from Rage Against the Machine climbed the set while Fred Durst was on—I’m not sure what he was protesting to this day. I remember saying to our producer at the time, ‘How much weight can that set hold? Is there anybody near there?’ Because we can’t impale anybody in the audience or on stage. And then it started to shake! We were definitely not prepared for that.”
“There was that time in Vegas when Tommy Lee and Kid Rock got into a fight during Alicia Keys’ performance. We didn’t know about it until we saw the close-up of Alicia looking down in the crowd, and then sure enough they showed up on one of the isolated cameras trying to throw punches at each other. It was right in the middle of her performance. We tried to deal with it as quickly as possible.
“Chris Rock has tested me and all my relationships that I formed throughout the industry. He wouldn’t really give it up in rehearsal very much, and that’s probably why I got some angry letters from J.Lo’s camp when he went after her in 1999. [Sample joke: “I see Jennifer on TV thanking her mama and daddy, the acting coach. Thank your ass, girl. Thank your ass before your ass goes solo, ’cause the ass is the star of the show. Jennifer is just the Commodores—the ass is Lionel Richie.”] But Chris Rock is a great comedian, and he’s got that sort of rock and roll attitude.”
“In 2002, Jimmy Fallon was the host, and we weren’t going to tell anybody about the last performance, but Jimmy was going to tease it without saying Guns N’ Roses. It’s 11 o’clock, we’re in the final commercial break and they’re the last thing on the show, going on at like 11:10. And I give Earl, who has been Axl’s bodyguard forever, the thumb’s up, and he said, ‘I don’t have eyes on Axl. He left the building.’ And I’m like, ‘Earl, it’s your job to be with him, right?’ He said Axl went to take a walk because he was nervous. And I was like, ‘That’s fine, but he couldn’t take the walk at 9 or 10? It’s 11 frickin’ o’clock!’ I hoped and prayed he would be walking back, and at about 11:07, we hear from Earl that Axl’s back in the building, and sure enough they closed the show.”
What’s your own favorite VMA moment? Sound off in the comments!
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