Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Eminem, and more have claimed the top prize — but who is No. 1?
Regardless of who picks up the first Moon Person — no more Moonman — for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, they will join a stellar list that includes everyone from Pearl Jam and Green Day to Madonna and Beyoncé. As we get ready for Katy Perry to host the 34th annual VMAs, EW reels back the years to rank all 33 VOTY winners.
33. Van Halen, “Right Now” (1992)
The Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen rocked a mix of PSA-style messaging (“Right now, someone is working too hard for minimum wage”), meme-worthy observations (“Right now, opportunity is passing you by”) and random thoughts (“Right now, a convenience store is open”), but the concept of the 1992 victor feels a bit gimmicky now.
32. Panic! At the Disco, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” (2006)
Frontman Brandon Urie plays ringmaster at a circus-themed wedding with a surprise twist. The surrealistic vision is shades of A Clockwork Orange. But there have been countless videos over the years that have been more deserving of VOTY status.
31. “Britney Spears, “Piece of Me” (2008)
More iconic Spears videos like “…Baby One More Time,” “Oops!…I Did It Again” and “I’m a Slave 4 U” never even made the short list for the highest VMA honor. But after being nominated for “Toxic” in 2004, Spears won in 2008 for this clip that flips off the paparazzi and other tabloid hounds who won’t leave her alone. It was a triumphant moment that redeemed Spears one year after that widely-panned performance of “Gimme More” at the 2007 VMAs.
30. Eminem, “Without Me” (2002)
Eminem won the top VMA for the second time in 2002 — the first was for “The Real Slim Shady” (see below) — and he’s still the only solo male rapper to win it. The image of Em as the Robin-esque Rap Boy riding shotgun with Dr. Dre is the stuff of hip-hop legend.
29. Katy Perry, “Firework” (2011)
Sorry, Katy, but we’ll never understand how “Firework” and all of its special effects blew past Adele’s soul-stirring “Rolling in the Deep” in 2011. But hey, we have to give props where props are due, because beating Adele in anything is major.
28. The Cars, “You Might Think” (1984)
The kitschy, cheeky charms of this clip — laying on the computer graphics as frontman Ric Ocasek cavorts with model Susan Gallagher — are classic ’80s. But you would never think that this could beat out Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — not to mention Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” — as the first Video of the Year in 1984.
27. Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink (feat. Missy Elliott), “Lady Marmalade” (2001)
It had to have been the combined star power here that made this Moulin Rouge! clip win over U2’s “Beautiful Day,” Eminem’s “Stan” featuring Dido, Janet Jackson’s “All for You,” and Elliott’s solo “Get Ur Freak On” in 2001. Really, who could resist all of these ladies together?
26. Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball” (2014)
Miley may now regret making this video, which famously features her swinging naked on a wrecking ball. (“I’m never living that down,” she has said.) But there is no doubt that 2013’s VOTY smashed whatever was left of her Hannah Montana image to bits.
25. Eminem, “The Real Slim Shady” (2000)
This video loses points for that moment when Eminem — whose homophobic lyrics sometimes tainted his talent — busts up a gay wedding. Still — with cameos from Dr. Dre, Kathy Griffin, and his Detroit crew D12 — the rapper displayed a comical flair that made him win this award in 2000.
24. Jamiroquai, “Virtual Insanity” (1997)
Jay Kay brings the futuristic funk in this special effects-laden showcase for his moves and that buffalo hat, which deserves a piece of Jamiroquai’s big win in 1997. It’s all trippy enough to make us believe that we could groove on that moving floor too.
23. Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (2005)
Having previously been nominated for “Basket Case” in 1995, Green Day had to wait another 10 years until their VMA dreams came true in 2005. This American Idiot clip takes a soul-searching stroll along a lonely road where your shadow is the only one that walks besides you.
22. The Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight Tonight” (1996)
The Pumpkins take you on a fantastic voyage to the star-filled skies on this 1996 winner inspired by the French silent film To the Moon. The video, which features spouses Tom Kenny and Jill Talley (both of whom are voices on SpongeBob SquarePants) as long-ago lovers, is a dreamy delight.
21. Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris, “We Found Love” (2012)
Rihanna and a Chris Brown lookalike (Dudley O’Shaughnessy) experience the highs — and lows — of a roller-coaster romance in the 2012 winner that topped another video featuring the singer (“Take Care” with Drake). The clip is as dizzy of a rush as finding love can be.
20. Taylor Swift feat. Kendrick Lamar, “Bad Blood” (2015)
T-Swizzle recruits a star-studded squad — including Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham, Jessica Alba, Ellie Goulding, and Cindy Crawford — for the 2015 VOTY, which plays out like a futuristic mini-film. Her character may have been named Catastrophe, but this clip was anything but.
19. Aerosmith, “Cryin’” (1994)
After previous VOTY nominations for “Janie’s Got a Gun” (1990) and “Livin’ on the Edge” (1993), Aerosmith finally grabbed the gold in 1994. This cinematic clip was the first of their three videos featuring a teenage, pre-Clueless Alicia Silverstone, who wilds out after busting her cheating boyfriend (Stephen Dorff). Bonus points for that epic bungee jump at the end.
18. INXS, “Need You Tonight/Mediate” (1988)
This two-part video — which won in 1988 over a pair of U2 clips (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name”) — combines two tracks from INXS’ multiplatinum Kick album. The “Mediate” section nods to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with cue cards featuring words from their song, while the “Need You Tonight” portion is all Michael Hutchence bare-chest-under-leather-jacket sexiness.
17. Neil Young, “This Note’s for You” (1989)
MTV initially refused to air this video, in which the guitar-slinging Young took aim at rock and pop stars selling their art for advertising. (The song title itself played off the Budweiser slogan “This Bud’s for You.”) Among those getting skewered were Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston, and a hair-on-fire Michael Jackson, whose “Leave Me Alone” was ironically also up for Video of the Year in 1989.
16. Lauryn Hill, “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (1999)
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill schooled us on many things about this artist in her post-Fugees debut. But this video nailed just how perfectly she captured the mix of hip-hop, doo-wop, and other soul traditions on her solo project. The fact that she was the first solo black winner of this award only makes it sweeter.
15. Dire Straits, “Money for Nothing” (1986)
Sting sang “I want my MTV” in the chorus of this song, but Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler didn’t initially want this video — with its groundbreaking computer animation — to be made. It topped a-ha’s “Take on Me,” also directed by Irish filmmaker Steve Barron (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) but instead featuring pencil-sketch animation.
14. Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors” (2013)
JT’s mini-epic — inspired by his grandparents’ decades-long romance — is enough to make the most beat-down heart believe in love again. You don’t even miss that the man himself doesn’t show up until almost six minutes into the clip. This certainly justified him picking up the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award on the same night in 2013.
13. Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance” (2010)
Gaga’s fiercest competition in this category was herself — well, herself and Beyoncé. Indeed, their “Telephone” video was arguably even better than “Bad Romance.” But the 2010 winner represents Mother Monster at the peak of her powers.
12. Rihanna featuring Jay Z, “Umbrella” (2007)
There are moments that change the entire trajectory of an artist’s career — and this was Rihanna’s moment. It was this sleek, sultry video — as much as the No. 1 song — that showed she was ready to take it to the next level. In the process, RiRi proved to be the best thing to work an umbrella since Gene Kelly.
11. OutKast, “Hey Ya!” (2004)
OutKast may have technically been a duo, but it was all about André 3000 in this video from their Grammy-winning double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. In all of his many incarnations — from lead singer to guitarist to an entire backing-vocal section for The Love Below — Dre carried this ’60s throwback to victory in 2004.
10. TLC, “Waterfalls” (1995)
The 1995 VOTY race was a tough call between this and “Scream” by Michael and Janet Jackson. Either would have been a worthy winner. But TLC earned the honors with a big-budget video that tackles AIDS, drugs, and violence. Then there are the liquified versions of T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli performing in front of a real waterfall. It’s just dripping in dopeness.
9. Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer” (1985)
David Lee Roth may have somehow received two Video of the Year nominations in 1985 — for “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” — but thankfully it was Henley who took the top prize for this evocative mood piece. From the little drummer boy — played by Josh Paul, now bassist for the band Daughtry — to the black-and-white cinematography, it’s a haunting nostalgia trip.
8. Beyoncé, “Formation” (2016)
The moment that this video was surprise-dropped the day before Bey’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime show appearance, it became an instant classic. From the Black Lives Matter message to all that black girl magic, the 2016 victor slays in every way.
7. Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990)
Long before the disturbing video she recently posted on Facebook, O’Connor became the first woman to take home the ultimate Moonman in 1990 with this clip that captured her raw emotions in close-up — right down to two single tears running down each side of her face around the four-minute mark. Such was the competition that year that she triumphed over Madonna’s “Vogue” — and somehow Janet Jackson’s iconic “Rhythm Nation” didn’t even get a VOTY nomination.
6. Missy Elliott, “Work It” (2003)
From her very first solo video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” in 1997, Elliott was destined to win this award. Her moment came in 2003 with this tour de force, which works it on every level, from the choreography to the cinematography. Now bring us a glass of wah-tah!
5. Pearl Jam, “Jeremy” (1993)
Directed by Mark Pellington, this powerful video juxtaposes footage of bullied young student Jeremy with an eerie Eddie Vedder at his most intense. The whole thing ends with a shot of Jeremy’s blood-splattered classmates, suggesting that he killed himself in front of them. Sadly, Jeremy’s portrayer, Trevor Wilson — who PJ brought on stage when they won in 1993 — also met a tragic demise at 36 in a 2016 drowning accident.
4. R.E.M., “Losing My Religion” (1991)
Michael Stipe flailing around those arms. Peter Buck plucking that mandolin. Oh, how this makes us wish for an R.E.M. reunion. Directed by filmmaker Tarsem Singh (Mirror Mirror) with rich, Indian-influenced style, the 1991 winner feels like a painting come to life.
3. Madonna, “Ray of Light” (1998)
This isn’t the best of Madonna’s videos: That would be “Vogue.” Or “Express Yourself.” Or heck, maybe even the banned “Justify My Love.” Such was her visual catalog that it was kind of a tragedy that she had never won this award before 1998. But M finally got what she deserved for this Koyaanisqatsi-inspired clip.
2. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (2009)
What we can we say? Kanye West was right. The 2009 champ is, by any measure, “one of the best videos of all time.” With its Bob Fosse-inspired choreography and striking simplicity, this black-and-white classic captured the pop-culture consciousness (hello, SNL), no doubt leading countless dudes to man up and put a ring on it.
1. Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer” (1987)
A visionary in the medium who also won the Video Vanguard Award in 1987, Gabriel (and director Stephen R. Johnson) hit you with a highlight reel of images — the dancing headless chickens! — that employed claymation, pixelation, and stop-motion animation. The clip — MTV’s most played ever — won a whopping nine VMAs, but even that didn’t seem like enough.