The MTV Video Music Awards can be considered the award show that’s most likely to have outrageous moments. Although some VMAs in recent years haven’t had any big, shocking incidents, some music artists have repeatedly caused controversy or pulled attention-grabbing stunts at the VMAs. Here are the five most provocative of those artists.
5. Lady Gaga
The early years of Lady Gaga’s fame were synonymous with sparking controversy and getting attention. In 2009, during her MTV VMA performance of "Paparazzi," she covered herself in fake blood and ended the performance by hanging in the air by her wrist. Her most famous MTV VMA stunt was wearing a dress of raw meat at the 2010 ceremony. In 2011, she went to the MTV VMAs as her drag alter ego Jo Calderone, in a look that seemed to be inspired by the 1950s “greaser” image from nostalgia group Sha Na Na. She stayed in the Jo Calderone character during the show. Since those controversial MTV VMA appearances, Lady Gaga has considerably toned down her image and performances. Although she still wears eye-catching outfits, she no longer seems interested in being the most shocking performer at award shows.
4. Britney Spears
By her third album, Britney Spears was trying to shed her “good girl” image, and she took a step in that direction at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, when she dressed as a belly dancer and performed with a live python around her neck during her performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U.” In 2003, she upped the ante with Christina Aguilera, when the two singers dressed as brides and French-kissed Madonna, who was dressed as a groom when they performed “Like a Virgin.”
At the 2007 MTV VMAs, Spears got a lot of attention for the wrong reasons when her lackluster, a badly lip-synched performance of “Gimme More” was used as an example of her downward spiral in a year where she had spontaneously shaved her head bald and attacked paparazzi with an umbrella. Since then, Spears has turned her life around and stayed away from controversial performances. Her most recent MTV VMA appearances have not been ground-breaking, but she will go down in MTV history as one of the most talked-about artists at the VMAs.
The former “Material Girl” was the original provocateur at the MTV VMAs. At the show’s first ceremony in 1984, a wedding-dress-clad Madonna caused a stir when she rolled around on the floor, simulated sex on the train of her wedding dress, and exposed her garter belts when she performed “Like a Virgin.” Although the performance is not very offensive by today’s standards, it was a big controversy at the time, and many people wrongly predicted that Madonna had ruined her career with that performance. Madonna later pushed the envelope again at the VMAs in 1990 when, dressed in a wardrobe inspired by 18th century France, she and her dancers engaged in a sexually provocative routine that involved her breasts getting fondled and dancers going underneath her voluminous dress.
But her most talked-about stunt at the MTV VMAs was at the 2003 ceremony, when she French kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, who was dressed as “brides” to Madonna’s “groom” during the medley performance that began with “Like a Virgin,” followed by “Hollywood,” and ended with Missy Elliott joining them on stage for “Work It.” Most people don’t remember who won at the VMAs that year, but they do remember the kissing stunt.
2. Miley Cyrus
At the 2013 MTV VMAs, Miley Cyrus caused a firestorm of controversy for her “Blurred Lines” performance with Robin Thicke. Cyrus began by provocatively gyrating with dancers dressed as stuffed animals while she sang her hit “We Can’t Stop.” Thicke then joined her on stage for his hit “Blurred Lines.” Cyrus stripped down to a bikini, used a giant foam hand to simulate masturbation and to touch Thicke multiple times on his crotch, and then twerked on Thicke’s crotch. Most of the criticism was directed at Cyrus, but Thicke got his fair share of backlash too, for seeming to enjoy participating in the spectacle.
Cyrus was fully immersed in her “wild child” persona at the time, and the controversy didn’t seem to bother MTV too much since the network invited her to host the VMAs in 2015. During her divisive VMA hosting stint (people either loved it or hated it), a mostly scantily clad Cyrus took the opportunity to bare her breasts and make several references to her drug use and her sex life. Nicki Minaj was clearly one of the people annoyed with Cyrus because Minaj called Cyrus a “b**ch” on stage when Minaj accepted the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, although Cyrus tried to smooth things over by saying that the media was trying to manipulate them into a feud.
1. Kanye West
Controversial and outspoken rapper Kanye West got immense backlash for famously interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV VMAs, because he wanted to protest that Swift’s “You Belong With Me” won the award for Best Female Video, instead of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” West jumped up on stage, grabbed the microphone from a stunned Swift, and said, “Yo Tay, I'm really happy for you, and I’m a let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” West later made public apologies for the debacle, but the incident was the start of an on-again/off-again feud between West and Swift that has lasted for years.
To a much lesser degree, West also got some criticism for his 11-minute, rambling speech at the VMAs in 2015, when he received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. In his often-incoherent speech, West said that if people wondered if he “smoked something” before going on stage, “The answer is yes, I rolled up a little something. I knocked the edge off!” He also declared at the end of the speech: “I have decided in 2020 to run for president.” Although other artists on this list had their controversial moments at the MTV VMAs, West’s is the only on-stage MTV VMA controversy that ignited a feud of epic proportions.