This year, MTV’s Video Music Awards will air for the 31st time, the network’s yearly reminder that video did in fact kill the radio star. It might seem like an award given by MTV can’t actually have artistic merit (ahem, MTV Movie Awards), but for the most part, the VMAs have done a decent job of picking the best videos of each year. It’s also possibly the only award show where Johnny Cash has competed against 50 Cent.
This year’s nominees for Video of the Year are “Fancy” (Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX), “Drunk in Love” (Beyonce feat. Jay-Z), “Wrecking Ball” (Miley Cyrus), “Chandelier” (Sia) and “Happy” (Pharrell Williams).” Regardless of how you feel about the actual music, these five likely are among the most iconic videos of the past year. So before MTV decides which of these five artists had the best music video of the last 12 months, let’s rank the 30 winners of the VMA for Video of the Year that came before.
30. “Lady Marmalade” by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink” (2001)
Of all the winners of the best video VMA, “Lady Marmalade” might be the least ambitious. Presenting the four song’s stars as courtesans at the Moulin Rouge, Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink sing and dance to their update of the Labelle song. And that’s about it. Aguilera looks like a airbrushed Predator and poor Missy Elliott is stuck announcing the singers. It surely isn’t deserving of the award in hindsight.
29. “You Might Think” by The Cars (1984)
Yup, this was the first MTV Video Music Award winner for Video of the Year. Strange but true. The special effects would be laughable as even a screensaver today and Ric Ocasek’s omnipresent stalking behavior takes the video to an odd level of creepy. It’s weird that Ocasek appears in lipstick, playing with The Cars on a bar of soap and eventually Ocasek himself becoming King Kong to his lady love. But even weirder THIS beat “Thriller,” arguably the most important video of all time at the first awards. You might think I’m crazy, but that is insane.
28. “Piece of Me” by Britney Spears (2008)
The 2000s were clearly a rough time for Britney Spears—several marriages, a shaved head, even a trip to a gas station bathroom without shoes. “Piece of Me” is Spears’ attempt to call out the paparazzi who made her life a living hell during this time, while making fun of her own past and previous videos. But even as she points out their flaws, she reminds us that some those videos were still better.
27. “Right Now” by Van Halen (1992)
“Right Now” beat “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the 1992 VMAs, which is odd considering how linked Nirvana became with MTV in the ’90s. Yet there’s probably no other winner of this decade that feels more early-’90s than “Right Now,” a song that was also used in Crystal Pepsi commercials. The video mentions things that are happening “right now,” putting equal importance in dying mothers and babies and a Van Halen world tour. Appropriately, “Right Now” doesn’t stand the test of time.
26. “This Note’s for You” by Neil Young (1989)
With its anti-commercial stance and its parody of some of the biggest names in music and advertising, this video was originally banned from MTV, so props to the VMAs for even considering it. Young asserts throughout the video that he’s not a musician for a company or corporation, as he pokes fun of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Budweiser and many others. But strangest of all: who would have thought Neil Young had won Video of the Year, while Nirvana and Michael Jackson never did?
25. “Need You Tonight/Mediate” by INXS (1988)
“Need You Tonight/Mediate” takes two INXS songs, links them together and is probably worse because of it. “Need You Tonight” employs unusual editing and animation for a song about sexual desire, whereas “Mediate” is a ripoff of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that stinks of empty hopes for activism. Naming a bunch of rhyming words and throwing in references to Nagasaki and the atomic bomb just seems silly.
24. “The Real Slim Shady” by Eminem (2000)
Every Eminem release seems to have a video that captures and satirizes the time in which it was made. His second and best album The Marshall Mathers LP, gave us “The Real Slim Shady,” a strange video referencing the Pam and Tommy Lee marriage, Tom Green, Fred Durst and the boy bands that were so affluent at the time. It’s already tamer than the man who wanted to stick nine-inch nails through each one of this eyelids, but it’s a decent time-capsule of turn-of-the-century pop culture.
23. “Firework” by Katy Perry (2011)
On paper, “Firework” is a great idea about overcoming adversity and not being afraid to be who you are. The video for “Firework” mostly achieves this, but also, fireworks come out of people’s chest. Like, shoot right outta there. It’s uplifting, which made it one of the first nominees in the oddly named “Best Video with a Message,” but it’s also hard to not laugh at least a little bit the first time sparks fly from Katy Perry’s breasts.
22. “Umbrella” by Rihanna (featuring Jay-Z) (2007)
Rihanna’s third album was called Good Girl Gone Bad, an idea showcased in the video for “Umbrella.” In it we see two different types of Rihanna: one dressed in white and dancing innocently, the other dancing seductively in black or naked in silver paint. The highlight though is the finale, in which Rihanna dances with a troupe of men, all of whom are carrying umbrellas in ankle-deep water, while sparks rain down on them all.
21. “Waterfalls” by TLC (1995)
With their video for “Waterfalls,” TLC offers a literal retelling of the song’s lyrics, which warn against drug dealing and unprotected sex. A worthy cause, but the video also awkwardly features Chilli, T-Boz and Left Eye turning into CGI water and dancing on what looks like the outside edge of The Truman Show set. It’s sort of silly now, intercutting the band with the important message they’re trying to convey, but mostly “Waterfalls” still works.