This Sunday is the 30th MTV Video Music Awards. The show’s come a long way from the days of Bette Midler and basic-cable bedlam–it’s one of the most influential award shows on television. Youth driven channel that it is, MTV itself seldom looks back at yesterday in favor of focusing on the future, but when outside sources are left with the task of looking back, it’s lead to some pretty unfair and harsh judgments. Sunday’s show marks 15 years since the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, a VMAs which has come to be frequently ranked among the worst ever broadcast. I disagree. In fact, 1998 was a pretty important turning-point for the show that helped continue to build a VMAs legacy that continues today.
Yes, when looking back at the late-90s Video Music Awards, the ’98 incarnation seems like the least sexy. Sandwiched between the two years Chris Rock hosted, both strong candidates for the best VMAs of all time, you also have 1998 as the overlooked middle child between the year shock rock (Marilyn Manson) and hip-hop (The Biggie Tribute and “Ladies’ Night”) took center stage. It was also the year of boy-bands, rap metal and the first appearances of the pop culture icons Eminem and Britney Spears who would define popular music for the next decade. Instead the 1998 Video Music Awards have caught flack for being “instantly dated,” but while there’s plenty of elements of the broadcast that wouldn’t fly at any other time, being a time capsule for such a unique moment in music is part of what makes the show so much fun.
Sponsored by CDNow.com (OK, perhaps the “instantly dated” allegations have some merit), the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards were something of a transitional year that tied up certain loose ends left open during the 15 previous years of the show. Hosted by Ben Stiller, fresh off becoming a mega-star thanks to that summer’s There’s Something About Mary, there’s something sweet about a homegrown MTV talent coming back after becoming huge to lead the network’s biggest night. While Stiller’s on-stage duties weren’t quite up to the caliber of Rock, Arsenio or some of the most celebrated hosts, you would be hard-pressed to find a Video Music Awards with better pre-taped skits. From Stiller as Bruce Springsteen interviewing Puff Daddy on an episode of “MTV’s Fanatic” to Stiller and Andy Dick as the off-brand “Backstreet Boyz,” the clips played to Stiller’s strengths and are among the strongest the show’s aired.
Also notable about the show is the ending of two long-standing gaps in VMA history. While the show’s probably most remembered for Madonna’s performance and subsequent cleaning-up thanks to her “Ray of Light” video, what gets forgotten is that this was Madonna’s first ever Video of the Year award, received a solid 15 years after stealing the show at the inaugural VMA broadcast in the first place. That same year, Green Day broke their Susan Lucci-esqe curse by finally, after over a dozen nominations, winning their first Moonman for “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life.)”
See also: Green Day – Barclays Center – 4/7/13
Instead of the controversial kerfuffles that usually stem from VMA-conflicts, the 1998 awards promoted peace more than anything. Rumors of a longstanding Brandy vs. Monica beef were squashed when they performed their monster hit “The Boy is Mine.” Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey’s whispered feud was possibly brought to a head by their surprising each other on stage in the same dress, but immediately hugging and showing it’s all love between the two divas. Even the Beastie Boys receiving their much deserved Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award is probably most remembered for Adam “MCA” Yauch’s acceptance speech mainly focusing on looking for peace in the middle east.
Of course there’s the off-color chaotic moments which always keep the show one sliver left of total disaster. While you do have Pras saving Ol Dirty Bastard’s life by narrowly pulling him out of the way of an on-stage pyrotechnic here, nothing could have been done to save Canibus from the unfortunate choice of showing up in all silver body-paint which, up until pulling out a notebook in a rap battle last year, had gone on to define his career.
Yes, the 1998 Video Music Awards do capture a time when it was thought a silver-painted Canibus could be a breakout mainstream star. It also features the entire battalion of No Limit Soldiers performing “Make ‘Em Say Ugh,” the entire Brian Setzer Orchestra performing “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” and an entirely all-together Courtney Love leading Hole through “Celebrity Skin.” But while one may be tempted to write off the year as somewhat inconsequential in the grand scheme of the Video Music Awards (Best New Artist honors went to Natalie Imbruglia after beating out Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Fastball and Ma$e) it’s still an incredibly fun telecast that shows how valuable the VMAs are as a visual yearbook of popular music.
Oh, it also gave us the Marilyn Manson “The Dope Show” performance so full of bizarre debauchery that it made a mariachi-dressed Busta Rhymes stand on his seat and yell “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!” So, it has that going for it too.