For 20 years, inspired excess has been MTV’s stock-in-trade. But amid the endless parade of wild stunts and grand gestures, a few stand out as emblematic. These events resonated well beyond the network’s fan base—and folks talk about them still. PEOPLE picks the defining moments of the channel that changed pop culture forever
SEPTEMBER 14 1984
MADONNA ON THE VMAs
When the Video Music Awards made its debut in 1984, it featured the first live TV performance by an artist with a few disco hits to her credit. But Madonna‘s performance of a new ditty, “Like a Virgin,” showed her to be no ingenue—and it seared the singer and MTV itself into the public consciousness as never before. Writhing on the floor in a bridal gown and garters, the self-proclaimed Boy Toy, then 26, shocked the record execs at Radio City Music Hall into silence. “We put the wrong generation in the front row,” recalls former MTV promotions director John Sykes. In the balconies, though, the kids were screaming—as they were in living rooms across America.
APRIL 19 1994
When Bill Clinton became the first U.S. President to appear on MTV, in an April 1994 town hall meeting, one question from the crowd made headlines. “Boxers or briefs?” asked a 17-year-old Potomac, Md., high schooler. “The audience went quiet,” says Tabitha Soren, the show’s moderator. “But he just rolled with it and said, ‘Usually briefs.’ ” The intimate query presaged the President’s ultimate undressing in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “At the time,” says Soren, “it was just an innocent joke.”
MARCH 11 1992
TEARS IN HEAVEN
Eric Clapton’s guest spot on Unplugged in March 1992 was his first solo appearance since the death of his son Conor a year earlier. The performance, Clapton told his audience, “is for me a healing process.” As he sang “Tears in Heaven”—his moving eulogy for Conor, who died at age 4 after falling from a window in New York City—Clapton proved that MTV had matured enough to deliver heartfelt emotion as well as flash.
MAY 23 2000
TOM GREEN’S OPERATIONS
Milking a cow with his mouth was merely a warm-up to Tom Green’s grandest gross-out: the May 23, 2000, episode of the shock comic’s show that documented his surgery for testicular cancer.
“We were always trying to find the craziest thing we could do a show about,” says Green, 29, who was diagnosed that January. He decided to air his two operations as a way “to keep the whole cancer thing fun.” Highlights: the cut-up getting cut up and sidekick Glenn Humplik handling his buddy’s excised gonad. Since the disease mainly strikes young men, “MTV was the perfect place to inform people,” says Green, now cancer-free and married to actress Drew Barrymore. “And I got to say ‘testicles’ on television.”
SEPTEMBER 8 1994
One of MTV’s biggest coups involved one of music’s then-oddest couples: Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, married just four months before the 1994 Video Music Awards. “When we found out, we said, ‘My God, we have to book them,’ ” says Carol Eng, the show’s producer. “It was so last-minute.” Accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy only a year earlier (the case was settled out of court), the King of Pop kicked off the show by saying, “Just think—nobody thought this would last” before planting a lengthy kiss on his new bride. “I don’t know if they felt they had something to prove,” says Eng. “But it looked awkward. As they walked away, you could see Lisa with her hand to her face, as if she were wiping her mouth.” Seventeen months later the marriage was over.
Love and mud ruled at Woodstock ’94, a Gen-X homage to the ’69 hippiefest in Upstate New York. “The [rainy] weather bonded people,” says MTV News exec Dave Sirulnick. “It didn’t matter if you were a performer or a kid who snuck in.”
“Human behavior at its worst,” says newscaster Kurt Loder of Woodstock ’99, at which drunken revelers, riled up by steep prices for water ($4) and hot dogs ($5), set bonfires, looted vendor stands and committed sexual assaults. “What started as a peace-and-love thing,” says Loder, “became a total money thing.”
SEPTEMBER 7 2000
When she appeared at last year’s Video Music Awards, Britney Spears was just beginning to shed her squeaky-clean image. Then, to the tune of “Oops…I Did It Again,” she peeled away what was left of the pretense. Afterward, host Marlon Wayans snickered that she had progressed “from the Mickey Mouse Club to the strip club.”
SEPTEMBER 29 1991
SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT
“Nirvana came to slay all the hair metal bands and show that there was an alternative to safe, prepackaged music,” bassist Krist Novoselic (left, now 36 and living in Seattle) says of the trio led by Kurt Cobain. Their 1991 hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” put grunge on the pop map—and the video launched an anti-glam-rock revolution.
DECEMBER 2 1983
Michael Jackson’s 1983 mini horror film raised the art of the video—and its budget—to dizzying new heights. The 14-minute, $750,000 epic featured Jackson morphing into a werewolf. But the most surreal moment of the weeklong shoot occurred when Jackson introduced director John Landis to a pal who dropped by the L.A. set. “He said, ‘Oh, you know Mrs. Onassis, don’t you?’ ” recalls Landis. “Only time in my life I was genuinely speechless.”
JULY 13 1985
The granddaddy of benefit megaconcerts, Live Aid aired in more than 150 countries on July 13, 1985, and raised some $100 million to fight famine in Africa. “The notion was that the planet has one language—pop music,” says rocker Bob Geldof, now 49, who wrangled stars like U2, Madonna Mick Jagger for concerts in London and Philadelphia. Two days after MTV’s 16-hour broadcast, Geldof, who later received an honorary knighthood for his efforts, was puzzled by lines outside London banks. “It was people queuing up to put money into Live Aid,” he says. “That’s when I knew it had worked.”