Over the past two weeks, as MTV kept trotting out big names for the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards roster, you probably found yourself sort of half-thinking “Wait, the VMAs are incredibly loaded this year! Is this the best lineup ever?” And that’s a completely legitimate thought! Just to recap, the confirmed performers for the 2013 show are: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, Drake, Bruno Mars, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Robin Thicke. (Plus rumored performances from *NSYNC and Daft Punk). Whew! That’s three of the biggest pop stars around, all about to release a new album, two of the most successful and important figures in hip-hop right now, the most controversial starlet in pop and two of the biggest surprise success stories of the year. So at first blush, this seems pretty historic.
But then you remember, well, there’s the other Kanye years, or Beyonce or Madonna or Nirvana and all the rest. Valid points! More than anything, we have to give it to MTV: just about every year the VMAs flaunt a ridiculously stacked lineup, with a solid mix of proven acts and zeitgeisty hits. Even the occasional, shameless one-hit wonder booking still holds significance in a time capsule way. The best lineup in VMA history, then, would boast a few all-timers, a couple fluke hits and minimal flops.
This year, it’s tough to single out a flop — say what you will about Macklemore, but dude can rap. Kanye is unquestionably an all-timer, JT probably is and you could argue that KP and Gaga will be once they have three albums under their belts. So how does this year really compare to prior VMAs lineups? Below I’ve highlighted what I feel are the contenders for Best VMA Lineup Ever (trying as best I could to mentally separate the lineups from the accompanying performances), to decide once and for all which ceremony is the paper champion.
2012: Last year was a strong offering, for sure. We had Rihanna with A$AP Rocky & Calvin Harris, Taylor Swift, Pink, One Direction, Demi Lovato, Frank Ocean, 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne, Alicia Keys & Nicki Minaj, Green Day. It’s hard to defend a 2012 Green Day slot, though, and it’s light on first ballot hall-of-famers on the level of, say, Bruce Springsteen. So, bye 2012!
2011: At first, this seems like the one to beat. It had Gaga, Kanye and Jay Z together, Beyonce, Adele! Unbeatable! Not so fast — it also had like a million performances from a wounded Jessie J rocking a gimp boot, plus performances from Pitbull and Chris Brown so, yeah no.
2008: OK here’s a remarkably solid year, with no obvious dips in quality. Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Jonas Brothers, Lil Wayne, Paramore, Pink, T.I., The Ting Tings, Lupe Fiasco, LL Cool J. OK, make that one dip in quality: Kid Rock. Overall, though, that’s a great range of genres and eras. We see you, 2008! Still in the hunt.
[The next truly GREAT year wasn't until a few more years back, so let's take an intermission to honor 2004, which may very well be the worst lineup in VMAs history. It featured Jet, Yellowcard, Petey Pablo and HOOBASTANK!!!! As Pusha T would say, yuuck.]
2001: This is a strange one. U2 (whoa!), Britney Spears, *NSYNC with Michael Jackson (this happened!), Jennifer Lopez (yay!) with Ja Rule (-__-), as well as Alicia Keys, Jay Z and Missy Elliott with Ludacris, Nelly Furtado and Trina. We’ll give a pass to Linkin Park, since this was their breakout year, even though they were still nu-metal-y at that point. But compared to Staind, who also performed that year, Linkin Park seemed like Radiohead. It’s hard to rule this one out.
1997: Bruce Springsteen with The Wallflowers; Puff Daddy & The Family with Sting; U2; Jewel; The Prodigy; Angie Martinez, Da Brat, Left Eye, Lil’ Kim & Missy Elliott; Beck; Spice Girls; Jamiroquai and Marilyn Manson. Whoa! This one’s got legends, zeitgest and, perhaps more than any other year, a wide range of styles. The Prodigy may have been the dubstep of the time, but it was still an important moment in popularizing electronic music. Jamiroquai is really the only laughable entry here, but don’t forget it was partly based on the power of that insanely captivating “Virtual Insanity” video. 1997 goes strong in the paint!
1994: The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Beastie Boys, Aerosmith, Boyz II Men, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Salt-n-Pepa, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Stone Temple Pilots. Damn. Two HOF-ers, three iconic hip-hop acts, Aerosmith during their ’90s revival. No weak spots, but where are the divas?!
1992: OK we have a real challenger here. Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, Elton John, U2, Eric Clapton, Bobby Brown, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, En Vogue, The Black Crowes. The only drawbacks to this lineup are Def Leppard‘s last gasping breath of hair metal and Bryan Adams‘ soft rock stylings.
1987: The early years had some legendary moments, but their impact is already known, so we tend to overvalue the lineup in our memories — especially when trying to consider the impact at that time. Because for every Madonna writhing around for “Like A Virgin,” there’s Ray Parker Jr. doing the Ghostbusters theme or ‘Til Tuesday croaking out “What About Love.” Based on number of performers, 1986 was the year MTV realized the show was more about the performances than the trophies, but it wasn’t until the VMAs’ fourth year that the network got the lineup formula absolutely right. 1987 saw David Bowie, Prince, Whitney Houston, Madge, Run-DMC with Steven Tyler, Cyndi Lauper, The Cars, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Crowded House, The Bangles, Los Lobos and (ugh we can’t escape him) Bryan Adams.
VERDICT: Geez, guys, this is really hard. But here are my final, completely subjective rulings. The 2013 VMAs lineup is stacked, but it is not the best lineup in the history of the Video Music Awards, largely due to a lack of variety (Kanye’s the only outlier here). If the French Robots do show up, and JT gets back together with the boys, then maybe I’ll change my answer.
For the best lineup on paper, I think it’s between ’87, ’94, ’97 and ’01. All four years had legend power, spanned genres and were truly representative of each era. Each also had one or two glaring weak spots. I can’t in good conscience choose ’94 because it eschewed the diva, which has been MTV’s bread and butter all along. Everyone knew Puff Daddy’s interpolation of The Police was awful in ’97. I’m biased toward 2001 because it occurred during my peak MTV years. Plus, Ja Rule. So I’m gonna have to go with 1987. I swear this isn’t a “they don’t make ‘em like they used to!” choice. It really is a toss up, it’s just that that, c’mon, Bowie! Whitney! Madonna! “Walk This Way”! Cyndi! Hair metal at its peak! “Walk Like An Egyptian”! New wave shlock! You can’t go wrong with the choice that represents the ’80s in a nutshell.
What do you guys think? Head here for the full performer archive and let us know which year you think had the best lineup in the comments below.
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