The Ten Most Metal Performances In VMA History

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Michal Žilinský, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons Viacom, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Well, the 2023 edition of the MTV Video Music Awards has come and gone and metal was predictably all but shut out from the ceremony. It’s a sad occurrence that seems repeat year after year courtesy of a network that was once responsible for culture-defining programming like Headbangers Ball and 120 Minutes but pretty much only shows a millennial version of America’s Funniest Home Videos these days.

The time has long since passed since the VMAs have been relevant to our culture, and looking back at a time when heavy rock and MTV walked hand-in-hand is bittersweet. For better and for worse, here are the Ten Most Metal Performances in Video Music Awards History:

 

Rage Against The Machine – “Testify” (2000)

Although bassist Tim Commerford’s well-documented antics during Limp Bizkit’s acceptance speech might take precedence in the arena of history, that massive disruption wasn’t Rage Against The Machine’s only contribution to the awards show. Earlier in the evening, the alternative metal pioneers took to the VMA stage and delivered a searing rendition of The Battle Of Los Angeles opening track, “Testify.” Flanked by dozens of televisions showing various scenes of political unrest, the song’s Orwellian warnings were visibly lost on the light-hearted audience in the front. Rage Against The Machine broke up a few months later.

 

Queensrÿche – “Silent Lucidity” (1991)

While they are best regarded among headbangers as purveyors of high-concept prog-metal epics, Queensrÿche’s moment in the pop-culture sun came in the form of the tender power ballad, “Silent Lucidity.” A song about learning to control dreams, it broke the Billboard Top 10 and earned the band a Viewer’s Choice VMA as well as a Grammy nomination. Their elegant performance at the 1991 towed the line between grandiose and understated, with frontman Geoff Tate perched on a stool as the band solemnly played along to a giant orchestral section.

Van Halen – “Poundcake” (1991)

Like some other bands on this list, the drama surrounding Van Halen at the VMAs often overshadows their achievements. Although better remembered for their notorious 1996 on-stage meltdown with original frontman David Lee Roth, the Van Hagar iteration of the group did have a glorious moment in the sun when they opened the 1991 show with the hit single, “Poundcake.” The performance begins with Eddie shredding the guitar with a goddamn power drill, and it doesn’t let up from there. Sammy Hagar is in rare form, swinging the mic stand and hamming it up for an adoring crowd, while Alex and Michael glue it all together with the best rhythm section in rock and roll. 

Smashing Pumpkins – “Disarm” (1994)

A stunning orchestral hymn about the scars of childhood alienation, “Disarm” is regarded by fans and critics alike as a pivotal track from Smashing Pumpkins’ golden era. The band delivered a jaw-dropping rendition of the hit single at the 1994 VMA in which they replaced the somber string section with crushing guitars and propulsive drums. Significantly different from the original, this electric version is pure catharsis.

Faith No More – “Epic” (1990)

It’s hard to think of a more aggressively bizarre band to pierce the mainstream zeitgeist than Faith No More. The California funk-thrashers took the VMA stage in 1990 and bludgeoned the crowd with their breakthrough hit, “Epic.” Charismatic and avant-garde as ever, frontman Mike Patton commanded the stage with schizophrenic vigor before flopping around at the end of the song in a morbid imitation of the dying fish from the notorious video.

Guns N’ Roses featuring Elton John – “November Rain” (1992)

During the band’s heyday in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Axl Rose was easily the most contentious and complicated musician on the planet. Although accusations of homophobia had plagued the rock star for years, he was always vocal about his love for Elton John. When Guns N’ Roses closed out the 1992 ceremony, the British piano-pop god joined them on stage for a nine-minute long epic rendition of their opus, “November Rain,” complete with a full orchestra and choir. Rose had the honor of inducting Elton John into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994. As part of his speech, the Guns N’ Roses frontman said: “When we talk about great rock duos like Jimmy Page and Robert, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Mick and Keith, I like to think of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Also, tonight, I think Elton should be honored for his great work and contribution in the fight against AIDS. Also, his bravery in exposing all the triumphs and tragedies in his personal life. The knowledge of these things helps us get through things every day. When I first heard ‘Bennie and the Jets,’ I knew I had to be a performer.”

White Zombie – “More Human Than Human” (1995)

The ultimate underdogs, White Zombie’s long and arduous road from no-wave noise rockers to bonafide industrial metal royalty came to its startling final miles in 1995 with their chart-busting fourth album, Astro-Creep: 2000 – Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head. Having cut their teeth through years of relentless touring within a small club circuit, the band had become a well-oiled live dynamo by the time they hit the VMA stage with their mega-hit, “More Human Than Human.” A relentless display of fierce musicality and athleticism, White Zombie’s 1995 performance is as heavy as the show would ever get.

Nirvana – “Rape Me” / “Lithium” (1992)

The early 1990s was a time of sudden cultural change in the world of rock and roll. Standing unwittingly at the vanguard of this shift was Nirvana, a punk band with limited commercial aspirations who nonetheless had superstardom thrust upon them. Booked to play the 1992 VMAs, the group wanted to perform their then-unreleased track “Rape Me” but were shot down by MTV executives who bristled at the content of the song and demanded a current hit. Angered by what they believed to be arbitrary censorship, Nirvana did indeed play a few bars of the song before launching into their single, “Lithium.” The explosive performance went off without a hitch until near the end, when bassist Krist Novoselic threw his instrument into the air and got knocked in the head when it came down. As Kurt Cobain toppled over the full-stacks of amps and drums, Dave Grohl took to the mic to taunt Axl Rose. 

Metallica – “Enter Sandman” (1991)

It’s impossible to overstate the impact that Metallica’s self-titled “Black Album” had on the culture at large upon its release in 1991. Although the thrash titans were drawing arena-sized crowds long before they had any support from radio or MTV, the record’s lead single “Enter Sandman” swept the airwaves like a force of nature and catapulted the band to a new level of superstardom. Their performance at the VMAs that year was a display of kinetic energy unlike anything to ever grace that stage before or since. Unapologetic, bare-knuckled heavy metal had taken the world by storm, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Poison – “Talk Dirty To Me” / “Unskinny Bop” / “Let It Play” trainwreck (1991)

It’s a little reductive to say that the rise of Nirvana was the singular death knell for glam metal in the early 1990s. While grunge certainly didn’t help the cause, look no further than Poison’s disastrous performance at the 1991 VMAs (which took place several weeks before Nevermind hit the shelves) for a startling example of rock and roll excess leading to public disintegration. Things go wrong from the very first note, as inebriated guitarist C.C. DeVille started playing “Talk Dirty To Me” while the rest of the band lurched forward with a shambled version of “Unskinny Bop.” It got so bad after a few moments that host Arsenio Hall stepped in to reintroduce the band and give them another shot, but it was too late. While a little less chaotic than the first few minutes, DeVille still managed to unplug his guitar halfway through the song. He was fired that night.