The Five "Best" Retired Categories At The Video Music Awards

Categories: MTV, MTV At 30, VMAs

MTV turns 30 today. To celebrate, we're running a bunch of pieces on the channel, its legacy, and its future.

Would you look at all that postmodernism?
For a multimillion-dollar event orchestrated with the dictatorial hand of all awards shows, there's always been a certain thrilling seat-of-the-pants quality to the Video Music Awards at its best. Maybe it's just the amount of big (and often liquored up) egos in one room, and the potential that one of them might do or say something dumb or funny or unexpected. But even with producers attempting to control every micro-second of the broadcast, viewers at least get the sense that anything might happen, even if 99 percent of the time nothing outlandish (or even very entertaining) usually takes place.

Most of the WTF watercooler moments from past VMAs seem plenty corny in retrospect. (Fiona Apple's mildly profane acceptance speech in 1997, for instance.) Occasionally, though, things get away from the producers to such a degree that clips from the shows can produce a feeling of avert-your-eyes queasiness years later. (Pretty much the entirety of the apocalyptically awful 2007 installment.)

But there's also another kind of awkwardness, the sort that comes with watching a show forced to reinvent itself from year to year; the whole thing can fall flat on its face for reasons that have nothing to do with drugged-out performers or presenters who go off-message. Like every company that attempts to stay on top of the fickle tastes of teenagers and act as both taste-maker and taste-agglomerator, MTV is in a constant race to keep up with the pubescent Joneses. And so, you rarely get more than two VMAs in a row that look or feel much alike.

Pop cultural fads are celebrated one year, only to disappear the next without a word. The whole visual look, from stage sets to the bumper animations announcing the nominees, reflect whatever subcultural style currently holds sway. Entire genres or generations can suddenly find themselves frozen out. (The amount of balding middle-aged men up for Moonmen in the mid-to-late '80s seems especially insane now.)

This immediate reflection of an era's style is what makes the VMAs fodder, of course, for picking apart by pop-musical sociologists and viewers alike. It's also what sometimes makes the show look desperate and pandering and confused. And nowhere has this throw-a-bunch-of-shit-at-the-wall approach to the awards show manifested itself so obviously as in the ever-shifting categories themselves.

In the last few years, MTV has slimmed down the number of awards given out to such a degree that the only surprise is that they're now so defiantly... normal. Between 1984 and 2007, it seemed like the producers had added a new category (or five) every year. These new categories were often among MTV's most blatant attempts to keep the VMAs relevant, to figure out who its ever-changing audience was and what it wanted, to figure out what the hell MTV even was or should be. These categories are mostly gone for good reasons, but they're snapshots of their time nonetheless.

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