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Here’s Why The 2013 MTV VMAs Will Live in Perpetuity

We are 10 years removed from the iconic 2013 VMAs. How well does the event hold up?

Singer Miley Cyrus sticks her tongue out at camera in 2013, the year of her controversial VMA performance
Credit: Liam Goodner / Shutterstock

If 2013 is known as the year that culture reset, then the evening of August 25th is where it peaked. The night in question was the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. The event has entered perpetuity as one of the most memorable VMAs ever. This edition of the award ceremony marked 30 years since the iconic “moon man” was given to the most deserving in the music industry in the 1980s. As we approach the 40th VMAs, how well do the 30th VMAs hold up? Here’s why the 2013 MTV VMAs will live on in perpetuity.

Lady Gaga’s Second Iconic VMA Performance

To kick off the evening’s festivities, Lady Gaga performed one of her top songs (which would later become one of her biggest hits), Applause. At the beginning of her performance, viewers can hear boos as Gaga makes her way to the stage. This was all a bit; it was an effort to respond to the backlash artists had received in the years since her debut. After a dramatic entrance, Gaga had one of the more impactful performances of the night. Most viewers saw the performance as a normal “run of the mill” or typical Lady Gaga. In hindsight, however, it has aged into one of the best VMA performances ever. As a result of her commentary throughout the performance, it’s fair to say that Gaga clapped back at her critics but warned future stars about the industry. Sadly, this night would mark the second time that Gaga was overshadowed.

THAT Performance!

Where do we begin with this? For those who do not know, this performance places the 2013 VMAs as one of history’s most controversial awards shows. We’re talking about THAT Miley Cyrus twerk session. At the time, Miley was all but done with the Disney Corporation. As we now know here in 2023, this act of rebellion helped her shatter her innocent Hannah Montana image. The performance starts with Miley entering through a teddy bear with a voice saying, “twerk it out.” After she sang her Summer hit We Can’t Stop, Robin Thicke joined the young artist and performed his now controversial hit Blurred Lines. This is where the performance takes a drastic turn.

Miley Cyrus performing to crowd in 2013
Miley Cyrus at a 2013 Today Show performance. Credit: Debby Wong / Shutterstock.

During his rendition of his 2013 hit, Miley begins to twerk on Robin, altering her career. After singing Blurred Lines, rappers Kendrick Lamar and 2 Chainz joined the duo on stage to perform the song Give It to You. By this point in the performance, Cyrus somehow brandishes a foam finger. As the performance continues, she uses the finger in suggestive and lewd ways.

The backlash was immediate. Compared to the Taylor/Kanye incident (another time, friends), the media obliterated Miley. Fans, colleagues, and critics alike chimed in with their thoughts on the performance. More famously, former Hannah Montana co-star (her fictional mother) Brooke Shields spoke on NBC’s Today about the incident. “I was Hannah Montana’s mother; I don’t approve,” the actress said. “I just feel it’s a bit desperate.”

In a later interview, Miley Cyrus stated that she began to think negatively of her body. Miley discusses the backlash in a 2020 interview with Daily Mail. “I went through two or three years where I wouldn’t wear shorts,” she said. “I stopped wearing skirts on stage, all this shit, because after the VMAs and I had on my cute new body suit, everyone started comparing me to a turkey.”

Taylor Swift’s Diss?

Taylor Swift performs at the 2013 Victoria Secret Show
Taylor Swift performs at the 2013 Victoria Secret Show in New York, shortly after her VMAs appearance that year. Credit: / Shutterstock

Remember when Harry Styles and Taylor Swift were dating? If you don’t, listen to Taylor’s diss track to a certain former One Direction member. While some have since argued that the song is not about her relationship with Harry Styles, her acceptance speech after winning Best Female Video may suggest otherwise. “I also want to thank the person who inspired this song,” the singer said. “He knows exactly who he is because now I got one of these.” The camera “randomly” cuts to a seemingly unbothered Harry Styles in the audience, effectively ending the segment.

JT and The Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award!

2013 belonged to Justin Timberlake. After debuting what is now one of his massive hits, Suit & Tie, at that year’s Grammy Awards, he released The 20/20 Experience on March 15. The album received overwhelmingly positive reviews as it added another layer to the musical style of Timberlake. By the year’s end, The 20/20 Experience placed first on the Billboard Charts. As a result of his overall success, and the outstanding year, MTV bestowed Timberlake the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.

The singer performed a medley of his biggest hits, including Suit & Tie, Sexy Back, and what would win Video of the Year later that night, Mirror. The 12-song set went for close to 15 minutes. However, the true highlight of the medley didn’t come until Justin finally reunited with his bandmates, N-Sync. However, this appearance is shrouded in a bit of controversy.

Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake performs at Rock in Rio 2013. Credit: Antonio Scorza / Shutterstock

The music industry saw Justin as a superstar. That’s a fair assumption, given the talent that lives within him. In a YouTube video essay by Hugo Henderson, he states how the labels kept the other members of N-Sync in the dark about their future. “There was never any official confirmation about the disbandment of N-Sync,” Henderson said in his video. “They just went on an ‘indefinite hiatus’ when Justin started to take off. All of the insiders said there was no need for another N-Sync album.” This lack of communication took away potential success from the remaining members of N-Sync.

You can read about the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard FEMALE recipients here.

Who Became Mega Stars after the 2013 VMAs?

This is undoubtedly one of the most iconic award shows of all time. In hindsight, popular culture had a fever pitch and a transition period. We mentioned Miley’s controversial performance and the backlash it produced. But one question remains, did her antics at the event work? Yes, it did. Unlike her predecessor Britney Spears, who arguably “transitioned” more gracefully, Miley’s raunchy, unapologetic performance altered her image and made her into the superstar we know today.

On that night, we saw a changing of the guard as to who was next in line for superstardom. It also created a paradigm shift in popular culture as we knew it. This night marked the beginning of a style switch for Taylor Swift. Originally the singer was more of a Country-Pop artist, but after the release of her 2014 effort 1989, she was thrust to the forefront of music and popular culture. She would win 12 Grammys, 14 VMAs, and over 100 Guinness World Records.

Taylor Swift with two iHeart Radio awards
Taylor Swift in 2019 with two iHeart Radio Music Awards. Credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock

Five years after The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake released a follow-up album, Man of the Woods. Despite debuting at the top of the Billboard Charts, Man of the Woods did not match the critical success of Justin’s previous album. Nevertheless, the album spawned the singles Supplies, Filthy & Say Something, with the latter being nominated for a Grammy at the 61st Grammy Awards.

After this night, Kendrick Lamar would take the mantle as one of the faces of hip-hop. The following year, however, Kendrick controversially lost out to rapper Macklemore for Best Rap Album. Macklemore would go on to sweep the category taking home four Grammys altogether. On the brighter side, Kendrick would finally get his due. Overall the rapper has earned 17 Grammys, four AMAs, 11 VMAs, and 6 Billboard Awards.

Written By

Shane Kidd-Walker is a Graduate Film Student at Florida State University. He is also an alumnus of Hinds Community College and THE Alcorn State University.

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