Contrary to the popular narrative, grunge didn’t appear out of thin air and obliterate the ’80s hard rock zeitgeist overnight. But if there’s a single event that represented rock music’s changing of the guard — and the brief moment in time where these disparate strains coexisted — it’s the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
The 1992 VMAs were a who’s who of hard rock and metal royalty and grunge and alt-rock heatseekers. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers were all there to promote their multiplatinum breakthrough albums, rubbing elbows with elder statesmen like Def Leppard, Van Halen, Elton John and Eric Clapton. Guns N’ Roses and Metallica even took a day off from their gargantuan co-headlining stadium tour to collect awards as well.
This rock ‘n’ roll hodgepodge resulted in some incredibly of-the-moment performances and juicy backstage drama, making the 1992 VMAs one of the most memorable in the show’s history. Here are five moments from the ceremony that exemplified rock’s generational power struggle.
Van Halen Takes Home Video of the Year
The grunge revolution might have been in full swing by 1992, but that didn’t stop Van Halen from dominating that year’s VMAs. The hard-rocking foursome picked up three trophies for “Right Now” (including the top prize, Video of the Year), tying them with the Chili Peppers for the most wins of the evening. “Right Now” served as the third and final single from 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, their third consecutive album with lead singer Sammy Hagar and the third of four consecutive No. 1s on the Billboard 200. Fourteen years after releasing their diamond-selling eponymous debut, Van Halen proved they could still hang with rock’s new class.
Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Gets a New Lease on Life
The 1992 VMAs took place roughly nine months after Freddie Mercury died, and 12 years after Queen earned their last platinum album in the U.S. Needless to say, the classic rock icons were not exactly a commercial force to be reckoned with at the time. But they enjoyed one of their many career renaissances that year when “Bohemian Rhapsody” was featured in Penelope Spheeris’ classic comedy Wayne’s World, starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. The film’s iconic head-banging scene catapulted “Bohemian Rhapsody” to an all-time peak of No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 more than 16 years after its release (it peaked at No. 9 during its initial run), and Queen took home the Best Video From a Film award at the 1992 VMAs. It was a fascinating, ironic rebirth for the type of classic-rock dinosaur long considered out of vogue by the early ’90s.
Red Hot Chili Peppers Win Viewer’s Choice Award
Nirvana’s dour, hyperdistorted punk-pop (or “grunge,” as fans and vulturous marketing executives knew it) was all the rage by 1992, but so was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ impish, libidinous strain of funk-punk. Hot off the multiplatinum success of 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the California quartet became the most-nominated act of the night, earning nine nods and three wins: Breakthrough Video (“Give It Away”), Best Art Direction in a Video (“Give It Away”) and Viewer’s Choice (“Under the Bridge”). Dozens of audience members banged their heads onstage during the band’s triumphant “Give It Away” performance, cementing RHCP’s status as populist party-rockers.
Metallica Collects Best Heavy Metal/Hard Rock Video
Metallica fans watching the 1992 VMAs could probably still remember the days when the band staunchly refused to make videos, a stance they held for their first three albums and finally relinquished with 1989’s “One,” the breakthrough single off … And Justice for All. Fast-forward a few years, and the reformed thrash titans were clinching the Best Heavy Metal/Hard Rock Video award for “Enter Sandman,” the monstrous lead single off their 1991 self-titled album. The 16-times platinum Black Album and its ensuing awards-show victory lap marked the beginning of Metallica’s imperial phase; they would continue to release chart-topping, multiplatinum records and pack stadiums for the next several decades.
Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses’ Epic Feud
Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses were arguably the two biggest bands in the world and the poster children for rock’s generational power struggle circa 1992. Both acts performed at that year’s VMAs — Nirvana playing dynamic Nevermind cut “Lithium” and Guns N’ Roses teaming up with Elton John to unleash the epic power ballad “November Rain” — but both performances paled in comparison to the epic backstage feud between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose. The beef began simmering during a Guns N’ Roses concert a week before the VMAs when Rose said Cobain was “a fucking junkie with a junkie wife [Courtney Love], and if the baby [Frances Bean Cobain]’s born deformed, I think they both ought to go to prison.” Love asked Rose at the VMAs if he would be Frances’ godfather, to which Rose responded by telling Cobain some variation of, “You shut your bitch up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement!” Without missing a beat, Cobain — three-week-old daughter in his arms — wheeled around and told his wife, “Shut up, bitch!” Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl further poked the bear by repeatedly yelling, “Hi, Axl!” into the mic after Nirvana’s “Lithium” performance.
Top 100 ’90s Rock Albums
Any discussion of the Top 100 ’90s Rock Albums will have to include some grunge, and this one is no different.