The 2001 MTV Video Music Awards are perhaps best remembered for one fleeting but iconic moment: when 20-year-old Britney Spears draped a massive albino python over her shoulders on New York’s Metropolitan Opera House stage. She was performing “I’m A Slave 4 U,” which wasn’t up for any VMAs that year, but that information will always be secondary to the snake. So will the show’s other pertinent details, like what won Video Of The Year (“Lady Marmalade”) and who hosted the show (Jamie Foxx). Fifteen years later, those 50 seconds of Britney vamping with Banana — yes, the snake was named Banana — have come to encapsulate everything the VMAs mean in the 21st century. The show’s not really about music; it’s about moments.
The VMAs are Britney’s snake. They’re Lady Gaga’s meat dress. They’re Kanye and Taylor, of course, and also Taylor and Nicki, and certainly just Kanye by Himself. They are not, for example, a now-defunct nü-metal quartet from Peoria, Illinois named Mudvayne (sometimes styled MuDvAyNe). At least not in 2016. But at a certain point in time, two interminable wars and one financial meltdown ago, they were.
You may remember when Mudvayne — the dudes who self-applied the monikers “Gurrg,” “sPaG,” “Kud,” and “Ryknow,” and who painted themselves like Satanic neon comic book characters — won a VMA in 2001. The previous summer, they had littered their debut album, L.D. 50, with interludes inspired by psychedelic enthusiast Terence McKenna between growling about wanting to “beat the face of any motherfucker that’s thinking they can change me.” Those guys bested Gorillaz, Alicia Keys, Jurassic 5, Craig David, and India.Arie for the first-ever MTV2 Award. That happened. (The fan-voted MTV2 Award, by the way, was apparently created to bring more viewer democracy to the show. It also offered more unconventional, alternative options than the concurrent Viewers’ Choice Award, won by NSYNC’s “Pop” in 2001. Both awards were dissolved by 2007.)
It should be noted here that Mudvayne’s “Dig” video, which nabbed them the award, is fucking awesome. The close-ups of singer Chad Gray’s demented blue grin are claustrophobic; bassist Ryan Martinie is made up to look like Lucifer; guitarist Greg Tribbett contorts like a demonic robot; and drummer Matthew McDonough’s entire head is a painted optical illusion. If you watch it on mute, it’s pure color porn, an overstimulating transmission from Hell. With the sound on, the video is brutal, but it will also get you absolutely jacked to run that 5K or sit down and bang out your taxes or write that problematic thinkpiece or whatever you need to do. VMA voters apparently thought so, too.
Let me set the scene: it’s September 6, 2001. Moby joins Gwen Stefani and Eve onstage to present the MTV2 award, and they all announce “Mudvayne” in unison. Eve even claps a little bit, and then “Dig” snarls over the PA as the four Mudvayne members smile and high-five their way to the podium. They step up and grab their Moonman, all spiky hair and gaping fake bullet wounds in their foreheads, and politely shake hands with Gwen, Moby, and Eve before the three recede into the background and let a few sly smiles go. There Mudvayne are, five days before the 9/11 attacks with phony blood oozing down their white tuxedos, very graciously downplaying the award. “It’s all about that right there: the fans,” Gray says. A few seconds later, McDonough echoes him: “This is for the fans. It’s not ours.”
That’s a classy speech! Eschewing self-involvement for humility that often comes out canned (even if it’s genuine) is always a better move. OK, so the bloodied Mudvayne (Bloodvayne?) win this new accolade launched to typify the hip MTV2, maybe because Alicia Keys and Craig David and India.Arie weren’t edgy enough. And maybe Jurassic 5 were too subterranean. And maybe the logistics of a cartoon band at a live awards show weren’t quite worked out (yet). Or maybe it’s bigger than that.
It seems like some kind of fever dream that nü-metal ever ascended as high as it did in pop culture, especially on MTV. Now the term is invoked for an image reductive of its fans (guys with chain wallets in jeans three sizes too big moshing to “Freak On A Leash”) and pejorative of its artists (dudes who took metal’s seven-string guitars but removed the dexterous playing and swapped out grunge’s lyrical fury for stale, misguided clichés). But in 2001, the now widely derided genre was monstrously successful, if already a bit past its apex. Korn had hit #1 on TRL 15 separate times, sometimes consecutively, and earned three Grammy noms. Limp Bizkit had topped TRL seven times. Slipknot’s recently released second album, Iowa, would go platinum and hit #3 on the Billboard 200. I watched all these bands on TRL and defended them to my grade-school friends who preferred censored Eminem CDs. This music wasn’t “nü-metal” to kids like me then. It was just rock. And once the MTV gatekeepers let Korn and Limp Bizkit (and Slipknot), the top rock acts of the day, into the party, they had to let in everyone lined up behind them, too. Including Mudvayne.
In the fallout after 9/11, radio juggernaut Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia) sent a memo to its reported 1,200 stations suggesting 165 songs that contained “questionable” lyrics be omitted from rotation. A quick glance at the list makes it clear what that means: Edwin Starr’s “War” and Metallica’s “Seek & Destroy” (and apparently every single Rage Against The Machine song) could make American listeners feel worse than they already did about their country’s fresh wounds. So could a Mudvayne song called “Death Blooms.” “Dig” — which has the repeated refrain “Bury me underneath everything that I am!” — was deemed OK, as was its bridge, where the narrator beckons to help someone else commit suicide in four specific ways. But it makes sense why soon after, we stopped hearing ferocious songs like this on the radio anyway and why the MTV2 Award went to emo acts (and Thirty Seconds To Mars) for the next five years. We were fighting wars in two different countries and eventually clawing back to economic health after a collapse. We were putting that kind of naked aggression behind us.
Our current crop of VMA acts are softer: Drake, Adele, Justin Bieber, and (depending on what happens when her new album, Glory, drops on Friday), Britney Spears — who’s scheduled to perform with G-Eazy at this year’s show. These are our current cultural icons, the folks who demolish sales records and dominate all of our online chatter (well, almost all of it). They’re the ones who make our new iconic VMA moments, sometimes through gestures as small as quick family announcements and smirking reunions. Though Mudvayne broke up in 2010 after five albums (three of them gold) and almost certainly won’t be courted for a one-off appearance on next year’s VMA stage, they’re forever in the same club as Beyoncé and Taylor and all of MTV’s current heavy-hitters because they, too, have a Moonman to celebrate. It’s not a python dance, but it’s still plenty worth remembering.