How the 1992 VMAs exemplified rock’s generational power struggle

Contrary to popular narrative, grunge did not appear out of thin air and obliterate the zeitgeist of ’80s hard rock overnight. But if there’s a single event that represented rock music’s changing of the guard—and the brief moment in time when these disparate strains coexisted—it’s 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 seminal multi-platinum albums and rubbed elbows with elder statesmen such as Def Leppard, Van Halen, Elton John and Eric Clapton. Guns ‘n’ Roses and Metallica even took a day off from their mammoth co-headlining stadium tour to collect awards as well.

This rock ‘n’ roll hodgepodge resulted in some incredibly topical 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 voted home video of the year
The grunge revolution might have been in full swing in 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 night’s most wins. “Right Now” served as the third and final single from 1991’s For unlawful carnal knowledgetheir third album in a row with a lead singer Sammy Hagar and the third of four consecutive No. 1s on the Billboard 200. Fourteen years after the release of their Diamond Sale self-titled debutproved Van Halen that they could still hang with rock’s new class.

Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ gets a new lease of life
The 1992 VMAs took place about nine months later Freddie Mercury diedand 12 years later Queen earned their last platinum album in the U.S. Needless to say, the classic rock icons weren’t 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 first run), and Queen won Best Video from a Motion Picture at the VMAs in 1992. It was a fascinating, ironic rebirth for the type of classic rock dinosaur long considered out of fashion in the early ’90s.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers win the Viewer’s Choice Award
Nirvana’s dark, hyper-distorted punk-pop (or “grunge,” as fans and vulture marketing executives knew it) was all the rage in 1992, but so was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ warped, libidinous funk-punk. Hot off the multi-platinum hit of the 1991s Blood Sugar Sex Magicthe California quartet became the night’s most nominated act, 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 the best Heavy Metal/Hard Rock videos
Metallica fans watching the 1992 VMAs probably still remembered the days when the band strictly refused to make videos, a stance they maintained for their first three albums and finally abandoned with 1989’s “One,” the breakthrough single from … And justice for all. Fast forward a few years, and the reformed thrash titans won Best Heavy Metal/Hard Rock Video for “Enter Sandman,” the monstrous lead single from their Self-titled album from 1991. The 16-times platinum Black Album and its subsequent victory lap at the awards ceremony marked the beginning of Metallica’s imperial phase; they would go on to release chart-topping, multi-platinum records and pack stadiums for decades to come.

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 forget it cut “Lithium” and Guns N’ Roses teamed 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 Axel Rose. The beef began to simmer 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 child [Frances Bean Cobain]are born deformed, I think they both should go to jail.” Love asked Rose at the VMAs if he wanted to be Frances’ godfather, to which Rose responded by telling Cobain some variation of, “You shut your bitch up, or I’ll take you down to the pavement!” Without missing a beat, Cobain – a three-week-old daughter in his arms – wheeled around and told his wife, “Shut up, bitch!” Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl further prodded the bear by repeatedly yelling, “Hey, Axl!” into the microphone after Nirvana’s “Lithium” performance.

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