Even as the stock market was crashing Monday, Van Toffler’s spirits were heading in the other direction. “This is my favorite week,” he told me by phone from New York, referring to the days leading into the MTV Video Music Awards this coming Sunday.
Toffler is an executive producer of the show and has worked on the VMAs since 1987, just three years after its inception, when Madonna set the standard for opening performances with her writhing version of “Like a Virgin.”
In those three-plus decades, the show has produced dozens of pop cultural touchstones — from the famous kisses between Britney Spears and Madonna and Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley to Kanye West hijacking Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to Lady Gaga arriving in a dress made of meat and Eminem taking the stage with an army of Slim Shadys.
Yes, the VMAs — originally conceived as an alternative to the Grammys’ video categories — are music’s other biggest night and Toffler has his own set of favorite moments.
“Andrew Dice Clay getting banned, Arsenio Hall hosting, Pee-wee Herman agreeing to open the show, the same year Prince danced on stage in the yellow suit with his derrière showing, Nirvana performing ‘Rape Me,’ Axl Rose getting into a fight with Courtney Love, the performance of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke — that was quite memorable,” he said.
Just two years after Cyrus’ controversial twerking number with Thicke and a year after her “Wrecking Ball” took the top Video of the Year prize, she’ll host the 32nd edition of the awardscast.
“Miley is at a great point in her career,” Toffler said. “She’s a great marriage of being provocative and musically credible. People thought she was just going to be rebellious. She’s maturing into someone who can push the envelope and speaks her mind. She is refreshingly honest about everything in her life. She’s just putting it out there.”
Cyrus becomes just the third female solo host since 1994, when Roseanne Barr took on the emcee duties. Chelsea Handler hosted in 2010. In the mid-1980s, MTV VJs “Downtown” Julie Brown, Martha Quinn and Carolyne Heldman were mistresses of the ceremonies on two occasions and 1984’s inaugural show was co-hosted by Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd. (Five VMAs have gone hostless, all since the turn of the century.)
Choosing a host is a reflection of what’s going on in pop culture, and the job has often gone to comedians, with memorable outings over the years from Chris Rock — three times — Jimmy Fallon, Russell Brand, Dana Carvey, Kevin Hart and Dennis Miller.
Cyrus has proven her comedic chops by hosting “Saturday Night Live” twice, and she’s on tap to be the host of “SNL’s” 41st season premiere Oct. 3.
“Miley is right at the center, pushing music to new and different places,” Toffler said. “She’s dangerous, honest and loud.”
(The Parents Television Council has taken issue with the choice of Cyrus as host and is reportedly urging past sponsors to skip this year’s telecast.)
Being loud, dangerous and even shocking are also qualities that are valued in the show itself, unlike many awards shows that follow a strict, staid format.
“We try to find all the combustible elements of culture, stand back and throw a match,” said Toffler. ”Some years there is true ignition, some a little less. Like any other producers in live television, there are high-fives if it’s tight and smooth. If there were chaos and mayhem, that’s when we do back flips. It’s about having an open and collaborative approach with artists and everything in between you can have fun with.”
Having a large degree of comfort with chaos is part of the recipe for success in producing the VMAs. ”Musicians are not like actors,” Toffler said. “You can’t compare Kanye and Leonardo DiCaprio. We’re lucky if they don’t do the opposite. They’re rebellious, and we have to embrace it and accept that we’re not completely in control of the format. We’re not going to play someone off. It’s live, chaotic, unpredictable, and once you put the rules in place, you have to step back and let go.”
Another element that’s changed up is the location, with this year’s being the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, formerly known as the Nokia, where the show took place in 2010. Over the years, the VMAs have set up shop in a range of venues including Radio City Music Hall, Staples Center, Barclays Center, The Forum, the Metropolitan Opera House, Gibson Amphitheater and UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Outside of New York and L.A., the VMAs were held twice in Miami and once in Las Vegas.
Artists have played on rooftops and out on the streets. Some of the performances are kept under wraps until showtime but it’s been announced that The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams, Demi Lovato, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Tori Kelly, A$AP Rocky and Twenty One Pilots will perform and Kanye West will take home the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award. Taylor Swift will premiere her “Wildest Dreams” music video during the preshow.
Swift, Ed Sheeran, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar and Mark Ronson lead the pack with the most nods to pick up a Moonman, the VMA trophy that was redesigned this year by fashion designer Jeremy Scott. It adds a rainbow of TV color bars to the astronaut planting an MTV flag, a peace sign necklace and Scott’s signature sneakers.
“I know this year will be loud and unpredictable,” said Toffler. “I think the VMAs takes a roller coaster ride with music of the moment that has huge impact. I hope that it continues to push the envelope and not adhere to other rules. Musicians do their best work when they’re nurtured and allowed to run free. I hope it continues to be one of most galvanizing moments in pop culture each year.”
(The 2015 MTV Video Music Awards air Sunday, Aug. 30, at 9 p.m. ET/PT with a preshow beginning an hour earlier.)