The MTV Video Music Awards seem to be a hotbed for cultural phenomena. Who can forget the 2009 VMAs, where Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, clamoring about Beyoncé and famously declaring Queen Bey, “had one of the best videos of all time.” This scene is still talked about to this day, with both sides still making references to it in their music.
Six years earlier, though, a different kind of shockwave took place, though much more lighthearted. However, many found it just as objectionable. This is, of course, when Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera took the VMA stage and exchanged one small kiss each. Let’s take a look back at one of the VMAs’ biggest moments to date.
Britney, Madonna, Christina
The performance was carefully curated to feature three monoliths in pop music at the time; Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, two of the best-selling female pop stars of the late ’90s and early oughts, and Madonna, a cultural legend—especially within the VMAs sphere, given her previous performances at the ceremony.
Princess of Pop, Britney Spears, in 2003 was just coming off the heels of a momentous, and simultaneously turbulent couple of years. Her self-titled album, Britney, topped charts internationally, and her single I’m A Slave 4 received massive acclaim following her ambitious 2001 VMAs performance, which gave way to the famous image of her carrying a python around her shoulders. In her personal life, though, she had just come out of a three-year relationship with NSYNC member Justin Timberlake and was battling rumors of her dating Limp Bizkit vocalist Fred Durst.
Christina Aguilera had a similar come-up to Britney, with both mastheading the teen pop craze of the time. Her song, Genie in a Bottle, was one of the biggest songs of 1999, staying at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks. From there, though, she wanted to subvert her image as a teen idol, broadening her musical influences and taking on a more daring persona. She would release Dirrty in 2002, with a controversial video that got Aguilera into some hot water with the media.
Britney Spears may have been the Princess of Pop, but Madonna is the queen, practically inventing modern pop. Between her attention to catchy yet intricate production, her extravagant visuals and live performances, and her ability to reinvent herself throughout the decades, she’s been a cultural icon since her debut in 1982. In 2003, she had just released her album American Life to a fairly poor reception, in part due to its anti-war stance following the invasion of Iraq.
The 2003 MTV VMAs premiered on August 28, with Britney, Christina, Madonna, and Missy Elliott as the show openers.
The main inspiration behind the quartet’s performance was Madonna’s 1984 performance of Like A Virgin, where she donned a wedding dress and sang atop a giant three-tier cake. After two flower girls toss their petals, the curtain lifts, revealing Britney dressed in the famous bride ensemble, atop a new giant cake. Spears delivers the first verse to pitch perfection, proving herself as an heir to Madonna’s throne. She is joined by Christina, also dressed in white, who performs the chorus as it is suited to her deep vocals.
Madonna soon joins the two pop stars on stage, but not as a thrid bride, but rather, dressed more akin to a groom, sporting a black suit and top hat. She interrupts their performance of Like A Virgin and opens her new song Hollywood instead. She wears Spears and Aguilera on either side as all three of them harmonize and dance with each other. Kicking off the performance’s impending controversy, Madonna wraps her arm around Aguilera’s leg, removing her garter belt and tossing it into the audience. Turning to her other side, she exchanges a kiss with Britney, and then with Christina. Before the audience has a chance to react, Madonna calls in Missy Elliott to perform her song Work It.
Almost as famous as the kiss itself is Justin Timberlake’s reaction in the audience. The camera pans to him a couple of times; first when Madonna dances with Christina, and second when she kisses Britney. His first look is evidently skeptical, giving off an almost comedic eyebrow raise. However, his second is a blank, unamused stare, which many believe had something to do with his recent breakup with Spears.
Cultural Impact & Controversy
One could interpret the performance as Madonna honoring the new wave of pop that Britney and Christina helped usher in, and her acknowledging her role, and power, as a star who has evolved. The symbolism was anything but safe, down to Madonna appearing more androgynous rather than the hyper-feminine image from the ’80s that many associate her with. It was boundary-pushing for the time—characteristic of Madonna’s performance style, and as a result, stirred up plenty of controversy.
Twenty years later, the display is fairly tame, but after the performance originally aired, the media was in a whirlwind. The New York Post called it “raunchy,” and Deseret News called it “a stupid stunt for Madonna,” claiming it was unlike her, and a response to dwindling record sales.
Many have cited the performance as a prime example of “bisexual chic”-ness in popular culture, referring to bisexuality being treated as a fad, or something of a fashion trend, by public figures. The performance could have encouraged others to view it as an incoming trend to capitalize on, rather than take it seriously.
Relatedly, though, the performance did help many girls come to terms with their sexuality. BuzzFeed writer Kayla Yandoli writes, for example, “I thought it was intriguing … I obviously didn’t have the tools or confidence at that age to be out and live my truth, but that didn’t stop me from secretly obsessing over the video in any way I could.”