The 25 Most Memorable MTV VMA Performances of All Time
The most jaw-dropping acts from the most jaw-dropping award show.
The Grammy Awards may be music's biggest night, but the MTV Video Music Awards are arguably its most memorable. Year after year, artists take the stage at the VMAs in only the most epic of ways—showing off their creative visions, crazy outfits, incredible dance moves, and even announcing their pregnancies (we're lookin' at you, Beyoncé). Throughout the show's more than three-decade history, we've seen our fair share of outlandish performances, from Madonna's not-so-virginal showcase at the inaugural ceremony to Miley Cyrus' inability to keep her tongue in her mouth. And with that, here are the 25 most memorable MTV VMA performances of all time.
Madonna – "Like a Virgin" (1984)
While 26-year-old Madonna actually wanted to sing to a live white Bengal tiger at the very first VMAs in 1984, her emergence from a 17-foot wedding cake in that iconic lace bustier and wedding veil was just as epic. Not to mention, that writhing around on the floor, all because of a missing high heel.
"I walked down these steps which were the tiers of a wedding cake, and I lost…my white stiletto," she told Jay Leno in 2012. "I thought, 'Oh my God, how am I going to get that? It's over there and I'm on TV.' So I thought, 'Well, I'll pretend I meant to do this,' and I dove onto the floor." And the rest, as they say, is history.
Madonna – "Vogue" (1990)
Six years after her iconic "Like a Virgin" performance, Madonna gave yet another over-the-top stage show for her game-changing hit "Vogue" in 1990. Donning a Marie Antoinette-like wig and ball gown, the Material Girl showed her skills by "vogueing" with a paper fan. The result was a standing ovation from the entire crowd.
Nirvana – "Lithium" (1992)
In true Nirvana anti-establishment fashion, the grunge band began their 1992 VMA performance with chords from their banned (and, as of then, yet to be released) song "R*** Me" before bursting into "Lithium," off of their now-famous Nevermind album. The performance quickly escalated when bassist Krist Novoselic threw his instrument in the air, and it landed on his face. Ah, teen spirit.
Michael Jackson's Medley (1995)
It seems fitting that Michael Jackson—whom the VMA Video Vanguard Award is named after—was the first person to execute a killer 15-minute medley of his greatest hits in 1995. Giving the audience a taste of everything from "Thriller" to "Billie Jean" to "Dangerous," Jackson's medley was mostly a dance performance, but it was nonetheless impressive. Oh, and Slash showed up to bust out some sick guitar riffs, too.
P. Diddy – "I'll Be Missing You" (1997)
In a touching tribute to his friend, rapper Notorious B.I.G., P. Diddy (then "Puffy") orchestrated a huge production that featured white-robed gospel singers, Sting, and Faith Evans (Biggie's widow), to mourn his death. The hip-hop legend was projected on a massive screen at the end of the performance, while Puffy somberly looked on.
Eminem – "The Real Slim Shady"/"The Way I Am" (2000)
Marshall Mathers, AKA Eminem, was at the height of his fame in 2000, and he proved he was king of the rap charts by starting his performance with dozens of look-alike Slim Shadys outside New York City's Radio City Music Hall. Belting out, "Won't the real Slim Shady please stand up?" the clones followed him inside the historic venue where he continued the performance with "The Way I Am." It was the first time a VMA performance had started outside a venue and made its way in, and probably one of the most memorable moments of Eminem's prolific career.
Alicia Keys – "Fallin'" (2001)
Solidifying her spot as an R&B powerhouse and generally, a force to be reckoned with, Alicia Keys performed the lead single off her debut album, Songs in Minor, in 2001 before accepting the award for Best New Artist later that night. The performance, which is more stripped down and raw than many of the other most notable VMA performances, showed off some seriously impressive piano skills (Keys opened the number by playing Beethoven) and undeniable voice.
Britney Spears – "I'm a Slave 4 U" (2001)
Britney Spears' jungle-themed performance in 2001 certainly caused a stir—not only because she was shedding her teen pop image for a sexy, grown-up woman, but because of the albino python that she donned as an accessory on stage.
Jennifer Lopez ft. Ja Rule – "I'm Real" (2001)
Coming off an epic summer of topping the charts, Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule rocked the 2001 VMAs with their performance of "I'm Real." If you think J-Lo has got it now, she was really in her prime here. The hats alone are pure early 2000s glory.
Bruce Springsteen – "The Rising" (2002)
Just shy of a year after 9/11, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band delivered an uplifting rendition of the title track of his 9/11-inspired album, The Rising, driving home a message of hope and unity. Given that the awards were hosted in their usual home of New York that year, it was an especially fitting and touching way to kick off the first post-9/11 VMAs.
Britney Spears, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Missy Elliot – "Like a Virgin"/"Hollywood"/"Work It" (2003)
All of the biggest pop princesses came together for this performance in 2003, featuring that oh-so-famous kiss between Britney and Madonna (and a less famous one between Madonna and Christina Aguilera). From the outfits to the set to the dance moves, it was a fantastic tribute to Madonna's memorable first-ever VMA performance of "Life a Virgin" and another VMA moment that will never be forgotten. Oh and yes, Missy Elliot was there, too—in a tux, no less.
Kelly Clarkson – "Since U Been Gone" (2005)
American Idol's first winner, Kelly Clarkson, took to the stage at the 2005 VMAs and brought with her a full-on rainstorm in the middle of the packed American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. As she told People of the performance, "Performing in the rain for the VMAs was one of my favorite moments on television! I hate being all dressed up, so the fact that I was soaking wet with mascara smeared all over my face was definitely the highlight of my evening!"
Lady Gaga – "Paparazzi" (2009)
Proving both her insane talent and impeccable artistry, Lady Gaga's 2009 VMA performance is far and away one of the most memorable of all time. The then-23-year-old singer staggered around an ornate white set that looked like a mansion before fake blood started spewing from her ribcage. In the end, she hung listlessly above the crowd, as a halo shined behind her—a gruesome metaphor for the power of the tabloids and paparazzi, and a powerful message to leave female fixtures alone.
Janet Jackson's Michael Jackson Medley (2009)
Just two months after the death of Michael Jackson, MTV payed tribute to their original Vanguard with an epic tribute containing a medley of his biggest songs and iconic dance moves. The highlight, of course, was a performance by his sister Janet Jackson of their collaboration "Scream." The incredible, perfectly synchronized dance tribute alongside a massive video of her late brother left audiences in awe.
Taylor Swift – "You Belong With Me" (2009)
Living the real New York life, Taylor Swift notably kicked off her 2009 VMA performance on a real-life subway platform before taking the party into an actual subway car…and then spilling out onto the streets of the city. She ended the number on top of a parked taxi cab outside of Radio City Music Hall—it was quite literally a performance of Manhattan-sized proportions.
Kanye West – "Runaway" (2010)
The year after he infamously hijacked Taylor Swift's acceptance speech, Kanye West delivered a passionate, artistic performance, debuting his song "Runaway" with signature Yeezy panache. Set against a bright white backdrop, the musician popped out in a blindingly red suit and used a synthesizer drum machine to cue up the instrumental on his song with a subtle message about the mishap the year before: "Let's have a toast to the [jerks]." Halfway through, rapper Pusha T. joined him, as did several visually captivating ballerinas.
Beyoncé– "Love on Top" (2011)
No one will ever forget Beyoncé's grand announcement of her very first pregnancy, thanks to her 2011 performance at the VMAs. Dressed in a tux-inspired suit that was decked out in sequins, she belted out "Love on Top" and made every move and note look easy. But viewers were truly left speechless after she dropped the mic, opened her jacket, winked, and rubbed her belly before bursting into the biggest smile—keying everyone in to the news that she and Jay Z were expecting.
Lady Gaga – "Yoü and I" (2011)
Showing up as male alter ego Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga tapped into her method performance skills by rocking a dark pompadour hairstyle, a black suit, white T-shirt, and a cigarette at the 2011 VMAs. After talking to the crowd about Jo's fictional exes, she broke out into the ballad hit, "Yoü and I." Jo would later come back on stage to try and kiss that year's Video Vanguard Award winner, Britney Spears, to no avail. Gotta commend dedication to the character, though!
*NSYNC's Reunion Medley(2013)
As part of Justin Timberlake's career-spanning performance in honor of his Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award win in 2013, *NSYNC wowed the crowd with a surprise reunion, complete with some of their signature dance moves. The last time the group had appeared together on the VMA stage was in 2001, when Michael Jackson himself joined them for their performance of "Pop."
Miley Cyrus ft. Robin Thicke – "We Can't Stop" (2013)
Perhaps one of the most controversial VMA performances to date came when Miley Cyrus showed her wild side at the 2013 VMAs by twerking on Robin Thicke to her party anthem "We Can't Stop." Before the performance, she had told MTV that she wanted her fans to feel like they were at the L.A.-based party from the song's music video, saying, "It's going to be epic. It's kind of like my video times a thousand." The nearly-nude, hyper sexualized performance may have resulted in several FCC complaints, but it also proved that Cyrus had totally shed her good girl Hannah Montana image—for good.
Beyoncé's Medley (2013)
Queen Bey slayed the stage yet again as she ripped through her medley set in honor of her Video Vanguard win in 2013. Casting a spell over the audience for a full 15-minute performance, she started off by saying to the crowd, "Welcome to my world," and then proceeded to sing and dance her way through all her classic moments—from her Destiny's Child days through 2013—getting through a whopping 12 tracks in total.
Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Jessie J – "Break Free"/"Anaconda"/"Bang Bang" (2014)
In the ultimate salute to girl power, these three powerhouses opened the 2014 VMAs with a performance of epic proportions. Ariana Grande kicked things off by delivering an out of this world rendition of her song "Break Free" by emerging from a huge spaceship. Then, the performance transitioned to Nicki Minaj's moment in the spotlight, with a jungle-themed take on her song "Anaconda." Finally, Jessie J emerged to sing the opening verse of "Bang Bang" as the crowd became even more hyped up to see the superstars come together.
Logic ft. Alessia Cara – "1-800-273-8255" (2017)
At the 2017 VMAs, rapper Logic delivered a heart-wrenching yet empowering performance of his single with the title of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Joined by Alessia Cara, Khalid, and a group of survivors on stage, Logic's moving performance resulted in a 50 percent spike in calls to the hotline, according to CNN.
Fifth Harmony – "Angel"/"Down" (2017)
In an ultimate act of shade, Fifth Harmony addressed the exit of their former fifth member, Camila Cabello, at the 2017 VMAs. The girl group had a stand-in for Cabello join them for their performance and right when the song started, the body double jumped ship, falling backwards off the stage. It was a split-second move that had people talking—and made the performance all the more unforgettable.
Ariana Grande – "God Is a Woman" (2018)
Pop princess Ariana Grande gave a visually stunning performance at the 2018 VMAs when she and her dancers re-enacted The Last Supper with a female-centric twist. Fans were delighted when Grande ended the performance by bringing out the most important ladies in her life—her mother, grandmother, and cousin—to stand with her on stage as the ultimate symbol of female empowerment. And for more awesome trivia from this zany industry, check out these 40 Facts About Music That Really Sing.
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