Since 1984, the MTV Video Music Awards have given us some of the most killer musical moments in history. For over three decades, the VMAs have celebrated the most creative and groundbreaking offerings in music and presented each winner with a neat little astronaut trophy for their troubles.
From red-carpet showing off (a dress! Made of meat?!) to brazen on-stage fueds (“Yo Miley, what’s good??”), the annual star-studded extravaganza has everything a pop culture addict could ask for. It has seen scandal, anger, heartbreak – it’s even seen Kanye West announce his 2020 run for Presidency!
Here we take a look at the most iconic performances over the ceremony’s 32 year history. Over 400 acts have graced the VMA stage, so there’s no need to thank us for narrowing it down to the 15 best appearances.
15. Michael Jackson (1995)
Obviously, every live performance by THE Michael Jackson is iconic, but here MJ graced the VMA stage for the second of just three appearances in its history for a 15 minute performance that featured a mash-up of some of his greatest tunes including “Beat It”, “Black or White” and “Billie Jean”. Almost as iconic as the man himself are his famous dance routines, and this performance doesn’t fail to showcase some of Jackson’s signature moves – look! The Moonwalk! The crotch grab! The weird white shirt pulse twitch thing! If that isn’t enough, notice Slash stomping around the stage tormenting those guitar strings and making oh so sweet noises?
After a performance like this, it’s no surprise the VMAs named their highest accolade after the King of Pop; the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award is awarded to artists who have made a lasting effect on the world of music and pop culture.
14. Cher (1989)
Find us any human who doesn’t like this song and we will show you a bare-faced lying human.
A whole 21 years before she was the most hilarious account on Twitter (seriously, go and follow Cher on Twitter, you will not regret it), Cher threw on that legendary leather biker jacket for an even more legendary rendition of “If I Could Turn Back Time”. Points for singing live and a special mention for the best legs on a 43-year-old ever! We almost look that good in fish-net tights and black boots – almost – but not as good as Cher does in this 1989 VMA performance of her international hit #1 single.
Cher would return to the VMAs in 2010 in the same outfit – and still looking good! – where she held Lady Gaga’s purse while the singer accepted an award in that famous meat dress. Who said Hollywood wasn’t glamorous?
13. TLC (1995)
The outfits! The rap! The dancing! The outfits!
Comprised of members Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, TLC were everybody’s favourite pop group long before Ginger, Sporty, Scary, Posh and Baby came on the scene. With their positive messages of female empowerment and cautionary warnings to youngsters veering towards the wrong paths in life, TLC were an instant success around the world before the tragic death of member Lisa Lopez in 2002.
They appeared at the 1995 VMAs with a fully choreographed performance of a few of their songs, including their massive hit “Waterfalls”. Off-stage, 1995 was a roller coster year for the group; they filed for bankruptcy just two months before this appearance, but who cares about financial struggles when you can spit a rap like Left Eye Lopez?!
12. Kanye West (2004)
So much can be said for
this spoiled brat Kanye West. He’s done it all. He has worked with every musical legend you can think of (dead and living), won every award under the song and still finds time to snatch awards out of people’s hands mid-acceptance speech. Let’s face it, we’ll never forgive him for that.
But before all of that, let’s rewind to 2004 – the year of Yeezy’s debut album The College Dropout and the year he officially Arrived on the Scene. What makes his first appearance at the VMAs so iconic is how typically Kanye West it actually is. Pop star cameo? Check (Hi Chaka Khan!!). Gospel choir? Check. Arrogant lyrics that are actually totally dope? Check and check.
When you hit the ground with performances like this, it’s hard to imagine how Kanye West couldn’t have made it big in the industry. If only he were more likeable…
11. Adele (2011)
While it was, of course, nowhere near as iconic as her epic performance of the same song at the BRIT Awards that same year, Adele’s VMA presentation of “Someone Like You” (also known as The Saddest Song In The Universe (Where Are the Tissues?)) wrapped up a sensational year for the UK artist and global superstar. Her second album, titled 21 after the singer’s age at the time of its inception, became the best-selling album of the 21st century! It spent 11 weeks as the no. 1 selling album! 3 out of 4 singles reached no. 1 internationally! 30 million copies sold worldwide! We could go on! We won’t!
This is the sort of performance we’ve come to expect and look forward to with Adele; no choreography, completely live vocals, a sparkly dress and a piano are all we will ever need to connect with whatever tear-jerker this woman comes out with next.
10. Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift (2015)
In this instance the background story is about as iconic as the performance. In the weeks leading up to 2015’s ceremony, Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift raged the Twitter feud of the decade after Minaj made her feelings heard regarding the nominations snub of her equally iconic single “Anaconda” over Swift’s own singles. No wonder the world lost its mind when the enemies opened the show TOGETHER in a surprise collab of their songs “Trini Dem Girls”, “The Night is Still Young” and (ironic) “Bad Blood”.
Our favourite part of this performance (apart from Minaj’s fabulous headpiece) is the subtle battle between the two stars as they perform, starting with Minaj’s summoning of Swift at 3:13, and most obvious at 4:26 when the two duel it out in the form of… um… grinding? Taylor tries to hold her own, but could she really stand a chance against music’s baddest-ass Nicki Minaj?
Who wins, when all is said and done? We do, of course!
9. Madonna (1984)
The year is 1984. It’s the very first MTV Video Music Awards. And because you can’t do anything new in music unless Madonna is involved in some way, the Material Girl deigns the brand new stage to perform “Like A Virgin” (although not for the last time – more later) in full wedding dress, on a three-tier cake, wearing a “BOY TOY” belt while she writhes around on the floor. Of course.
I’m sure we hear this every time we talk about an old Madonna performance, but this appearance over 30 years ago was seen as a highly provocative and controversial piece at the time, despite seeming quite tame nowadays. But it’s Madonna, so what do you expect?
What they didn’t know back then was Madonna would turn out to be the gift that keeps on giving. Don’t forget, this is years before she gets yanked off the stage by a cape.
8. Lady Gaga (2011)
Lady Gaga is VMA gold. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate that fact.
OK? Good. Moving on…
Her second appearance on the VMA stage in 2011 saw Gaga strut in front of the camera in full drag as alter-ego Joe Calderone, Gaga’s chain-smoking, whiskey glugging “boyfriend” in a cheap suit. After a monologue lasting three and a half minutes, in which Gaga/Joe bemoans how “weird” his “girlfriend” actually is, Gaga straddles a piano for a rowdy performance of “You and I”, complete with a clunky dance routine and Brian May (yeah! That guy from Queen!) cameo.
Possibly the best part of this performance is Adele’s reaction. While most of the audience looks on in a state of awed confusion, Adele seems genuinely worried, especially when Gaga takes a tumble (7:43) off her piano. But that’s what happens when you dance on top of an instrument, folks.
7. Britney Spears (And The Snake) (2001)
Now here we have a truly iconic moment in music history. Everyone remembers Britney’s performance at the 2001 Video Music Award ceremony, if only for the fact that Britney Jean spends a fair bit of this rendition of “Slave 4 U” with a snake wrapped around her neck.
Set in a dripping swamp stage setup, Britney starts off singing in a cage WITH AN ACTUAL REAL LIFE TIGER, moves casually on to a spot of light choreography with her many dancers before BALANCING AN ACTUAL REAL LIFE SNAKE on her shoulders and spinning around the stage, all while the snake looks pretty over it all.
Since the performance, Britney revealed in 2012 that the infamous serpent is called Banana (cute!) and is still alive and well today. We tried to contact Banana for a statement, but she was unable to comment due to her being a snake, and snakes don’t talk.
6. Beyonce (2013)
None of you have ever announced your pregnancy in a better way than this. None of you. Ever. Get over it.
We all thought there was something being held back during this performance – the buttoned blazers and subdued choreography were giveaways that something wasn’t quite right. But after a pitch-perfect performance of her single “Love on Top” in 2011 – featuring notes so high they make us dizzy just watching them being sang – Beyonce dropped the mic, ripped open her sequin blazer and with a simple rub of her tummy she revealed to us all that soon the world would be introduced to
the luckiest damn baby in the world a baby Carter-Knowles.
And what a stage to announce the news on! In 2011, the MTV VMAs had record-breaking viewing figures – 12.4 MILLION PEOPLE tuned in that year!
5. Beyonce (Again) (2016)
If MJ can do a 15 minute medley, then so the hell can Beyonce. 2016’s VMAs saw Miss Carter-Knowles turn up and shut the house down with a typically bad-ass Beyonce performance of several songs from her visual album, Lemonade – allegedly created in response to husband Jay Z’s infidelity.
Here Beyonce storms through performances of “Pray You Catch Me”, “Lemonade”, “Sorry”, “Hurt Yourself” and “Formation”, all with stunning visuals and a passionate, poetic monologue throughout – not to mention a dance routine that rivals even Michael Jackson’s legendary moves. Let’s face it, MJ never managed a dance routine just for his butt cheeks, did he?
Looking like several billion dollars in every frame, Beyonce certainly knows how to turn out a (sort of) live performance. Evolution and reinvention is a vital part to any career in the music biz, and the Beyonce we’re seeing right now is surely the zenith of her evolutionary chain.
4. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke (2013)
We can only assume someone pretty high up in the production team was drugged when this performance was green lit. Imagine the pitch meeting. “OK, we’ve got this rubber finger and a Beetlejuice suit…”
It starts out reasonably well. Miley Cyrus steps out of a pretty innocent giant teddy bear, but as soon as she flashes that tongue, we all knew that something… different, was about to happen. This VMA performance in 2013 would end in scandal when she twerked with “Blurred Lines” singer Robin Thicke and shocked the world, officially burying Hannah Montana, and establishing Miley Cyrus and her freakishly long tongue.
However, Cyrus must have done something to impress the big wigs upstairs. She returned to the VMAs two years later – this time as host and lead performer.
3. Madonna (1990)
We all would have paid a lot more attention to history class if it was like this.
Madonna returned to the Video Music Award stage in 1990 for a performance of her iconic disco track “Vogue” (it is a seriously iconic song, you can’t deny it). She steps out from behind that curtain in full Marie Antoinette realness and does things with a lace fan that even twenty-six years later makes us shiver.
As per, when you’ve got a performance from Madonna that also means (obvs) you’re bound to be shocked and scandalised in someway. Do we need to even go into some of the incredibly provocative moves featured here? What exactly IS under her dress that those dancers seem so fascinated by?!
Is it a live performance? It’s no where near it. Do we care? Not a bit. This revolutionary (geddit? Revolutionary? France? Never mind…) appearance paved the way for some of the more theatrical VMA performances to come.
2. Lady Gaga (2009)
It’s performances like this that make us love Lady Gaga like we just can’t seem to love anyone else. The artistry she brings to every live outing leaves us wanting more, no matter how cooky or shocking the visuals. It’s what she does best.
This performance of Gaga’s hit “Paparazzi” came in 2009 – the year this pop supremo rocketed of all the charts with her debut album, The Fame. Complete with live vocals, a stellar dance routine (name us another person who can turn a crutch into a dance prop) and live piano playing, Gaga ends it all with fake blood pouring from her torso in a move that leaves the audience literally gasping. In true Gaga fashion, the last we see of her is her suspended from a meat hook, that dead-inside look in her eye staring into the camera as she spins slowly with camera bulbs popping around her.
Amazing. Weird. Amazing.
1. Madonna, Britney, Christina and Missy Elliot (2003)
On a list of iconic VMA performances, how could this not be number 1?
Back in more innocent times (well, 2003), in a homage to Madge’s 1984 performance, pop royalty Britney and Christina Aguilera are drafted in to give their take on Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.” But it’s when the Queen of Pop herself arrives (out of that same three-tier cake, no less) that things get seriously legendary. In the middle of the “Hollywood” segment, Madonna plants a kiss on Spears and Aguilera and changes the face of pop forever. She would have broken the internet, but the internet was too young to even be allowed into the club at the time.
The next day and the media had gone wild – for the performance AND the reaction of Britney’s ex, a certain Justin Timberlake, who was caught on camera looking incredulous.