The 2015 MTV Video Music Awards are happening tonight. The event generated instant buzz when free spirit and newly-minted pop icon Miley Cyrus was announced as the host, and then again when Nicki Minaj went on a Twitter rant after her “Anaconda” video failed to score a Video of the Year nomination.
But as we all know, the PERFORMANCES are the only things that people remember from the VMAs. (Sorry, videos with important social messages.) An up-and-coming artist can transform into an all-time legend after performing on the MTV stage. Over the course of thirty-two Video Music Awards shows, there have been 323 or so main-stage performances. Do the three “back lot” performances in 2008 and that Britney tribute in 2011 count? I decided to include them.
2007 had the fewest main-stage performances, with five, while in 2004 and 2006, we were treated to a record fourteen performances in one evening. That’s a lot of great music over the years. But while most of the performances have been enjoyable, a select few stand out from the rest. Sometimes they captured an artist in their prime; other times, they announced the arrival of a new talent. They were the performances everyone was talking about the next day, and the day after, and they elevated the artists to a new level of mainstream popularity.
So as we get ready for the 2015 edition of the VMAs, we present the Top 10 Most Buzzworthy Video Music Awards Performances of All Time. Please note that this does not necessarily reflect the best performances; rather, these are the ones that have been the most noteworthy over the years.
10. Beyonce, “Love on Top” (2011)
By 2011, Beyonce was already a VMA veteran, having previously floated upside down in 2003 and trench-coated in 2006. She also decisively delivered her Video-of-the-Year-winning song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in 2009. And in 2014, she would go on to perform an epic medley of hits from her Beyonce album, when MTV awarded her the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. But it was her 2011 performance that generated the most buzz. Bizarrely, the performance bookended one of Beyonce’s weakest years in the business: her 4 album, despite being a critical hit and topping the US album chart, became her first album to not yield a #1 (or even a top 10) song. “Love on Top” was one of the many underachieving singles from the album; Beyonce performed it at the Nokia Theater in a purple tuxedo jacket, and it looked to be a classy and well-choreographed, if somewhat understated, affair. But Beyonce, being Beyonce, had an ace up her sleeve: at the very end of the performance she opened her jacket, rubbed her belly, and effectively announced her pregnancy to the world. She might have been coming off of a relatively disappointing album, but Beyonce once again found a way to win the night.
9. Eminem, “The Real Slim Shady/The Way I Am” (2000)
Eminem had made waves back in 1999 when his irreverent “My Name Is” single became a minor hit thanks to its hilarious, celebrity-skewing music video. Eminem then hit the big time when he released his The Marshall Mathers LP in May 2000, selling over a million copies in a week. Lead single “The Real Slim Shady” became an instant MTV staple, thrusting Eminem’s goofy alter-ego into the spotlight. Eminem decided to bring part of the music video to life by having a hundred or so Slim Shady lookalikes enter Radio City Music Hall along with him, as he segued into his next single, “The Way I Am.” The effect of seeing a hundred clones following their anti-hero was immediate and unforgettable: it was the crowning of a new star.
8. Lady Gaga, “Poker Face/Paparazzi” (2009)
In 2009, Lady Gaga was coming off a huge year, having scored two #1s in “Just Dance” and “Poker Face.” Additionally, her memorable music videos and outrageous fashion sense had turned her into an instant icon; naturally, her performance at the VMAs that year was hotly anticipated. Luckily, she did not disappoint. Bringing together elements from her “Paparazzi” music video, Lady Gaga danced, sang live, played the piano with one leg up, and staged a mock death that left the audience half transfixed and half confused. Needless to say, the performance was controversial, completely over the top, and (literally) bloody brilliant…just like Lady Gaga herself. Afterwards, she would go on to grace many an award show stage, with varying degrees of outlandish success, but this was really her first stab at fame.
7. Michael Jackson, Medley (1995)
Despite the fact that Michael Jackson’s name is synonymous with MTV’s early success, it might surprise you to know that he was largely absent from the first decade of the VMAs: Despite not being in attendance, he won three awards at the inaugural ceremony in 1984. Jackson then won the Video Vanguard Award and performed via satellite at the 1988 ceremony. He attended the 1994 show, opening the night with that infamous kiss with Lisa Marie Presley. But it wasn’t until 1995 that we got to see Jackson live in person on the VMA stage. Jackson shimmied, swayed, and Moon-walked across the stage for fifteen epic, career-defining minutes, performing a medley of songs that encapsulated his entire solo career from “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” to his current single, “Scream.” The ‘90s had been a cruel, bizarre time for one of our favorite pop icons, but when Michael Jackson finished that VMA performance, he affirmed, once again, that he truly was the King of Pop.
6. Britney Spears, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction/Oops!…I Did It Again” (2000)
Britney Spears was quickly establishing herself as the essential new pop star for a brand new millennium. Deftly flirting between school girl innocence and naughty Lolita, Spears was rightly seen as the new Madonna; she just needed a show-stopping performance to prove it. Cue the 2000 VMAs, where Spears, decked out in black suit and fedora, started her performance with the Rolling Stones classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” By itself, the performance looked to be a standard, slightly-sexy-dance routine…but then she ripped off her pants, exposing a flesh colored bodysuit, and launched into her current single, “Oops!…I Did It Again.” It actually didn’t matter WHAT the barely-legal Spears sang at that point: as she writhed and pounded her fists on the VMA stage, a million pubescent boys and girls came to life in that moment, and Britney Spears became the penultimate sex symbol for the first half of the ‘00s.
5. Madonna, “Vogue” (1990)
By the time 1990 rolled around, Madonna had already established herself as the ultimate female video artist. Growing in tandem with MTV, she always made sure that her award show performances were just as legendary as her music videos; subsequently, when she was slated to perform at the 1990 VMAs, she knew she had to bring something magical to the stage. She was performing her hit song, “Vogue,” which was was up for 9 trophies that year. The original music video treatment (centering around a Marie Antoinette theme) had been scrapped in favor of a stylized black-and-white homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood (that MTV would later declare to be the second best music video of all time). Not wanting a good idea to go to waste, Madonna decided to bring the original concept to life when she closed the 1990 ceremony. The legendary performance expertly triangulated period-piece costumes, hand fan choreography, and obvious tongue-in-cheek winks to oral sex; in short, the stage was commanded by an absolutely legend. Madonna ended up losing to Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” for Video of the Year (“Vogue” won three VMAs, all in technical categories), but in terms of performance the queen once again reigned supreme.
4. Britney Spears, “Gimme More” (2007)
Most of the time, a VMA performance is notable because of its innovation or its excellence. However, occasionally a performance is notable for missing the mark. And no VMA performance missed the mark more than the one Britney Spears cobbled together in 2007, when she performed then-new single, “Gimme More.” Despite having come off a tumultuous few months, Spears was a VMA veteran, and her return to the stage was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But any chance at reigniting her career was quickly shot down in flames as a clearly disoriented and somewhat out of shape Spears struggled to get through the relatively easy choreography. At times looking disheveled and nervous, it was clear that Spears was not ready for the spotlight just yet. As a result, the performance was declared dead on arrival, and the media absolutely ripped her to shreds (infamously prompting Chris Cocker to declare, “Leave Britney alone!”). Spears subsequently unraveled in a very public meltdown that saw her involuntarily committed. Her assets were taken over by her father, and her visitation rights to her sons were temporarily revoked. Strangely, despite the tsunami of negative press, the performance did exactly it was supposed to do: “Gimme More” became Spears’ second-highest charting hit at that point in time, going to #3.
3. Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamar, “We Can’t Stop/Blurred Lines/Give It 2 U” (2013)
In 2013, Lady Gaga opened the VMAs with her single “Applause.” Justin Timberlake won Video of the Year for “Mirrors.” And Katy Perry came “Roar”-ing back with the debut single off her eagerly-awaited third album. But absolutely none of that mattered; the ONLY thing people remember from the 2013 VMAs is that Miley Cyrus came out in a flesh-toned outfit to sing “We Can’t Stop” and then proceeded to stick out her tongue, play suggestively with a giant foam finger, and twerk against Robin Thicke, who was wearing a ridiculous Beetlejuice-inspired suit. The fact that Thicke brought out 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar to perform new single “Give It 2 U” is also completely ignored. Instead, the absolute train wreck of a performance was an instant lightning rod of controversy. Everybody seemed to have an opinion on it, as internet memes popped up almost instantly. The one of Will Smith’s family reacting is hilarious! (Spelling aside.)
Was the performance gratuitously sexual? Yes. Was it disgustingly contrived? Yes. And even aside from all the controversy, was it just sort of mediocre, overall, as a performance? Hell yes! But it did exactly what Cyrus wanted it to do: it helped her shed her Hannah Montana image, it reignited her largely dormant music career, and it got everybody talking the next day. Cyrus didn’t win in any of the four categories she was nominated for, but she emerged, far and away, as the biggest winner that night.
2. Madonna, “Like a Virgin” (1984)
An icon knows how to work a stage, transforming a performance into an opportunity to effectively market themselves and reach a broader audience; at the inaugural VMAs, in 1984, Madonna did just that. While she went home empty-handed that night, she stole the show by performing her brand new single, “Like a Virgin,” from atop a wedding cake. The performance could’ve been kitschy, but as she rolled around on the stage, flashing her underwear to the cameras and playing off the hyper-sexuality of the song, she ensured that every single person at home knew exactly who she was. By today’s standards, the performance is relatively tame (especially for Madonna). But back then, when MTV and Madonna were both first starting to make a name for themselves, this performance legitimized both as absolute forces to be reckoned with. The world would never be the same again.
1. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Madonna, Missy Elliott, “Like a Virgin/Hollywood/Work It” (2003)
For the 20th edition of the Video Music Awards, the producers wanted to do something special. And what better way to honor the history and tradition of the show than to do an homage to what was then the best VMA performance of all-time, using current pop stars? Opening the show, Britney Spears came out atop a wedding cake, just like Madonna did back in 1984. Christina Aguilera followed suit, and for just shy of two minutes, the two singers vamped it up in a tribute to the queen. Then Madonna came out, in a black top hat, to perform her single, “Hollywood.” At this point, the performance was already memorable, if not legendary. But then, of course, Madonna kissed Spears (and Aguilera) on the mouth.
It was obviously a stylized sexualization of the two of the most iconic MTV stars of all time. But it was also a symbolic passing of the torch from Madonna to Spears. Indeed, Madonna’s career was never as powerful after that moment, while Spears has managed to maintain a constant level of pop success. Missy Elliott also came out during the performance to perform “Work It,” but really, this was a moment between the queen and princess of pop. All other performances, before and after, have paled in comparison.