Here we are in that wonderful time of the year in which we revisit the best MTV Video Music Awards performances of all time. Like Christmas, this ordeal only comes around once a year, and also like Christmas, people both love and loathe it.
And the story is the same each year: every site on the face of the planet publishes a list of the best VMA performances ever, and the lists, across the board, are all the same. (This can’t be helped; the best performances are the best for a reason.) We too have been guilty of this. We are guilty of it again this year, but things are going to be a little different in 2015.
First, we will share with you what we believe to be the 10 best, most iconic VMA performances of all time. They are all spectacular, and even if you’ve seen them 20 times before, you should watch them again. But then, twist! We’ve also included a list of 10 underrated VMA performances that deserve more love. Maybe you remember them, maybe you don’t. But for whatever reason, they are not often included alongside Madonna‘s “Like a Virgin” or Lady Gaga‘s “Paparazzi” or Britney Spears‘ “I’m a Slave 4 U” when people talk about the most memorable VMA moments. Let’s change that, shall we? But first, the reason we’re all here!
The 10 Most Iconic VMA Performances of All Time (In No Particular Order)
1) Lady Gaga – “Paparazzi” (2009)
Before “Bad Romance,” before the Beyoncé collaborations, before the meat dress, before the Grammy wins, there was Lady Gaga’s 2009 performance of “Paparazzi,” in which she bled out on stage and announced herself as the savior of pop.
In a perfect world, if you looked up “water cooler moment” in the dictionary, you’d be shown a photo of Britney Spears and Madonna swapping spit from this 2003 show-opener. (Christina Aguilera was there too.) This kind of performance — the kind that so brazenly courts controversy, but does so with a friendly wink — is why the VMAs exist.
3) Beyoncé – “Love on Top” (2011)
News that Beyoncé was pregnant slowly began trickling out the moment she hit the red carpet, but it was not until she opened up her jacket and gave her belly a rub at the end of her “Love on Top” performance that the entire world got hip to the good news. There has not been a pregnancy announcement as compelling since. (And Bey’s vocals and dancing were, of course, pitch perfect.)
4) Eminem – “The Real Slim Shady / The Way I Am” (2000)
What’s better than one Eminem? How about 100? Borrowing imagery from “The Real Slim Shady” video, which would go on to win VOTY later that night, Eminem led an army of his clones from a Midtown Manhattan street through the audience seated inside Radio City Music Hall, and it made quite the iconic spectacle.
5) Michael Jackson – “HIStory Mega Medley” (1995)
It has been said, and it is accurate, that there has never been and never will again be a performer like Michael Jackson. This 15-minute, career-spanning performance is all the proof one needs to reach that conclusion.
6) Britney Spears – “I’m a Slave 4 U” (2001)
Though it was not the first time Britney made waves at the VMAs (her striptease performance one year earlier shocked many) and it would not be the last (see 2003 and 2007), the waves made by the legendary image of the young singer, in peak physical form, with a python wrapped around her shoulders, were (and are still) tsunami level.
7) Nirvana – “Lithium” (1992)
A great performance of a great song by a great band made greater by the bassist, Krist Novoselic, throwing his guitar into the air only to have it come crashing back down on his own head. The most punk moment in VMA history.
8) Madonna – “Like a Virgin”
The image of Madonna, clad in a white wedding dress, rolling around in ecstasy may be the defining emblem not only of the VMAs but of the MTV generation period. Fitting, then, that this performance came during the awards’ first-ever ceremony. That its impact has endured for three decades is a testament to both the impressive legacy of Madonna’s career and the cultural significance of this particular show.
9) Kanye West – “Runaway” (2010)
Kanye has always been a showman, an entertainer. A rock star. Anyone can see that he puts an incredible amount of effort into his art, and that’s especially clear in this 2010 performance of “Runaway.” From his red suit to the stunning set to the ballerinas— watching this performance is like watching a moving painting.
From a technical perspective, this is not a good performance. It is memorable only for its spectacle — and its spectacle dwarfed not only the show but the entire cultural conversation for months afterward. And that, dear reader, is what the VMAs, when they live up to their own self-proclaimed importance, are all about.
So there you have it. Those are the most iconic performances in VMA history, and objectively, there is not much room to argue.
But what about the incredible performances we don’t talk about every year? Check out…
10 Incredible VMA Performances That Are Criminally Underrated (Presented, Again, in No Particular Order)
1) Florence & The Machine – “Dog Days Are Over” (2010)
For the most part (not counting Gaga’s meat dress), the 2010 Video Music Awards were forgettable, but Florence & The Machine’s performance of “Dog Days Are Over” was sublime. The visuals — the birds-eye view of Florence on her spinning platform, dancers circled all around — were spectacular, and her vocals were flawless.
2) *NSYNC – “Pop” (2001)
Come for: Justin Timberlake‘s short hair and sleeveless top, Joey Fatone and Chris Kirkpatrick riding out on a slow-moving motorcycle, the cheesy pop-art set, and the general “boy bands of the early 2000s” of it all. Stay for: the special surprise guest at the end.
3) Lady Gaga (aka Jo Calderone) – “Yoü and I” (2011)
Many wondered what would happen if Gaga, known for her outrageous fashion, stepped out one day in nothing but jeans and a t-shirt. For her second VMAperformance, she did just that… although, it should be noted, she was also in full drag as her alter-ego Jo Calderone. Gaga-as-Jo delivered an impassioned, vocally-intense rendition of “Yoü and I” (Queen‘s Brian May dropped in to play guitar) that is often overlooked in the grand scheme of Great Gaga Performances.
How could we not include the most famous performance of the most famous diva duet of the ’90s?
5) Beyoncé – “Ring the Alarm” (2006)
“Love on Top” and last year’s incredible medley get all of the ink when it comes to Beyoncé performances at the VMAs, but her 2006 performance of “Ring the Alarm” is dramatic, theatrical, and sexy in all the right ways. And as always: the dancing and singing are impeccable.
6) Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone” (2005)
Performing her signature hit on the VMA stage in 2005, Kelly Clarkson was a f***ing rock star. There are no two ways about it: she killed it. And when the rain started falling… damn. Though we love Kelly’s current incarnation as Queen of Covers, we do miss her infectious Breakaway-era energy.
Missy swings in on a chandelier. Nelly slides onto the stage via a giant tongue (more than a decade before Miley made that stunt her staple). Ludacris and Trina, their chemistry so on-point, own their minute of “One Minute Man.” And they sign it all off with a dedication to Aaliyah, who had tragically passed just days prior. Perfection.
For some, the Spice Girls were the icons of late ’90s “girl power,” but for our money, this collaboration does the Spicies one better — this isn’t girl power, it’s woman power. From the elaborate costuming to breathtaking stage presence of each woman, this is the gold standard of on-stage collaborations.
9) Marilyn Manson – “Beautiful People” (1997)
Marilyn Manson, arguably the most controversial figure in music in the late ’90s, lived up to his reputation in this 1997 performance, which features a political speech, a corset, and Mr. Manson’s bare white ass.
10) Shakira – “Objection (Tango)” (2002)
We have no objections (lol) to this Shakira performance, which features steel drums, torn leather pants, and a whole lot of hip shaking. Shakira often does not get credit for being a goddamn rock star on the stage. Here’s proof that she is.
So, there you have it. The 10 best VMA performances and the 10 most underrated. What did we miss?