25 Most Memorable VMA Performances of All Time

Celia San Miguel | Aug 30, 2016 TV

The 2016 MTV Video Music Awards delivered performances we won't forget any time soon — from Beyonce's Lemonade medley, with its shifting moods, spectacular outfits, and emotionally charged vocals, to Rihanna's four career-spanning performances, each showcasing a different aspect of the Bad Girl's sound, style, and personality. In honor of the VMAs, we've taken a trip down memory lane and revisited some of the most notable performances in the award show's history.

From Lady Gaga covered in fake blood while singing "Paparazzi" to Madonna vogueing in a baroque frock, check out the most memorable performances in VMA history. Which one was your favorite?


Image via FighterDeXtine/YouTube

  • Britney Spears Charming a Snake at the 2001 VMAs


    Perhaps no performance is as synonymous with the MTV Video Music Awards as that of a midriff-baring Britney Spears's 2001 "Slave 4 U" number. Brit made a dramatic entrance, descending onto the stage in a cage next to a real-life tiger. Once on solid ground, she pushed the cage doors open and began executing some sultry choreography with plenty of hip-shaking and belly dancing-inspired rolls, all the while surrounded by dancers dressed as zebras and tigers. But the real surprise came when she grabbed an albino Burmese snake and sashayed across the stage with it draped over her shoulders. 

  • Eminem's Clone Army at the 2000 VMAs


    For his performance of "The Real Slim Shady" at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, rapper Eminem enlisted 100 lookalikes — all with bleached blonde hair, plain white tee, baggy jeans, and white Nike Air Force 1 sneakers —  to serve as his "army" of sorts. The performance began outdoors, on Sixth Avenue, to symbolize Eminem's status as an outcast, before Em and his troop stormed into Radio City Music Hall, making their way through the front doors, across the lobby, and into the performance area. The MC then climbed the stage to perform "The Way I Am." The real Slim Shady had officially stood up.

  • Prince's "Cheeky" Performance at the 1991 VMAs


    Prince could give an electrifying performance without breaking a sweat — between his eccentric outfits, his charisma, and his guitar-playing skills, the man was an absolute dynamo. He also wasn't afraid to raise eyebrows and kick up some controversy, as he showed in this 1991 VMAs performance, when he performed "Get Off" in ass-less yellow chaps and a matching cropped jacket while surrounded by dancers simulating sex on stage, a backdrop of Rome in flames behind them

  • Lady Gaga's Bloody "Paparazzi" Performance at the 2009 VMAs


    A year before she showed up to the VMAs in a meat dress, Lady Gaga staged one of the most theatrical performances in the award show's history. With the set designed to resemble a lavish mansion, replete with Doric columns, a double staircase, Damask print wallpaper, and a collapsed chandelier, Mother Monster began crooning "Paparazzi" while lying on the ground, her face covered by a white lace mask. As she rose to her feet, she danced, sang, and played the piano — in over-the-knee boots at that! — then rose from the stool and staggered across the stage, fake blood dripping down her body, her voice growing more urgent and frenzied. The performance culminated with Gaga hanging above her dancers, blood covering her body and face, the click of cameras a nod to the media vultures she referenced in the song.

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  • Beyonce's Pregnancy Reveal at the 2011 VMAs


    For years, rumors had circulated about Beyonce expecting a child and each time they proved false. That is, until the 2011 Video Music Awards, when Bey announced her pregnancy with the utmost flair. After singing "Love on Top," she dropped the mic — literally —and unbuttoned her purple sequined jacket, revealing the baby bump under her high-waisted pants and rubbing her belly to indicate that she was, in fact, pregnant. The camera cut to Jay Z smiling and clapping with excitement and joy. 

  • Kanye West's Ballerina Backup at the 2010 VMAs


    A year after famously interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs, ruining her big moment, Kanye West wasn't exactly the most popular person in the universe. But few could argue against his grand "Runaway" performance, which began with West riffing on a keyboard propped atop a Greek column, his red-and-black ensemble popping against the bright white lights of the set. Ballerinas soon took to the stage, holding long and billowing swaths of cloth above their heads. As Yeezy continued rapping, eventually being joined by The Clipse's Pusha T, the ballerinas moved gracefully, executing perfect leg extensions, deep pliés, leaning backward, and creating stunning shapes with their bodies.

  • Michael Jackson's Medley at the 1995 VMAs


    From his signature moonwalk and crotch grab to his robot dance, perfect 360 spins, and swift kicks, Michael Jackson's 1995 VMA performance incorporated the King of Pop's most mesmerizing dance moves. The performance also combined two eras of MJ's sound, moving from the synth-heavy "Billie Jean" to the more drum-led "Dangerous." Jackson's stage outfits reflected the transtion too, with him transitioning from a sequined jacket and white V-neck tee ensemble to a mobster-inspired, black-and-white, suit-and-tie outfit.

  • Alicia Keys's Piano Power at the 2001 VMAs


    Her hair in braids and a tilted fedora propped atop her head, Alicia Keys began her first-ever VMA performance sitting on a piano bench, her fingers moving gracefully from key to key as she played Beethoven's "Für Elise," before transitioning into her own breakthrough hit, "Fallin'." As the performance progressed, singers and dancers in blue prison jumpsuits took to the stage, their voices creating a soulful chorus, the imagery corresponding with the song's video, in which Keys was seen visiting a boyfriend in prison.

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  • Pink's Acrobatics at the 2009 VMAs


    Pink's 2009 VMA performance began with a pianist and a violinist creating a languid tune for an emotional ballet about love, disenchantment, heartbreak, and redemption. When the "Sober" beat kicked in, Pink emerged on stage in a black robe. The male ballet dancer placed a blindfold over her eyes and removed her cloak to reveal the leotard she was wearing beneath it. He then attached her to a harness, and Pink was lifted above the audience, eventually removing her blindfold, climbing atop a trapeze with the help of a male dancer, and performing dazzling acrobatic feats worthy of Cirque du Soleil.

  • Puff Daddy's Tribute to Biggie at the 1997 VMAs


    Rap fans were still mourning the loss of the Notorious B.I.G., who was fatally shot in March 1997, when Puff Daddy took the stage at that year's VMA awards to perform "I'll Be Missing You," his emotional tribute to his late friend. A home video of Biggie played on a large screen and a chorus of singers in white robes harmonized like angels while standing atop a symbolic stairway to heaven before Puffy emerged. But the huge surprise was that Puffy enlisted Sting to sing the hook of "I'll Be Watching You," the song he sampled for the tune. Emotions ran even higher as 112 and Biggie's widow, singer Faith Evans, joined Puffy on stage to pay homage to the rap legend. 

  • NSync Reunion at the 2013 VMAs


    When it became clear that 'N Sync's "temporary hiatus" in 2002 was a full-fledged breakup, fans of the boy band were in hysterics. For years, they held the hope that, one day, the fellas would reunite — and at the 2013 VMAs, it finally happened (if only for a few minutes!). More than 10 years after their last performance together, Justin, JC, Chris, Lance, and Joey graced the stage together one again, performing a medley of hits like "Girlfriend" and "Bye Bye Bye," before Justin went off on his own to perform his smooth solo hit "Suit & Tie." After watching the five friends tear it up, nobody wanted to say bye-bye again!

  • Beyonce Slays With "Single Ladies" at the 2009 VMAs


    Even Katy Perry was smiling widely and bopping her head when Beyonce took to the stage in a sparkly leotard and sky-high heels for her "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" performance. Everyone in the crowd stood up and clapped as Bey swayed her hips from side to side and did the fist-pumping walk seen in the video. Girls at home were watching Bey in awe, trying to replicate her footwork and master her flawless hair flips. But hey, there's only one Bey!

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  • Madonna's "Vogue" Performance at 1990 VMAs


    Though it's commonly referred to as the "Marie Antoinette" performance, Madonna's rendition of "Vogue" at the 1990 VMAs was inspired by the film Dangerous Liaisons, which was set in 18th century France — in fact, she wore the very same dress Michelle Pfeiffer donned on the big screen. From the lavish dress and en Rouleaux wig to the powder-covered countenance, pearl choker, and ornate hand fan, Madonna channeled the extravagance of the era while performing the face-framing poses immortalized in her "Vogue" video. The fainting finale on the couch? Epic!

  • Rihanna's Finale Performance at 2016 VMAs


    Every single one of Rihanna's four performances at the 2016 VMAs was thrilling in its own right, but the final performance, in which she showed off her impressive vocal range, gave us the chills. It was Rihanna at her most soulful and most inspired.

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers' On-Stage Mosh Pit at the 1992 VMAs


    The Red Hot Chili Peppers took their quirky antics to new heights at the 1992 VMAs when they turned the stage into their very own mosh pit while performing "Give It Away," lead singer Anthony Kiedis dressed in a black-and-white, harlequin-inspired outfit and bassist Flea hopping around in nothing but his tighty whities. What viewer didn't want to jump on stage with these cats?

  • Miley Cyrus Twerking on Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs


    'Twas the twerk seen around the world. Amid a crowd of dancing bears, the ever-controversial Miley Cyrus kicked off her performance at the 2013 VMAs singing "We Can't Stop" outfitted in a silver bodysuit with a teddy bear's face on it. She soon slipped out of the bodysuit to reveal an even skimpier ensemble: a nude latex bra and matching briefs. A foam finger in one hand, she greeted special guest Robin Thicke to perform the smash hit "Blurred Lines." And then it happened: Miley twirled around Robin, reached for his crotch, and then positioned her booty right by his crotch area, bending over and twerking on him while sticking her tongue out. Many viewers were outraged, but no one could stop talking about the incident. Her performance outfit even became a top-selling Halloween costume! 

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  • Guns 'N' Roses featuring Elton John at the 1992 VMAs


    Talk about an unexpected coupling! At the 1992 VMAs, Axl Rose and Elton John sat their respective pianos, facing each other, playing the keys for the Guns 'N' Roses hit "November Rain." A full orchestra accompanied them — complete with violinists, cellists, and saxophone and flute players — as Axl belted out the lyrics to the melancholic tune about unrequited love. The worlds of classical music and rock 'n' roll came together, and it was seamless and momentous. Also, Elton John's piano skills combined with Slash's guitar playing made for a magical match.

  • Adele's Bare-Bones Performance at the 2011 VMAs


    For many years, flashy performances with elaborate sets, intricate choreography, theatrical twists, and surprise guests were the norm at the VMAs. But when Adele performed at the awards show for the first time in 2011, she kept things simple, relying only on a piano player and on her own powerhouse vocals as she sang the melancholy-filled  "Someone Like You." It was more than enough -- the emotion and strength in her voice was enough to bring us to our knees.

  • Pearl Jam Jamming to "Jeremy" at the 1992 VMAs


    Even though the band had released its debut album, Ten, in 1991, Pearl Jam only began amassing a substantive fan base in late 1992, following the hit singles "Alive," "Even Flow," and "Jeremy." When the band played "Jeremy" at the 1992 VMAs, it was clear why they were becoming one of the hugest alternative rock bands of the era. Vedder's intense and slightly erratic vocals, combined with the mannerisms he employed to bring the song's title character alive in all of his disturbed darkness, made for a haunting performance.

  • Beyonce Presses the Panic Button at the 2006 VMAs


    Those who think "Hold Up" and "Sorry" are the first instances in which Beyonce has expressed rage clearly don't remember "Ring the Alarm" — or her angst-ridden performance of the hit song at the 2006 VMAs. Sirens blared and flashed in the background as a voice warned officers to be on the lookout for "inmate 9481, also known as Beyonce." Dangling from a rope, Bey descended onto the stage in a camel-colored trench coat and over-the-knee, high-heeled black boots, urging audiences to "ring the alarm." Soon the other escaped "inmates" emerged from their cells to join revenge-seeking Bey. Even her chair dancing was hot, but the portion of the routine when the "fugitives" executed a series of hydraulics-inspired moves was fire!

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  • Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera's Group Kiss at the 2003 VMAs


    Apparently, August 28, 2003, was a perfect day for a white wedding — one with two pop star brides. The 2003 VMAs opened with two young flower girls scattering petals down an aisle before the audience's attention was turned to the stage. When the curtain rose, Madonna's "Like a Virgin" played and Britney Spears, dressed as a bride and clutching a bouquet, appeared atop a platform resembling a wedding cake. Wedding bells rang and another bride appeared: Christina Aguilera. Once their "groom," Madonna, emerged, the three pop princesses danced and sang "Hollywood" together. The shocking moment? When Madge turned to Britney and kissed her on the lips, then planted one on Xtina. Talk about some naughty nuptials!

  • Janet Jackson's Sexy Moves at the 1993 VMAs


    Janet Jackson will forever be remembered as one of the best dancers of all time, a truth that became all the more evident during the 1993 Video Music Awards, as she moved effortlessly through the choreography for "That's The Way Love Goes," with its sultry but laid-back moves, then kicked up the notch (and the speed!) for the "If" routine. Red curtains billowing in the background, Janet executed the complex sequence for the song's breakdown like a #boss. And it was thrilling to watch a sexually charged performance where the woman was dominant. Just look at the way Janet and her gals turned the male dancers into their playthings, pushing them down onto the ground, running their hands down their chests, and whipping their heads from side to side. 

  • Florence + The Machine at the 2010 VMAs


    Every second of Florence + The Machine's "Dog Days Are Over" performance at the 2010 VMAs felt like a tableau vivant, starting with the perfect way Florence's red mane seemed to float above her head as she laid on a rotating platform. She stood up, dancers turning and leaping all around her, her ethereal gown adding to her mystical aura, as her voice floated to otherworldly heights.

  • TLC's CrazySexyCool Medley at the 1995 VMAs


    In 1995, with the success of "Waterfalls," TLC was reigning the charts and holding court as the most successful girl group in the world. For the 1995 VMAs, T-Boz, Chili, and Left Eye prepared a medley of their greatest hits, including "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," "Creep," "Kick Your Game," and "Waterfalls." Even their outfits were a #girlpower triumph, as they opted for crop tops and baggy pants in black-and-white checkered patterns or vertical stripes rather than going for the provocative ensembles favored by so many female artists at the time. Some of their dance moves, meanwhile, are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

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  • Beyonce Serves Us Lemonade at the 2016 VMAs


    Most VMA performances span a maximum of five minutes, but Beyonce sand a medley of songs from her Lemonade album for a nearly 15-minute long stretch — and, when it was over, we still wanted another sip. As with Bey's visual album, this performance was visceral and emotional, the outfits, lighting, and vocal delivery changing as the songs progressed. So many moments during the performance felt like a scene in a movie — Bey in an ethereal white dress and fur cape walking down a row of women in shiny silver esenmbles resembling molten metal or crouching down on the stage with a fur coat draped over her shoulder as flames rose around her — that it felt like the VMA performance alone was worthy of another award.

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