I truly have always loved award show performances. I remember watching Michael’s VMA medley super young being blown away, staying up late to watch Britney slay Slave 4 U with a PYTHON AROUND HER NECK, Gaga duet with Sir Elton, Madge x Brit and many more.
Award show performances are often more memorable than any other type of performance because the artist (err, their label?) may feel they have something to prove or need to be a headline the next day. These are some of my absolute favorites over the years, in no order.
MADONNA, BRITNEY, XTINA & MISSY ELLIOT HOLLYWOOD/LIKE A VIRGIN MEDLEY VMAs, 2003
This performance is everything. I remember hearing the beat and kind of knowing what was coming. Madonna opened the first ever VMAs with Like A Virgin and to see one of her biggest fans, Brit, slaying it was heart stopping for me. Then out came Xtina and I was so confused, what could be happening? But then the beat stopped and out came Madge. If you didn’t know Madonna, it could have been seen as a tribute/you’re done performance, but Madonna got everyone hyped up on her new single while getting a tribute performed to her. Oh and she kissed Britney!!! The JT reaction y’all. This is just an iconic pop culture moment we’ll all always remember. Oh yeah, I think Xtina got a kiss too…
Gaga had shocked us all the previous award season with fake blood (we’ll get there), bondage get up and more, but 2010 she clearly wanted to show us what she was inspired by. The performance started out just the Lady herself with some strange make up, unitard action and her live vocals. The performance had some go to pop choreography, but then we found the Lady next to Sir Elton at a piano. It was a unique performance that felt real, not pushy “i’m a singer too I swear” to me.
MADONNA VOGUE VMAs, 1990
Only Madonna….this performance is unique, ahead of its time and highly underrated. Most people remember the video, as it is truly iconic, but instead of just recreating a video, Madge gave us a legendary performance that only she could pull off. No one cared that she wasn’t truly singing, the performance was that show stopping.
MICHAEL JACKSON VMA MEDLEY, 1995
This was one of Michael’s only actual at the VMAs performances not done via satellite and boy was it worth the wait. I was fairly young the first time I saw this 15 minute extravaganza and it has always stayed with me. He hit every MJ era, at the time, and he delivered. Even with a guest appearance from Slash, the focus of the performance is Michael the whole time. His army of dancers during Smooth Criminal was such a moment in dance and pop, it truly was jaw dropping.
KELLY CLARKSON SINCE U BEEN GONE VMAs, 2005
Okay, I actually love early Kelly Clarkson. I thought she was the coolest. This performance is amazing. Her energy is through the roof and she proved why this was the hit pop song of the year. Her vocals are obviously INSANE. Kelly had a crazy connection with the crowd, which really translated well to TV. Plus the RAIN.
BRITNEY SPEARS SLAVE 4 U VMAs, 2001
HAHA where do we start? This is one of the greatest pop performances of all time. The image of Britney with sequined boots, tiny shorts, a pink rhinestone mic and a python are always what I think of when I think of Britney performing. This is the peak of her performing to me. After the 2000 performance, most were wondering what she could do one up herself (because no one was at her level at this point). So she slayed some KILLER choreography, looked incredible, premiered a new, more mature song and ya know wore a python around her neck. It was incredible. I stayed up so late to watch this live and it was SO worth it y’all.
LADY GAGA PAPARAZZI VMA, 2009
This performance is full of everything I enjoy about pop performances. It’s theatrical, full of choreography, outfits and a subtle performance remix. Lady Gaga’s The Fame is my favorite era of hers, it all felt very natural and what Gaga was about to me. Gaga commands this performance. Even if you didn’t like her or the song, you couldn’t look away. It was very obvious she was up to something, but what was it? Even Diddy looks mesmerized by whatever she’s doing. When she starts bleeding, like what? When you look at it after, it all makes perfect sense, but at the time, it was insanity. Side note, her vocals are amazing in this performance.
This was the year after the T Swift x Beyonce moment and the first minute was tense. You had no idea what he was going to do as he had been quiet for awhile. Was he going to apologize for actions for the previous year? No of course not hahahaha. This performance not only gave us this amazing song, but it set the stage for how Kanye would continue to perform, as an artist, transforming the room and sending us waves. No one was talking T Swift after this, it was all Kanye and what Kanye did…for Kanye.
NIRVANA LITHIUM VMAs, 1992
This isn’t a pop performance, but it was at the VMAs…hear me out. Everyone thought they’d play Smells Like Teen Spirit, but they clearly didn’t know Nirvana. They started out with a few bars of Rape Me before breaking into Lithium. The performance is so great and stands out to me because they didn’t really want to be there and didn’t want to be performing, but they were incredible. They didn’t need the energy to be a headline the next day or the pressure behind pushing a “brand,” they were just Nirvana. They ended the performance in their typical fashion of destroying their equipment and getting into a fight with each other onstage.
MADONNA LIVING FOR LOVE BRIT AWARDS, 2015
So Madge is soooo cool even though she falls in this performance, it still is on her Vevo page. I love it. This performance is peak Madonna extraness and I love it. The fall is before the minute and a half mark, but she keeps going, singing live and dancing to her lead single from her thirteenth studio album. I think this one of my favorite performances because it’s very trendy, but still very Madonna at its core. It has so much going on, but it’s not overly distracting to me.
BRITNEY SPEARS SATISFACTION/OOPS MEDLEY VMAs, 2000
Following up one of the best selling albums of all time was not an easy feat for anyone, but Britney made it look easy. Oops I Did it Again proved Britney was not a one hit wonder and this performance was one I spent hours dancing to a tape of in front of a TV. This performance she proved she was a force to be reckoned with.
So I hold a personal grudge against JT, but this performance is great. It does happen to be extremely disappointing with a hyped up return of NSYNC for 5 seconds or less, but the performance does leave a lasting impression. I can’t remember any other JT performance, but this one touches on his impressive catalogue and shows him as a lasting artist. I enjoy the tribute to Brit with the red, leatherlike catsuits on his female dancers. He has an unmatchable energy while performing.
BRITNEY SPEARS TOXIC NRJ AWARDS, 2004
This is one of Britney’s best performances ever. Her energy is incredible and her confidence is through the roof. Toxic was one of the biggest songs in the world at this time and she gave us the performances to continue that. Britney was really feeling herself this era, but with that body, the music and choreography, none of us could get enough.