What are the best VMAs performances? It's an impossible (and incredibly subjective) question, but we asked some MTV Australia contributors to answer it, anyway.
On September 14, 1984, a 26-year-old Madonna emerged from a 17-foot wedding cake, wearing that iconic wedding dress, and took the stage of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall at the very first MTV Video Music Awards. The performance would change history, setting the tone for all that followed.
When an artist takes the stage at the VMAs they’re not just performing, they’re creating pop culture history. From twerking Miley Cyrus to blood-splattered Lada Gaga, serpent-draped Britney Spears to the king of pop himself taking his gravity defying to new levels – the VMAs guarantee controversy, glamour, and career-defining performances.
With the 2020 Video Music Awards just around the corner, we asked some of our writers to pick their favourite VMAs performances (get ready to battle it out in the comments). So here they are, in reverse chronological order. We thought that would be fun. It’s like you’re going on a fun little trip back in time. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some of our fave moments in VMAs history.
Lizzo, ‘Truth Hurts’ & ‘Good As Hell’, 2019
By Reena Gupta
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’d be happy watching Lizzo’s 2019 VMAs performance on loop until the end of time. This is less a performance than a production, and you can tell how much thought went into every single moment. I mean, look at the perfectly choreographed sip of water she takes around the two-minute mark. It’s actually ridiculous.
A seamless mash-up of her biggest hits to date – ‘Truth Hurts’ and ‘Good As Hell’ – the performance showcases killer backup dancers, incredible vocals, and an extremely iconic fluorescent yellow bodysuit. Also, did you know that the cloud-splotched bodysuits worn by some of Lizzo’s backup dancers is a homage to Prince and his outfit in Raspberry Beret? I mean the attention to detail. My god.
Lizzo addressed the crowd about midway through the show (“I’m tired of the bullshit, and I don’t have to know your story to know you’re tired of the bullshit too”), and her ability to make anyone watching feel that she’s speaking directly to you is pretty special. It’s no wonder you can see the crowd absolutely lose their shit to this performance. It’s just that good.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade Medley, 2016
Beyoncé is a VMA veteran. Winner of 26 Video Music Awards, including the Video Vanguard award in 2014, she is no stranger to the VMA stage. From being at the centre of one of modern music’s biggest feuds to revealing her pregnancy, she has consistently dominated the show with her mere existence. So, when she takes to the stage to perform, it becomes so much more than just another music performance.
But it was her most recent appearance – the 2016 VMAs - that was the most striking. Donned in a flowing white gown, her unwavering voice made hearts flutter and bleed as she sung the opening lyrics to Lemonade opener ‘Pray You Catch Me’. One by one, women fell to the ground under a crimson spotlight behind her, representing victims of police brutality around the country.
Her medley performance of her masterpiece, Lemonade, is to be remembered due to how seamlessly she transitions emotions. She goes from desperate to vengeful to threatening to apathetic to completely ready for battle in the space of 15 minutes. Her moves are as hard and as strong as ever, and the extreme spectrum of feeling she hits on stage only deified her even further. If you didn’t think you were just living in Beyoncé’s world prior to this performance, you certainly know now.
Lady Gaga’s 2009 Performance of ‘Paparazzi / Poker Face’
It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Lady Gaga was a ‘newcomer.’ Not only has she been such an immovable staple of pop culture for over a decade now, but even in the beginning she did things with such strength and such conviction you’d be forgiven for thinking she'd been at it her whole life.
Of course, in 2009 fans had no real clue what Gaga – who won ‘Best New Artist’ that year – was truly capable of besides somewhat daring outfits and thumping pop bangers. But that was also the year that Gaga delivered one of the most iconic VMA performances in history. It was camp, theatrical, grandiose and haunting, with Gaga reimagining her "Paparazzi" music video for a live performance. She was manic on that stage, gradually descending into faux insanity with each passing second. As she sort of demonically plays the piano for the bridge and stumbles across the stage for the final chorus, “blood” bursts from her chest. You can hear the audience gasp in horror. She smears it across herself and across her face, before taking a final dive and being suspended high above everyone else. She slowly twirls around with just one hand holding on to a rope, before giving a mic drop of several feet and a lifeless look in her eyes.
VMA performances happen every year, but only a few get to be truly career defining. Lady Gaga’s a legend now, but in 2009 she really was just a new artist. In one of the best performances in VMAs history; Lady Gaga became Lady Gaga.
The Hives vs. The Vines, 2002
By Josh Martin
There are a lot of awkward names for the resurgence of guitar bands in the early 2000s – the post punk revival, garage rock revival, New Rock – and few fit. Perhaps that’s why the battle of the new wave of guitar-rock bands went unnamed at the 2002 VMAs, when the unlikely foreigners The Vines and The Hives vied for the inscrutable gong of the best of the bunch. The Strokes turned down an opportunity to participate – they wanted to perform a full length track of their own, rather than be defined by their association with the other two bands. Their omission made the matchup even more oddball.
The Swedes and the Aussies really were polar opposites as performers – The Hives were a well-oiled rock machine, educated in the showmanship of The Stooges and refined to an easily-reproducible burst. The Vines, conversely, were in a permanent state of collapse – it was never clear whether they could make it through the full 2 minutes of their Nirvana-aping single "Get Free".
The two bands were to play snippets of their songs, with the best rockers to exit triumphant. Intro’d by the surrealistic early 2000s presenting duo of Jimmy Fallon and Kirsten Dunst, The Hives kicked off with a mechanically-explosive rendition of "Main Offender". But The Vines managed to pull out a career best, for TV at least, shrieking across the enormous stage, stoned and tracksuited. The winner was never formally declared – left to be debated on early-internet forums – but The Vines punched a hole in the formalities of the night.
Eminem, "The Real Slim Shady" & "The Way I Am", 2000
Look I may be a bit biased here considering I was the biggest Eminem stan as a kid. See, the benefits of having parents that didn’t speak English meant Eminem’s especially vulgar early albums slipped under their radar, and straight into my malleable seven-year-old brain via my Walkman. But like, bias aside, c’mon, imagine having the audacity to walk into the Video Music Awards with 100 lookalikes trailing behind you. This wasn’t just a stunt, this was a statement. Everyone wanted to be Eminem. Peroxide sales were at an all-time high, probably.
Let me set the scene for a second. In the year 2000, Slim Shady was a global superstar. No offence to 2020 Marshall, he’s still kind of big today I guess, but back then he was on another planet. Songs like ‘Stan’, ‘The Way I am’, ‘My Name Is’, and ‘The Real Slim Shady’ were already out, floating in the ether and invading the mind of anyone with access to the radio. His third studio album, The Marshall Mathers LP, released in May 2000, sold 1.76 million copies in its first week, breaking records set by Britney Spears for fastest selling solo album, and Snoop Dogg for fastest selling hip-hop album. In July that year, he became the first white artist to appear on the cover of The Source.
So you get it now. Good, now imagine the fucking hype of this guy being announced by Jim fucking Carrey, and you’re sitting in the crowd thinking, is this a bit? Where’s Eminem? But Eminem’s outside punk, he’s outside the venue grabbing his crotch and rapping into a mic alongside 100 lookalikes, and then imagine the sheer energy as he makes his entrance, Slim Shady army in tow. It’s fucking incredible. Look up iconic in the dictionary, you’ll see a pic of this performance.
Catch the full list of nominees for every MTV VMA here, the VMAs performance line-up here and don't forget to tune in to the 2020 Video Music Awards, which will air live on Monday, August 31 from 8.30am AEST.