The 25 Best VMA Performances

The most iconic performances from MTV's long-running awards show.

vma performances

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vma performances

This feature was originally published on August 22, 2017.

It's crazy to think the first MTV Video Music Awards took place in 1984. Then, acts like Madonna, David Bowie, and Tina Turner took the stage with thousands watching at home. 33 years later, viewership has hit the millions, and the theatrics of the show have become even more extravagant. But one thing has remained the same: When it comes to the VMAs, every artist who touches the stage does so with the intention of creating an experience that will get talked about for years to come. 

In an age when typical TV-watching habits are being turned upside down, and audience's attention spans are at an apparent low, acts today have an even tougher challenge in creating an experience that will get viewers tuned in and keep them entertained. It's not enough to simply be perched on stage propped up by a slender mic stand and belt away—audiences expect dazzling displays of choreography, costume-changes, props, acrobatics, pyrotechnics, and more to be wowed. One thing that still rings true however, is that talent will always reign supreme, and an emotional connection will always trump a flashy display. 

From Michael Jackson's memorable performance in 1995 to Kanye West's amazing debut of "Runaway" in 2010 and Beyoncé's emotional rendition of Lemonade, here are the 25 Best VMA Performances.

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora “Livin' on a Prayer”/“Wanted Dead or Alive” (1989)

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Teenage hearts melted when Bon Jovi members Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performed an acoustic set of “Livin' on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” at the 1989 VMAs. Throughout their performance you can hear girls screaming, and we're guessing more than two got chose later that night.

Madonna “Vogue” (1990)

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In its early stages, MTV was a brand built on artists like Madonna, who mastered the marriage of musical and visual arts. This was evident at the 1990 VMAs, where she staged a performance of "Vogue" that mirrored an opera-like aesthetic. Madonna came out wearing a Victorian gown, with her back-up dancers sporting the same look. Lady Gaga needs to be paying Madonna royalties, like right now.

Red Hot Chili Peppers “Give It Away” (1992)

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The Red Hot Chili Peppers performed a memorable rendition of "Give It Away" at the 1992 VMAs, which captured the ambience and energy of what it would be like to see these guys in concert. Those at home got to experience all the chaos from the comfort of their couch. It would be cool to do a "Where Are They Now?" with all the people that moshed on stage during this performance. 

Guns N' Roses f/ Elton John “November Rain” (1992)

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Worlds collided in the best way possible at the 1992 VMAs, when Guns 'N Roses performed their beautiful ballad "November Rain" alongside the Rocket Man himself, Elton John. They were also accompanied by a full orchestra, which was a power move you rarely see for live television performances these days. Also, Slash's guitar solo: 100.

Beastie Boys “Sabotage” (1994)

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The 1994 VMAs turned into an all-out rock concert at Radio City Music Hall when the Beastie Boys performed "Sabotage." Wearing loose-fitting suits, the legendary rap trio transformed into a grunge band, delivering pulsating drums, distorted guitar licks, and Ad-Rock screaming at the top of his lungs. As you can see in the video above, the crowd turn into a mosh pit, real quick.

TLC “CrazySexyMedley” (1995)

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Back in the '90s, no female R&B act could touch TLC; just check our '90s Female R&B Group Pyramid of Excellence. A big moment for the Atlanta-based trio came at the 1995 VMAs, where T-Boz, Chilli, and Left Eye performed "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," "Kick Your Game," "Creep," and their chart-topping hit "Waterfalls."​

Michael Jackson f/ Slash “Medley” (1995)

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When it comes to performing, it truly gets no better than Michael Jackson. The greatest pop star of the 20th century turned in a performance of a lifetime at the 1995 VMAs, going through nearly a dozen of his hits on the grand stage. Jackson showcased his smooth dance moves while performing "Thriller," "Beat It," and "Dangerous," and even brought out Slash of Guns N' Roses to rock out on "Black or White." King.

Puff Daddy f/ Faith Evans, 112 & Sting “I'll Be Missing You” (1997)

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Emotions were running high during Puff Daddy's performance of "I'll Be Missing You" at the 1997 VMAs. Just a few months earlier, his close friend and artist The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered, which made this a fitting tribute to the Brookyn native. Along with being joined by song collaborators 112, Faith Evans, as well as Sting, who he sampled on the record, Puff Daddy's performance also featured a gospel choir. "Put your lighters in air," he yelled, hands waving in the air. Puffy took us to church that night.

Kid Rock f/ Run-DMC, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry & Joe C. “King of Rock”/“Rock Box”/“Bawitdaba”/“Walk This Way” (1999)

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Before Kid Rock went all country on our asses, he first succeeded as a rap-rock artist. The peak of this era for the Detroit artist came at the 1999 VMAs, where Kid Rock performed alongside legends Run-D.M.C. and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. The medley was a perfect blend of rap and rock. And R.I.P. to Joe C.

Eminem, Dr. Dre, & Snoop Dogg “My Name Is”/“Guilty Conscience”/“Nuthin' But a “G” Thang” (1999)

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Following the immense success of The Slim Shady LP, Eminem made his VMA debut performance in 1999, with a little help from his friends. With a trailer park backdrop, the Detroit MC knocked out a stellar rendition of "My Name Is" before being joined by Dr. Dre to perform "Guilty Conscience." Snoop Dogg rolled through to close out the set with “Nuthin' But a “G” Thang," a move that a once-feuding NYC had to give props for.

Eminem “The Real Slim Shady”/“The Way I Am” (2000)

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As if his 1999 appearance wasn't memorable enough, Eminem came back the next year and gave a performance that cemented his status as an emerging rap god. The Detroit rapper started out by performing "The Real Slim Shady," and mimicked his music video in the process by bringing dozens of white dudes dressed as Slim Shady with him into Radio City Music Hall. Em then went into "The Way I Am," displaying his natural aggression and energy. 

Britney Spears “I'm a Slave 4 U” (2001)

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Britney Spears stripped away her girl next door persona at the 2001 VMAs, where the 19-year-old pop star came out to perform "I'm a Slave 4 U" wearing an outfit that is best described by a Big Sean ad-lib. That, and she was holding an albino snake for nearly half of the performance, which is pretty much the hottest thing a reptile has ever been a part of.

Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule “Love Don't Cost a Thing”/“I'm Real (Murder Remix)” (2001)

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Jennifer Lopez was at the peak of her career in 2001, which is why it made perfect sense for the singer/actress to hit the big stage at the VMAs that year. J. Lo showed off her dance moves with an intro of "Love Don't Cost a Thing," before being joined by Ja Rule to perform their classic "I'm Real." Ja's Burberry bucket hat was a strong look. Don't front.

Usher f/ Ludacris & Lil Jon “Confessions Part II”/“Yeah!” (2004)

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Usher's career hit its apex in 2004, when the R&B singer released his now-diamond album Confessions. His performance at the VMAs that year proved to be just as impressive, with Usher giving the ladies something to gawk at during his rendition of "Confessions Part II." He then brought out Ludacris and Lil Jon to perform "Yeah!," which is pretty much the jam from the last decade.

Chris Brown and Rihanna “Wall to Wall”/“Umbrella”/“Billie Jean”/“Kiss Kiss” (2007)

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Before their infamous physical altercation in 2009, Chris Brown and Rihanna performed a medley together at the 2007 VMAs. While Ri did a short rendition of her mega-hit "Umbrella," it was Brown who stole the show, performing "Wall to Wall," "Kiss Kiss," and even doing his best Michael Jackson imitation to "Billie Jean." 

Lady Gaga “Poker Face”/“Paparazzi” (2009)

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Say what you want about Lady Gaga, but the woman can put on a damn show. Gaga made her VMA debut in 2009, delivering a theatrical performance of "Paparazzi" that included her manic piano playing and the infamous moment when she was bleeding from her chest. Relax guys, it was just ketchup. We hope. 

Beyoncé “Sweet Dreams”/“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (2009)

Beyoncé shined at the 2009 VMAs. Her performance started out with a "Sweet Dreams" laser show intro. Beyoncé then transformed into her alter ego Sasha Fierce for "Single Ladies," which featured the sleek and sexy dance moves that made Kanye proclaim it the best of all time. Beyoncé would later go on to win Video of the Year that night, and it's pretty obvious why.

Janet Jackson's Michael Jackson Tribute (2009)

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The sudden passing of Michael Jackson gave way to a beautiful tribute from his sister, Janet, at the 2009 VMAs. Joined by Michael's would-be back-up dancers for "This Is It," Janet took the stage to perform their 1995 collaboration "Scream." With Jackson on the big screen, Janet had a chance to perform with her brother one more time. There was not a dry eye in the room. Or were we the only ones shedding tears? 

Kanye West f/ Pusha T “Runaway” (2010)

Kanye West took the liberty of debuting "Runaway" at the 2010 VMAs. The performance delivered everything we love about Ye. Wearing a flashy all-red suit, Kanye started out by showing off his MPC skills before spilling his heart out on live television with a ballerina performing nearby. Pusha T would join him on stage sporting a salmon pink jacket, which made this performance as much about fashion as it was about the music.

Justin Timberlake “Medley” (2013)

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At last year's VMAs, Justin Timberlake showed exactly why he was worthy of the 2013 Video Vanguard Award. The Memphis native performed a medley of hits that included "My Love," "Cry Me a River," "Suit & Tie," and "Mirrors." What's more, the impressive 15-minute performance turned into an 'N Sync reunion, with Timberlake bringing out his former group for their first public appearance together since breaking up in 2002. 

Ariana Grande, Jessie J and Nicki Minaj (2013)

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It’s always exciting to see female artists link up on stage and deliver some girl power realness, and at the 2014 VMA’s Ari, Nicki, and Jessie J did that. Ariana opened up the medley with a powerful rendition of “Break Free” (signature pony and all). Then it was onto Nicki for the massic “Anaconda.” Minaj’s performance was a scaled-down version of her (now-iconic) music video, but was just as mesmerizing. That mid-performance legwork is still iconic watching back 3 years later. Jessie J soon joined them to complete the trio, belting out the opening verse to their hit “Bang Bang.” Jessie’s vocals are a marvel to behold, and add in some harmonies from Grande… *chef kiss* Even Nicki’s awkward wardrobe malfunction couldn’t distract from the palpable energy of the performance. —Nora-Grayce Orosz

Beyoncé (2014)

People always remember where they were, what they were doing, and sometimes even what they were wearing during an important moment in history that they were alive for. Such is the case for Beyoncé’s 2014 VMA performance. (For me, I vividly recall being squished onto a futon with five of my roommates in our college dorm, eyes glued, literally unblinking at the TV screen.) In 2014, Queen Bey stepped things up for the zillionth time, performing for a 15 minutes-plus medly of her self-titled album. Things started off raw, emotional, poignant, and serious with songs like “Mine,” “Haunted,” and “Jealous.” Then Bey cranked the energy up and went on to severely slay renditions of more upbeat tracks like “Flawless,” “Partition,” and “Blow.” Every member of the audience that night was blessed with what was essentially a mini-Beyoncé concert. Bey rounded out her performance with a touching tribute to Blue, and an electrifying dedication of “XO” that went out to the fans. The performance was emotional enough already, but Mrs. Knowles-Carter was then joined onstage by hubby Jay Z who presented her with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Don’t lie, you know you teared up too. —Nora-Grayce Orosz

Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift (2015)

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Nicki Minaj donned the VMA stage again in 2015 to perform hits off of her album The Pinkprint. Minaj opened up with a flashy rendition of “Trini Dem Girls.” The dancers, costumes and choreography were visually exciting, noticeably raising the energy in the room. Minaj then went on to perform her radio-friendly “Night is Still Young,” with the help of an unexpected friend. Taylor Swift emerged from beneath the stage, joining Minaj for the rest of the song. The two had previously been in the spotlight for some light beefing via Twitter when Minaj tweeted her disappointment in “Anaconda” being overlooked for the Video of the Year category, citing that Swift’s video only got the nom because of the more conventional body types being promoted. This on-stage union seemingly marked a squashing of any apparent beef, and Swift even gave the girls a bit of “Bad Blood” to finish the performance. The two hugged it out, and all was forgiven. —Nora-Grayce Orosz

Justin Bieber (2015)

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The Biebs has come a long way from his start as a pre-teen pop heartthrob. Nowadays, people either love him or hate him, but there’s no denying the drive and creative flexibility that has allowed him to stay on top as a major pop superstar to this day. His 2015 VMA performance wasn’t particularly dynamic in terms of choreography or theatrics (minus a brief mid-air stunt that came off a little Peter Pan-ish), but when he finished singing and dancing his little heart out, he was overcome with a wave of emotion. Baring it all while still on stage—and likely showcasing his new, mature image that was on display on Purpose—Bieber was brought to tears. Whether it was a stunt, or a genuine display of emotion, it’s clear that Bieber still has the star quality that makes him an interesting performer. —Nora-Grayce Orosz

Beyoncé "Lemonade Medley" (2016)

The evolution of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as an artist and performer can be (and has been) speculated on, examined, and analyzed at length, but one thing we should all agree on is that she is in a category of her own when it comes to the synchronization of art and performance. Her 2016 visual album Lemonade was a massive turning point for both her career and personal perception. The performance she gave at that year’s VMA’s lived up to the standards and weight of the messages on the album. Beyoncé is no stranger to using symbolism within her imagery and songcraft, and this performance was no exception. Lemonade told the complicated story of a marriage, a family, a woman’s inner conflict, the ongoing turmoil of being a black woman in America, and an amalgamation of countless other personal experiences of one of the most influential artists of all time. Beyonce’s 2016 VMA performance was a striking, nuanced encapsulation of that album—and it was damn fun to watch, too. —Nora-Grayce Orosz

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