The 15 Best VMAs Performances of All Time, From Madonna to Beyoncé

MTV VMAs
Photo: AP Images. Design: Cierra Miller/STYLECASTER.

It’s been more than 30 years since the first MTV Video Music Awards, and in that time dozens of artists, from Madonna to Britney Spears to Ariana Grande, have performed on the Moon Person-decorated stage. But what are the best VMAs performances of all time? We looked back on the most OMG moments from awards shows past to find out.

The VMAs held their first awards show on September 14, 1984, with Madonna, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Rod Stewart and more as performers. Since then, the VMAs have become a cultural phenomenon, with millions of viewers each year. Originally created as an alternative for the Grammy Awards for music videos, the VMAs have become their own milestone for artists in the music industry coveting the awards show’s famous Moon Person award. (The name of the award was changed from Moon Man to Moon Person in 2017 to be inclusive of all genders.) Since 2006, viewers have also been able to vote for their favorite music videos on MTV’s website, making the VMAs one of most fan-oriented awards shows in Hollywood.

But back to our original question: What are the best VMAs performances of all time? In our opinion, here are 15 music award performances that will be remembered for years to come.

Madonna – “Like a Virgin” (1984)

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” performance at the 1984 VMAs (a.k.a. the first-ever VMAs) is the OG of VMAs performances. The song started with Madonna emerging from a 17-foot wedding cake wearing a wedding dress. However, the most iconic moment from the performance was when Madonna kicked off one of her white high heel shoes. To cover up the mistake, she rolled around on the ground. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just pretend I meant to do this,’ and I dove on the floor and I rolled around,” she told Billboard in 2014. “And, as I reached for the shoe, the dress went up. And the underpants were showing.”

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

Eminem took home three VMAs in 2000, including Video of the Year for “The Real Slim Shady.” The rapper performed the track, along with his song “The Way I Am,” at that year’s VMAs. A highlight from the performance was when Eminem performed among an army of “Slim Shady” look-alikes dressed in the same white T-shirt and blue jeans as him. “The idea to have all those Slim Shadys was sparked by “The Real Slim Shady” video. I think it was originally Dr. Dre’s idea to create Eminems. The whole idea of the song was—there’s a lot of people like me, but I’m the real deal. And also that there’s a lot of carbon copies, but there’s a Slim Shady in all of us. We wanted to recreate that for the show with MTV,” Eminem’s manager told MTV in 2015.

Alicia Keys – “Fallin'” (2001)

Keys took home the award for Best New Artist in a Video at the 2001 VMAs, but one of her highlights from the night was her performance of “Fallin.'” The performance started with Keys at the piano as she played her version of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Für Elise” before she went into a soulful, vocal-filled performance of “Fallin.'”

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

Spears may have the most memorable (and controversial) VMAs moment of all time. At the 2001 VMAs, she performed her song “I’m a Slave 4 U” with a host of live animals, including a tiger and a massive albino snake draped over her shoulders. Two decades later, and it’s hard to forget the image of Spears dancing on the VMAs stage with a snake in her arms.

Beyoncé – “Baby Boy” / “Crazy in Love” (2003)

Beyoncé took home her first VMAs in 2003 for her music video for “Crazy in Love” featuring her now-husband Jay-Z. At the VMAs, Beyoncé also performed the track, as well as the song “Baby Boy,” in a performance to be remembered for years to come. While Queen Bey has performed on the VMAs stage countless times since then, we’ll always remember her first performance and her iconic on-stage look.

Britney Spears, Madonna, Christina Aguilera & Missy Elliot – “Like a Virgin” / “Hollywood” / “Work It” (2003)

Collab alert. The 2003 VMAs featured not one but four music divas in one performance. Spears, Madonna, Aguilera and Elliot teamed up for a performance of “Like a Virgin,” “Hollywood” and “Work It.” The performance started with a duet of “Like a Virgin” with Spears and Aguilera followed by the two performing “Hollywood” with Madonna herself. Then, Elliott closed the performance with “Work It,” which won Video of the Year that night. Oh, and who could forget Madonna kissing Aguilera and Spears during the performance?

Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone” (2005)

The 2005 VMAs came three years after Clarkson won the first season of American Idol. But she did not come to play. The pop star took the stage with a performance of “Since U Been Gone” (which won Best Female Video and Best Pop Video at the awards show.) The performance is perhaps best remembered for the full-on rain that poured on Clarkson as she belted out the pop-rock track’s lyrics.

Lady Gaga – “Paparazzi” (2009)

The 2009 VMAs are remembered for many moments. Among them is Gaga’s performance of “Paparazzi.” (The song’s music video also won two VMAs for Best Special Effects and Best Art Direction.) The performance started with a slowed-down, symphonic rendition of “Poker Face” before Gaga descended the stage and went into “Paparazzi.” The performance ended with a bang as Gaga hung herself by her arm in the middle of the stage and covered herself in fake blood.

Taylor Swift – “You Belong With Me” (2009)

Swift’s time at the 2009 VMAs may have been overshadowed by her moment with Kanye West, where the rapper stormed the stage to claim that Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” deserved to win Best Female Video over her, but, for those who remember, Swift also had a killer VMAs performance. Despite the emotions, the singer put everything to the side for an upbeat performance of “You Belong With Me,” which was performed throughout New York City before finishing at Radio City Hall.

Beyoncé – “Love on Top” (2011)

As you can tell, Beyoncé has had several memorable VMAs moments. Another came when she performed “Love on Top” at the 2011 awards show. Dressed in a bedazzled suit, the showstopper happened when Beyoncé revealed that she was pregnant with her first child (now known as Blue Ivy) in the very last second of the performance. She announced the news as she turned to her side and rubbed her baby bump on live TV. The show was the VMAs most-watched broadcast on MTV at the time, with 12 million viewers.

*NSYNC (2013)

Eleven years after their hiatus, *NSYNC reunited in 2013 for a performance of two their songs at the VMAs. Justin Timberlake, Joey Fatone, JC Chasezm, Lance Bass and Chris Kirkpatrick took the VMAs stage with a surprise performance of “Girlfriend” and “Bye Bye Bye.” The moment happened during Timberlake’s medley of his solo music, which included performances of songs like “SexyBack” and “Suit & Tie.”

Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Jessie J – “Break Free” / “Anaconda” / “Bang Bang” (2014)

Minaj, Grande and Jessie J were the pop divas heard around the world when they performed “Break Free,” “Anaconda” and “Bang Bang” at the 2014 VMAs. The nigh started with Grande’s solo performance of “Break Free” before Minaj went in with a performance of her rap song “Anaconda.” Minaj and Grande closed out the concert with Jessie J as the three performed their track “Bang Bang.”

Beyoncé Medley (2016)

By far, the highlight of the 2016 VMAs was Beyoncé medley of songs from her album, Lemonade. The performance started with Lemonade’s first track, “Pray You Catch Me,” before transitioning into songs like “Hold Up,” “Sorry” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” (Bey also included elements of her past track, “Countdown,” during her VMAs performance.) She closed out the concert with “Formation,” which won several awards that year, including Video of the Year.

Logic, Alessia Cara, Khalid  – “1-800-273-8255” (2017)

Logic, Cara and Khalid took to the stage at the 2017 VMAs for an emotional performance of “1-800-273-8255,” which is the phone number for the American National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. After their performance, the Lifeline’s Director of Communications reported that the NSPL experienced a 50 percent surge in calls for their hotline. The emotional aspect of the performance was also boosted by Kesha, who introduced the performers. 

Jennifer Lopez Medley (2018)

J-Lo performed a whopping 14 songs at the 2018 VMAs, which is enough of a reason for her to be on this list of the best VMAs performance of all time. She started the medley with a performance of “Waiting For Tonight” before transitioning to songs like “On the Floor,” “Dance Again” and “Jenny From the Block.” Accompanying her was DJ Khaled for “Jenny From the Block” and “Dinero,” as well as Ja Rule for “I’m Real” and “Ain’t It Funny.”

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