15 VMA Performances That Made Some Wild MTV History

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We hear it every year: "MTV isn't about the music." "The VMAs aren't what they used to be." Blah, blah, blah. While that may be the case to some degree, poring over decades of performances has us rethinking our jaded view of the Video Music Awards. Even the much-maligned early 2000s was rife with jaw-dropping performances that often topped the previous decades. (Who can forget Britney using a live python as a prop?)

So, after reviewing every VMA show we could get our hands on, we narrowed it down to 15 spectacles that define what's great about the VMAs. In short, these were the shows that kept us glued to our tube, locked in our seats, and waiting for commercial to go to the bathroom. Those of you who abandoned MTV when TRL got flat-screens may want to see what you've been missing. The VMAs are a lot of things, but boring isn't one of them.



Who: Lady Gaga

What: "Paparazzi"

When: 2009

Why: With her performance of "Paparazzi," Lady Gaga reset the standard for huge VMA performances with bloody burlesque that blew our minds.

Representative YouTube Comment: "She walked in the underdog and walked out an icon." —theheadhookeronthiscorner x

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Who: Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera

What: "Like A Virgin/Hollywood"

When: 2003

Why: The two biggest pop icons in the world teamed up with Madge herself for a massive three-way performance. And, who could forget the kisses that ended the show (or the cutaway reaction to Justin Timberlake's face that followed)?

Representative YouTube Comment: "Lesbianas" —Daniela M

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Who: Nirvana

What: "Rape Me/Lithium"

When: 1992

Why: Starting with the first few seconds of "Rape Me," which had been forbidden by MTV, Nirvana then launched into a ragged, amazing performance of "Lithium." The song ended with bassist Krist Novoselic tossing his bass and accidentally bashing himself in the face. Rock 'n' roll.

Representative YouTube Comment: "I miss Nirvana so much! :(. R.I.P. Kurt." —Cody Morris

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Who: Madonna

What: "Like A Virgin"

When: 1984

Why: The performance that defined Madonna's career and established the VMAs as a cultural force. Madonna's, um, "spirited" antics on stage still turn heads 30 years later.

Representative YouTube Comment: "God I wish I could see the reaction from the crowd. lol" —nerdychick83

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Who: Michael Jackson

What: Medley

When: 1995

Why: The king of pop returned to the stage and showed the world how things were done, with a career's worth of hits jammed into one amazing medley. Possibly the best performance in VMA history.

Representative YouTube Comment: "This is entertainment. This is music. Take some notes, kiddies." —Codii33

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Who: Guns N' Roses Feat. Elton John

What: "November Rain"

When: 1992

Why: Axl and Elton belting out G n' R's schmaltz-rock opus with gaudy perfection.

Representative YouTube Comment: "Compare with axl in 2013... oh my god... too diffrent..." —Kalvin Lim

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Who: Kanye West

What: "Runaway"

When: 2010

Why: Proving that a mind-blowing performance can also be minimal, Kanye built the flawless "Runaway" beat in front of our eyes with his trusty 808. Accompanying him were a trio of ballerinas and a guest appearance from coke-rap hero Pusha T, but the red-suited West stole the show on his own.

Representative YouTube Comment: "holy shit what a performance.." —mikleinad1

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Who: Beyoncé

What: "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)"

When: 2009

Why: We could have picked almost any Beyoncé appearance, but this one stood out as particularly memorable with the recently wed Mrs. Carter emerging from green laser-laced fog to give a flawless performance of her massive hit.

Representative YouTube Comment: "shes f*cking beyonce" —Indigenous Alien

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Who: *NSYNC and Michael Jackson

What: "Pop"

When: 2001

Why: The apotheosis of boy band spectacle topped by an appearance from Michael Jackson. Just look at those outfits!

Representative YouTube Comment: "Michael showed up and he was like: Newbs!!" —Stanley Smith

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Who: Bon Jovi and Richi Sambora

What: "Livin' on A Prayer / Wanted Dead or Alive"

When: 1989

Why: It's hard to imagine ladies going crazy for that hair, but believe it or not, there was a time when these two dudes were the biggest sex symbols on the planet.

YouTube Comment: "Great voices Good Looking Guys Fantastic Songs!!!"

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Who: Rihanna

What: "Disturbia/Seven Nation Army"

When: 2008

Why: Rihanna plus a horde of undead and a brief White Stripes nod. Not even her half-hearted zombie dance (or is that how she always dances?) could take away from the spectacle.

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Who: Pink

What: "Sober"

When: 2009

Why: See YouTube comment below.

Representative YouTube Comment: "hooow is she still singing while shes f*cking flipping in the air? i dont know about you but i would be screamingg ! lmaaoo." —Laine Dester

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Who: Britney Spears

What: I'm A Slave 4 U"

When: 2001

Why: Britney Spears. Dancing. With a giant snake. Need we say more?

Representative YouTube Comment: "She was way to dope back than!!!" —naenae0514

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Who: Eminem

What: "The Real Slim Shady"

When: 2000

Why: Perhaps the best opener to a VMA performance of all time, Slim Shady walked into Radio City followed by a crowd of bleach-haired clones and managed to insult both Carson Daly and Fred Durst to their faces. We almost miss the 2000s.

Representative YouTube Comment: "thats how you do a entrance." —thomas bigger

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Who: Taylor Swift

What: "You Belong With Me"

When: 2009

Why: T-swifty rode the real-life NYC subway to Radio City where she proceeded to rock the hell out of "You Belong With Me" with her fans out front.