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LIST: Top 10 memorable VMA performances through the years

By Lora Mae U. Reyes Published Sep 02, 2021 8:09 pm

The MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) 2021 is just around the corner and we’re very excited!

Last year’s VMAs were quite memorable. Amid the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, many artists were still able to deliver unforgettable performances. From The Weeknd’s legendary opening act to BTS’ epic live performance of Dynamite, we can’t wait to see what this year’s performers have in store for us.

In this year’s awards show, Camila Cabello, Chlöe of Chloe x Halle, Doja Cat, Kacey Musgraves, Lil Nas X, Lorde, Machine Gun Kelly, Olivia Rodrigo, Shawn Mendes, and Twenty One Pilots are expected to perform and take the stage by storm.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and recall some memorable and iconic performances we’ve seen in the past years (not in chronological order). 

Madonna, Vogue (1990)

While Madonna performed back in the 1984 VMAs, her Vogue performance in 1990 was the most iconic performance we’ve seen. Setting up the stage as if it were 1700s in France, the song started with dancers in full-on French attire, dramatically yet gracefully moving to the rhythm of the song. They then welcomed Madonna as she entered the stage wearing a Marie Antoinette-like wig and gown, and the Queen of Pop started vogueing with a hand fan and lip-synching to the song.

Britney Spears, I’m a Slave 4 U (2001)

In 2001, Britney Spears shook the stage not only with the way she danced to the rhythm and sang her heart out to her hit song I’m a Slave 4 U, but also because of the live animals she brought with her!

With a jungle-theme setup, the then-19-year-old artist appeared onstage inside a cage with a tiger. And what animal do we often see in the jungle? Yes, a snake. Britney Spears held a 25-pound albino python on her shoulders while twirling across the stage.

And the python had a name—Banana!

Janet Jackson, tribute to Michael Jackson (2009)

One of the performances that we won’t forget is the performance of Janet Jackson back in 2009 to honor her brother, the King of Pop Michael Jackson, who died two months before the awards show.

Before Janet Jackson appeared, a great number of dancers had danced to the medley of Michael Jackson’s hits, from Thriller to Bad and Smooth Criminal. The crowd cheered and stood up as Janet Jackson performed and recreated their song Scream, making the audience (and even us!) emotional.

Taylor Swift, You Belong With Me (2009)

Despite the Kanye West incident in 2009, Taylor Swift did a killer performance of her single and proved that she deserved to win the Best Female Video.

Her number started with her singing on NYC's subway platform, donning a brown coat and a black hat. She then revealed a cherry-colored dress underneath the coat and entered a train with a lot of people singing and dancing to the song. Swift finished her performance outside the Radio City Music Hall at the top of a taxi, screaming, "I love you, New York!"

Beyoncé, Love on Top (2011)

There’s no doubt that Beyoncé knew how to steal a show, but what everyone didn't expect was that she'd actually announce her pregnancy on live TV!


In 2011, Queen Bey performed her single Love on Top, but before she started her number, she told the audience, "Tonight, I want you to stand up on your feet. I want you to feel the love that's growing inside of me." While it looked like an introduction to the song she was about to perform, little did anyone know it was a pregnancy announcement. Everyone only realized it when she opened her suit jacket and rubbed her belly.

Months later, Blue Ivy was born.

Lady Gaga, Applause (2013)

Lady Gaga is known for her unique and over-the-top performances, even when she first performed Applause at the 2013 MTV VMAs. Her number started with a close-up shot of her face with a white cardboard square, which then revealed a white priest-like robe.


During her performance, the singer was able to change costumes three times. She ended the song with one of the looks from the Applause music video, wearing a curly wig, shell bikini, and paints on her cheeks.

And just like that, Lady Gaga raised the bar once again.

Rihanna, medley (2016)

It has been a long time since we heard and watched Rihanna perform on the VMAs, but her 2016 performances were one of the most memorable we've seen as well.

RiRi conquered the stage at the 2016 VMAs and gave everyone four separate performances with medleys of her hit singles.

 In the first number, she performed a medley of Don't Stop the Music, We Found Love, and Where Have You Been? making the audience dance to their feet. The second set included RiRi's Rude Boy, What's My Name? and Work.


Meanwhile, she rocked the third set by performing a medley of Needed Me, Pour It Up, and B*tch, Better Have My Money. Lastly, she brought a band with her as she sang Stay, Diamonds, and Love on the Brain.

The night ended with her receiving the 2016's Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.

Logic, Khalid and Alessia Cara, 1-800-273-8255 (2017)

While we thought we couldn't get emotional, American rapper Logic performed his single 1-800-273-8255, the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Other than bringing Khalid and Alessia Cara on stage, Logic also brought with him a group of suicide survivors on stage. What made the performance powerful was Logic's message before the end of the performance.

"I just wanna take a moment right now and thank you all so much for giving me a platform to talk about something that mainstream media doesn't want to talk about. Mental health, anxiety, suicide, depression, and so much more that I talk about in this album. From racism, discrimination, sexism, domestic violence, sexual assault, and so much more. I don't give a damn if you're black, white, or any color in between. I don't care if you're a Christian, a Muslim, you gay, your straight. I am here to fight for your equality because I believe that we're all born equal but were not treated equally, and that's why we must fight."

Ariana Grande, God is a Woman (2018)

Following the release of her then-new song, Ariana Grande took the stage by storm with her performance of God is a Woman. The performance started with Ariana Grande singing and posing with dozens of women of different colors, types, and sizes as they reenact the Last Supper.


While we got goosebumps from her religious-themed performance and her vocal range, the message of the song, which is women empowerment, made an emotional impact on the audience. She also brought on stage the most important women of her life: her cousin, her mother, and her grandmother.

Lady Gaga, 911 / Rain on Me (with Ariana Grande), Stupid Love medley (2020)

Last year's VMAs were the first awards show to air amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the previous VMAs, or any awards show for that matter, the event was not like what it used to be—no screaming fans and more recorded video acceptances.

However, Lady Gaga dominated the 2020 MTV VMAs not only for winning five awards, but also for bringing Chromatica on stage and sporting a face mask while performing. She performed a medley of 911, Stupid Love and Rain On Me, and she was later joined by Ariana Grande who was also wearing a face mask. Lady Gaga also reminded everyone to wear a mask as a sign of respect. 

Banner photos from @vmas on Twitter and @Lady Gaga on YouTube. Thumbnail from @vmas on Twitter.