5 Must-See Musical Performances from ‘Saturday Night Live’

NBC announced that Saturday Night Live will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a three-hour primetime special on February 16, 2025. The show, created by Lorne Michaels, recently closed its 49th season with host Jake Gyllenhaal and musical guest Sabrina Carpenter.

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For decades, SNL has been a perennial cultural and satirical touchstone. Its varied and sometimes unpredictable musical performances have defined the show as much as the comedy sketches. The live aspect of the show creates a kind of living-on-the-edge tension where a defiant band might swear on national television (The Replacements) or the wrong backing track is cued for a lip-syncing pop star (Ashlee Simpson).

From Billie Eilish to David Bowie to The White Stripes to Jack White without Meg, picking only five is hard—Prince, Radiohead, Kanye, Outkast, Beyoncé, Tom Petty with Dave Grohl on drums, Tom Petty without Dave Grohl on drums, etc.

With a few months before the 50th season kicks off in August, here are five must-see musical performances on Saturday Night Live.

“The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel (October 18, 1975)

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel reunited for the first time since breaking up in 1970, appearing on SNL’s second episode. The duo performed “The Boxer,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “My Little Town.” Lorne Michaels invited Simon to be the host and musical guest. Simon invited Garfunkel and joked, “So, you’ve come crawling back.” Garfunkel responded, “It’s very nice of you to invite me on your show.” The stoic performance was austere, with the pair staring blankly into the camera as they sang. “The Boxer” is a folk masterpiece.

“Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young (September 30, 1989)

With “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Neil Young returned from a decade of experimental and confusing albums. The following year, he’d release a grunge masterpiece with Crazy Horse, Ragged Glory. But “Rockin’ in the Free World” is a defining anthem for Young, who looked and sounded positively reborn on SNL. He was 43 then and already ahead of the musical movement that would reshape culture. Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit” two years later.

“Radio Radio” by Elvis Costello (December 17, 1977)

Columbia Records wanted Costello to perform his then-new single “Less than Zero.” He did until he didn’t. Only seconds into the song, Costello yelled for his band to stop and then launched into “Radio Radio.” Inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s nostalgia, Costello created a protest anthem against the BBC’s commercialism. The radio he heard in England didn’t sound like what Springsteen described in his anthems. SNL booked a 23-year-old punk rocker, and that’s precisely who showed up.

“War” by Sinéad O’Connor (October 3, 1992)

O’Connor performed a visceral a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” before looking straight into the camera and tearing up a large photograph of Pope John Paul II. The Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals were already well-known in Ireland, and eventually reached mainstream news in the United States. The gesture caused a seismic backlash. Much of O’Connor’s work was dedicated to fighting abuses of power. At the start of her career, a record executive suggested she wear short skirts. The next day, she went out and shaved her head. “Didn’t matter what I wore now,” she said. The New York Times wrote that O’Connor dared SNL’s viewers to look away. Instead, everyone watched.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (January 11, 1992)

By early 1992, pop culture had shifted. Nirvana’s performance on SNL happened as their album Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top spot on the Billboard charts. They also performed “Territorial Pissings” before trashing the stage. The abrupt cultural scene change seemed to echo The Beatles’ 1964 Ed Sullivan Show appearances. Two years later, Kurt Cobain took his life, which makes this performance striking and eerie.

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