Revisiting the Top 5 Most Memorable Performances from ‘The MTV Video Music Awards’

The MTV Video Music Awards show debuted in 1984 and created multiple cultural flashpoints for many decades.

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Some moments have been better than others. In 1991, Prince famously performed “Get Up” in butt-baring pants—or fabric made to look like his bottom. From Lady Gaga’s meat dress to Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley’s awkward kiss, the MTV Video Music Awards seemed built for headlines.

It’s difficult to narrow the list to only five unforgettable performances. Beyoncé’s 2016 Lemonade medley and Lady Gaga’s 2009 faux-bloody “Paparazzi” performance were equally memorable.

Here are the top five most memorable MTV VMA performances.

5. Madonna, “Vogue” (1990)

Madonna dressed as Marie Antoinette brought underground LGBTQ+ dance culture to mainstream audiences through “Vogue.” Inspired by New York’s dance clubs, Madonna and her entourage used 18th-century aesthetics and delivered a classic moment at the MTV Video Music Awards. Moreover, she paved the way for artists like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, using the tools of the music video and reinvention to change popular music. “Vogue” appeared on Madonna’s 1990 soundtrack album, I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy.

Come on, vogue
Let your body move to the music

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

With Britney Spears’ third studio album, the pop star wanted to prove to the world she’d grown up since her days dancing in the school hallway in the video for “…Baby One More Time.” She returned to the VMAs to perform “I’m a Slave 4 U,” bringing along an albino python to complete the jungle theme. Spears had transformed from a teen pop star to a pop icon and became one of the biggest-selling artists in history. It wouldn’t be the last time Spears dominated culture. In 2019, an online campaign called “Free Britney” trended as the singer fought to end a court-ordered conservatorship.

All you people look at me like I’m a little girl
Well, did you ever think it’d be OK for me to step into this world?

3. Bon Jovi, “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” (1989)

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora’s acoustic performances of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” inspired MTV’s Unplugged series. Their stripped-down performance showcased both their strong songwriting partnership and the duo’s powerful voices. Bon Jovi’s biggest hits, alongside MTV, changed popular culture. The unplugged moment again changed it and foreshadowed future legendary acoustic performances by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young.

Tommy used to work on the docks
Union’s been on strike, he’s down on his luck
It’s tough, so tough
Gina works the diner all day
Working for her man, she brings home her pay for love
For love

2. Michael Jackson, Medley (1995)

The King of Pop returned to MTV in 1995 to perform a 15-minute medley of his greatest hits, including “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.” Slash from Guns N’ Roses burns through a guitar solo while Jackson’s script called for someone to remove the guitarist from the stage. The medley features Jackson contorting himself into a Charlie Chaplin-like marionette. Then, he moonwalks across the stage during “Billie Jean.” MTV’s Video Vanguard Award for Lifetime Achievement is named after Michael Jackson.

She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene
I said, “Don’t mind, but what do you mean, I am the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round?”
She said, “I am the one who will dance on the floor in the round.”

1. Pearl Jam and Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World” (1993)

By the time Pearl Jam won the Video of the Year award for “Jeremy,” they had already stopped producing music videos. However, the band returned live to perform their new song “Animal,” giving MTV much-needed Pearl Jam footage. After the Seattle band burned through track two from their second album Vs., Neil Young joined them for a rendition of his 1989 anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The performance is beautifully unhinged and brings together a proto-grunge master and his expert students.  

I see a girl in the night with a baby in her hand
Under an old streetlight near a garbage can
Now she put the kid away, and she’s gone to get a hit
She hates her life and what she’s done to it
There’s one more kid that’ll never go to school
Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool

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