The 8 Ball 08.23.13: The Top 8 MTV VMA Performances
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 08.24.2013
From Britney Spears and Madonna's kiss during "Like a Virgin" and Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" in 2009 to Eminem's "Real Slim Shady," Guns n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" in 1988 and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 MTV VMA performances of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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This weekend the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards take place on Sunday and, for the first time in years, I'm actually somewhat interested. Well, in watching the performances, anyway. (I see a lot of YouTube in my future.) MTV has lined up one of the better performance lineups in several years with Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars all slated to perform; say what you want about some of them as artists but they always bring interesting stage performances about. The VMAs have become very stale over the past several years on the performance side with a couple exceptions, but there was a time when you would always be guaranteed some stellar (or at least very memorable) performances. This week I thought we could take a look back at the most iconic and memorable performances ever to grace the stage at the awards show.
Caveat: Pretty simple this week; if it was a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards then it qualifies. I judged the list based on the quality of the performance itself, its legacy on both the award show and pop culture in general, how memorable the performance was and, of course, personal preference. The only thing to keep in mind is that when I'm talking about "the quality of the performance" I'm talking about the overall performance. The VMAs have seen a lot of lip synching over the years and while lip synching did knock a performance down a little, it was far from the only factor involved. If it was staged or choreographed well, the imagery was great and all that then it could still be considered a quality performance in my book (this doesn't apply to most other live performance categories, but c'mon, it's the VMAs for Christ's sake).
Just Missing The Cut
Beyonce - "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" (2009)
Beastie Boys - "Sabotage" (1994)
Puff Daddy & Sting - "I'll Be Missing You" (1997)
Britney Spears - "I'm A Slave 4 U" (2001)
Madonna - "Like a Virgin" (1984)
#8: Guns 'n Roses - "Welcome to the Jungle" (1988)
First up on our list this week is the performance that largely defined what rock music meant in terms of the VMAs. Guns N' Roses was quickly becoming the biggest band on the planet when the 1988 Video Music Awards went down and with this performance they helped cement that reputation. The song is already a frenetic one, but the group kicked the energy even higher for this and from the moment of Axl's demonic howl you knew it was going to be something special. The crowd was more amped than an eight-year-old after a Red Bull and the band responded in kind. This was one of those moments that really helped the band explode into mainstream consciousness; it showed most of America that Axl could deliver that unforgettable voice on a live stage (no lip synching in this one!) and the award show would never be the same.
#7: Nirvana - "Lithium" (1992)
Four years after Guns N' Roses blew the roof off of the Universal Amphitheatre, the landscape of rock music had changed dramatically. Hair metal and glam rock was in its last death throes and grunge was on the rise. The new "biggest band on the planet" was a group of guys from Washington State who were about as different as a group could possibly be from Axl Rose and company. That group was Nirvana and they delivered one of the most memorable performances, literally from the first word forward. The band had been forbidden from playing the song that they wanted to, "Rape Me," due to censorship concerns. They settled on "Lithium" but out of the blue Kurt Cobain began performing the forbidden song, which probably sent the execs at MTV into convulsions. After the first line was delivered though, the band set into their agreed-upon song in one of the most bizarre, out-of-control performance in the history of the award show. Kris Novoselic threw his guitar in the air toward the end and promptly caught it with his face, causing him to stagger off stage as soon as he could stand. Cobain assaulted the amplifiers and Dave Grohl gave enthusiastic, mocking shout-outs to Axl Rose, who had challenged Kurt to a fight before the show. It was strange, crazy and an iconic moment in the show's history. It certainly doesn't hurt that the performance itself was bad-ass to boot. That's the very definition of rock done right.
#6: Madonna, Christina Aguilera & Britney Spears - "Like a Virgin"/"Hollywood" (2003)
2003 is perhaps the most talked-about year in MTV Video Music Awards history, and it's all thanks to this. Madonna is no stranger to huge moments at the VMAs; she set the bar for controversy when she writhed around on the floor during the 1984 show for "Like a Virgin" and her French Revolution-esque rendition of "Vogue" in 1990 had people talking for months. Similarly, Britney Spears is a lightning rod for the show; there was her striptease down to a skin-colored bodysuit for a mashup of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" and her own "Oops...I Did It Again," to say nothing of the big snake the following year in 2001. But all of those moments are blown away by 2003, when the duo teamed up and added Christina Aguilera in the mix for a mash-up of "Like a Virgin" and "Hollywood." The set was remarkably similar to the original "Like a Virgin" setup, except that Britney and Christina were the brides and Madonna was the groom. The performance itself was remarkably good and well-choreographed; Missy Elliot eventually joined in to liven things up. But the moment everyone remembers are The Kisses, when the Material Girl locked lips with first Britney and then Christina. Poor Justin Timberlake, who had just broken up with the pop princess, was clearly curious why there was a camera on him during the performance by his quizzical look to it just before the kiss, and his reaction at the actual kiss was, shall we say, less-than-pleased. People flipped out, headlines were made and the performance was guaranteed a spot in award show history.
#5: Eminem - "The Real Slim Shady"/"The Way I Am" (2000)
This is flat-out one of the ballsiest performances in VMA history. Eminem was already a major source of media attention due to his controversial lyrics and penetration into Middle American listening patterns by the time the 2000 VMAs rolled around; The Marshall Mathers LP had been out just four months and was a sheer pop culture phenomenon. The first single, "The Real Slim Shady," had taken some nasty potshots at several celebrities not to mention critics and the rise in people who had started to model their look on him. So of course, the never-shy Em decided to start the performance off outside of Radio City Music Hall with an army of lookalikes, which he proceeded to march into the hall. The rapper didn't hold back either; the only things censored were the profanity and a few sexual terms as he proceeded to trash an impressive selection of celebrities in that very venue. The best moment comes when he actively stops just past Carson Daly, having spit the line about him arguing with Fred Durst over whom Christina Aguilera "gave head to first," and shakes his hand. Awkward. And then just to show he wasn't done blistering those who might be watching, he launched into "The Way I Am" and shredded his critics live on MTV. It was a tour de force performance that in terms of sheer chutzpah has yet to be topped.
#4: Bon Jovi - "Livin' On A Prayer"/"Wanted Dead or Alive" (1989)
Bon Jovi is not a group that gets a lot of respect these days, but in the 1980s they were practically untouchable. The New Jersey group helped push rock to the mainstream masses and they smashed album records along the way. But one of their most enduring legacies came from their 1989 performance at the VMAs. The audience had no idea what they were getting when Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora walked out onto the stage with a couple of acoustic guitars. The answer was a critic-silencing stripped down acoustic performance of "Livin' On A Prayer" and "Wanted Dead or Alive" that brought the house down. The performance is captivating and it showed that they weren't just watered-down arena rockers; it also took some guts considering that the VMAs were all about making performances as big and brash as possible. The two stood out by going in the other direction and it went over so well that it spawned its own series on MTV, a little thing titled Unplugged. It remains one of the group's best performances in any venue and a hallmark of the VMA's legacy.
#3: Neil Young and Pearl Jam - "Keep Rockin' in the Free World" (1993)
There have been a lot of rock performances at the VMAs and others have perhaps been more memorable. This one, however, is clearly the best. In 1993, two generations of rock came together to deliver a brilliant performance when Neil Young teamed up with Pearl Jam for an amazing take on Young's 1989 hit "Keep Rockin' in the Free World." The thing came on the back of a great performance of "Animal" by the grunge group before Young game out and they launched into the performance. It wasn't the first time we'd heard Pearl Jam do the song; they performed it in their Unplugged episode in 1992. But with Young joining in with them here critics of grunge realized just how clearly the genre was in synch with the rockers of previous decades. It's an intense performance that blew everyone away in almost every aspect, from Young and Eddie Vedder's lyrics to the powerful guitar work by Young and Stone Gossard and pretty much everything else. For me there's no question; this here is the greatest rock performance in VMA history.
#2: Lady Gaga - "Paparazzi" (2009)
2009 was the year of Gaga. The queen of avant-garde pop was still in the process of becoming a known powerhouse of pop when September of 2009 rolled around, but you could guarantee that there wasn't a person within arm's reach of a headline who didn't know her name once that year's VMAs were done with. While a lot of people were talking about Kanye West's "I'm-a let you finish" moment of stealing Taylor Swift's spotlight, an equal amount were discussing the only thing more shocking, which was Gaga's jaw-dropping performance of "Paparazzi." The spectacle of a performance was a rather sumptuous visual oddity, with masked dancers and wheelchairs and a lifted-leg piano performance that had the audience really captivated. Gaga was on perfect point here in every respect; the singing was top-notch and the theatricality was truly impressive. All throughout the performance it seemed just a little bit "off," and I mean that in a disturbing capacity as opposed to a musical capacity. But it was at the end following her piano work that it really got creepy. The audience gave a collective gasp as Gaga began staggering, crimson beginning to pour down her chest, and she finished off by being hoisted by one hand into the air to stare lifelessly out at the crowd. It was a merging of performance art and pop music like had never been done before on mainstream television. Talk about her meat dress in 2010 or her cross-dressing in 2011 all you want, but this will always be her iconic VMA moment for me.
#1: Michael Jackson - Medley (1995)
Was it lip-synched? Yes. Do we care? No. MTV never would have become the phenomenon it was--and thus never would have been able to have its own award show (much less two) without Michael Jackson and he was the ultimate "get" for them for the VMAs. But he had never performed live at the award show by the time 1995 rolled around; he had delivered a pre-recorded performance of "Bad" in 1988 and had his performance of "Black or White" from the London stop of his Dangerous world tour aired by satellite on the show. He didn't perform live at the award show until 1995, but oh did he make up for that wait. Jackson opened the show with what was essentially a mini-concert, blowing through his hits from "Beat It" and "Thriller" to "Billy Jean" and "Black or White," the latter featuring a blistering appearance by Slash. He kept going from there with performances of "Dangerous," "Smooth Criminal" and "You Are Not Alone" for a fifteen-minute set in total that included costume changes, massive choreography and much more, proving that even after his star had supposedly fallen he was still the unquestionable King of Pop. It's the single-most impressive performance in MTV award show history and easily my #1.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
There's no way it would have made this list but I have to give some love for one of the more memorable performances when everyone's favorite fake lesbian Russian teenage pop stars in t.A.T.u., who brought an army of girls on-stage in their underwear for "Not Gonna Get Us" that turned into a mass-makeout session. Check it out below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.