Music On “SNL,” Then And Now

In 1981, the show’s biggest musical mistake was hosting an obscure L.A. punk band who caused a riot in the studio. In 2004, it was allowing Ashlee Simpson to lip-synch. Here’s a look at everything else that’s changed over the years.

1. Performance Disasters

 

THEN: On the 1981 Halloween episode of the show, doom-punk band Fear started a riot on the set. The performance was so destructive and out of control that they had done $200,000 worth of damage by its finish.

NOW: Instead of performing live, Ashlee Simpson badly botched a lip sync of a recorded version of “Pieces of Me” and did an embarrassed little hoedown dance before running offstage in 2004. Hilariously, this is probably far more infamous in the public eye than Fear’s insane and dangerous mosh pit.

THEN: Sun Ra, the trippy cosmic jazz legend, was a deeply weird choice for SNL — his free-form set featured his full “Arkestra,” aka orchestra, performing a medley of two songs about outer space. It also showcased amazing synchronized interpretive dancers performing ballet in glittery costumes. In short, it ruled.

NOW: Björk also performed an astrally inspired song, “Earth Intruders,” in 2007, along with the beautiful “Wanderlust.” But the similarities ended there, as she didn’t bang atonally on a keyboard or enlist gorgeous dancers to illustrate her cosmic sound.

THEN: In 1984, “dandy highwayman” Adam Ant took the stage with his band in his trademark glittery military-esque uniform, although he forewent the face paint that defined his fabulously garish new wave look. He performed “Goody Two Shoes,” aka the best song about peer pressure ever.

NOW: Ke$ha performed in geometric glow-in-the-dark body paint, which some critics later said was an aesthetic directly ripped off from Australian artist Sia. She finished her 2009 performance by asking, “It’s Saturday night, do you wanna make out?”

4. Weird Backup Guests

 

THEN: In 1979, David Bowie invited legendary performance artists Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias to back him up for three songs on the show, the most arresting of which was definitely “The Man Who Sold the World.” They performed in Thierry Mugler women’s suits and were joined by a pink poodle because of course they were.

NOW: When Green Day performed on SNL in 2009, Will Ferrell spiced up their live version of “East Jesus Nowhere” with some serious cowbell action. While he had also done the same thing with Weezer in 2001, it’s particularly funny here because Ferrell is SO VERY SERIOUS about jammin’ on the ‘bell while Green Day sing some stupid pseudo-political thing. Awesome.

THEN: In 1979, Bette Midler sang a stunning rendition of “Martha (Those Were Days of Roses),” written by her friend Tom Waits, and although she grins in this super-charming way throughout, it might actually move you to tears if you watch it. Scratch that, it DEFINITELY will; I think she’s actually crying by the end of it, too. You’ve been warned.

NOW: Lana Del Rey bombed so hard when she performed in 2012 that Kristen Wiig played her defending her performance on the show the week after. And her listless spinning quickly became the internet’s favorite GIF. It was a spectacle, to say the least.

6. Terrible Performances by Brilliant Artists

 

THEN: The Replacements were one of the worst musical guests ever when they appeared in 1986. They messed up lyrics, stumbled into each other, mangled guitar lines, and were just super, super drunk. They also screamed obscenities at the audience, and while this was normal behavior at live Replacements shows, it was pretty unwelcome at SNL.

NOW: Kanye West was heavily criticized for a cringe-inducing, flat performance of “Love Lockdown” in 2008. Without the aid of AutoTune, the song was off-key and stilted, and female backup singers ended up having to do most of the vocal work for him. And unlike The Replacements, he couldn’t even claim inebriation as an excuse.

THEN: In 1981, Prince gave his first SNL performance. During “Party Up,” he didn’t bother to censor the lyric “Fightin’ war is such a fucking bore” and ended his set by aggressively knocking the mic stand to the ground and stalking offstage. Amazing.

NOW: Prince didn’t appear on the show again until 2006, where he enlisted some hot twin backup dancers, along with his longtime collaborator Támar, to perform “Fury.” This time around, he relied on minor pyrotechnics for the shock value by starting the set framed with flames.

8. Boy-Band Heartthrobs

 

THEN: Backstreet Boys melted hearts with “I Want It That Way” and “All I Have to Give” in 1999. As you can see, AJ McLean wore a spectacular leopard-print cowboy hat, because why not wear your finest to SNL?

NOW: One Direction gave two amazing performances in 2012 just as they were cementing themselves as mega-stars in the United States. In addition to singing “One Thing” and “What Makes You Beautiful,” they also turned up in a skit and charmed the shit out of SNL audiences by being charming and funny in stupid wigs.

9. Totally Chill Dudes

 

THEN: The Grateful Dead performed twice on SNL, beginning with a 1978 performance that included “Casey Jones.” Can you imagine any performer singing, without euphemisms, about being “high on cocaine” on network TV now?

NOW: Dave Matthews Band took the stage in 2009 to spread their special brand of weed-lite good vibes to America…for the FIFTH time on the SNL stage since 1995, and the sixth for Dave Matthews himself (he also played once with Dave and Friends, a side project).

10. Unexpected Aesthetic Choices

 

THEN: In 1978, Devo killed it by performing, first, their insanely perfect cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in matching yellow work jumpsuits, then stripping down to their underwear and “DEVO” T-shirts (excuse me as I go make my own out of iron-on letters) for “Jocko Homo.” Love you forever, Devo.

NOW: 2013 found Rihanna performing her hit “Diamonds” in front of a green screen which many claimed she had ripped off from the Tumblr/seapunk aesthetic, but still more compared to the screen savers found on Windows ‘97 computers. It was certainly not what the SNL stage was used to, set-wise.

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