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19 VMA Performances People Couldn't Stop Talking About Because They Were So Incredible

Down the memory lane of legendary MTV VMA performances.

From pregnancy reveals in the middle of a song to surprise reunion sets and over-the-top props, the MTV Video Music Awards stage has seen some of the most memorable performances in pop culture history since the 1980s.

An illustration of the MTV VMAs logo on a bright blue background
Frazer Harrison / Photo Illustration by Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

With MTV VMAs 2021 approaching, what better time to look back at a couple of these iconic performances than now?

1. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera's 2003 tribute to Madonna

Singers Britney Spears(L), Madonna, and Christina Aguilera perform onstage during the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on August 28, 2003 in New York City.
Frank Micelotta / Getty Images

As if it wasn’t enough seeing the two princesses of pop together onstage paying tribute to the Queen of Pop with “Like a Virgin,” the performance was taken to the next level when Madonna herself popped out of a cake, joining the singers for a rendition of “Hollywood.” Then she kissed both women onstage, making it a performance that no one could stop talking about. 

Watch the performance.

2. Lady Gaga's theatrical performance of “Paparazzi”

Lady Gaga performs onstage during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on September 13, 2009 in New York City
Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

When Lady Gaga shocked audiences in 2009 during her first VMA appearance where she sang, danced, played the piano – smeared with fake blood. In a performance showcasing the downsides of celebrity culture, she stumbled to center stage dripping with blood, before being lifted into the air.

Watch the performance.

3. Beyoncé’s pregnancy reveal during “Love on Top”

Singer Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE on August 28, 2011 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Everyone understandably lost it when Beyoncé dropped the bombshell of her first pregnancy at the end of her 2011 performance. Dressed in a sequin blazer, she sang “Love on Top,” before pulling her jacket open to reveal her baby bump. She crooned, “I want you to feel the love that's growing inside of me,” as she rubbed her belly. 

Watch the performance and announcement.

4. Britney Spears dancing fearlessly with a snake

Singer Britney Spears performs with a snake draped over her shoulders at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards 06 September, 2001, in New York.
Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images

Spears stole the show at the 2001 VMAs when she paired her jungle-themed outfit and belly ring with a giant python around her neck. The serpent curled around her shoulders as she danced to “I’m a Slave 4 U” like it was no big deal.

Watch the performance.

5. NSYNC’s first reunion in a decade

(L-R) Lance Bass, JC Chasez, Justin Timberlake, Joey Fatone and Chris Kirkpatrick of N Sync perform during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards at the Barclays Center on August 25, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic for MTV

Crowds were roaring during the 2013 VMAs show, which saw Justin Timberlake reunite with his boy band for the first time in 10 years with a 15-minute medley of their biggest hits.

Watch the performance.

6. Eminem being joined by a hundred clones

Eminem and his look-a-likes at rehearsals for the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Frank Micelotta Archive / Getty Images

Accompanied by an army of look-alikes, the rapper marched to his 2000 VMAs set from the streets of New York City for a very cool performance.

Watch the performance.

7. Missy Elliott’s futuristic performance of her best bops

Missy Elliott performs onstage during the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center on August 26, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey.
Mike Coppola / Getty Images for MTV

Missy Elliott lit up the stage at the 2019 Awards with a medley of her hits including "Work It," "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," and recent single “Throw It Back,” with futuristic and elaborate visuals including a massive UFO prop over the stage that sucked up a dancer during the set. She also brought out actor and dancer Alyson Stoner, who was part of the “Work It” video 17 years ago, to join her onstage.

Watch the performance.

8. Madonna’s Broadway-inspired rendition of “Vogue”

American singer and actress Madonna dressed in a Victorian gown performing her song 'Vogue,' on the MTV Video Music Awards in September 1990.
Frank Micelotta Archive / Getty Images

Madonna took audiences by surprise when she and her dancers turned up onstage in elegant Victorian clothing during the 1990 VMAs. Adding to the opera-like flair, the queen of pop managed to get some controversy in when one of her background dancers came up behind her and squeezed her breasts, after which she and some dancers also flashed the audience.

Watch the performance.

9. Kendrick Lamar’s “fire” opening performance

Kendrick Lamar performs onstage surrounded by lazor beams during the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 27, 2017 in Inglewood, California.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images

The opening act at 2017’s MTV VMAs, Kendrick Lamar turned up the heat – literally! Backed by laser beams, break-dancing ninjas, and a wall of roaring flames, the rapper performed a high-energy mash-up of “DNA” and “Humble” from his award-winning record Damn. 

Watch the performance.

10. Jennifer Lopez’s medley of her greatest hits

Kevin Mazur / WireImage

Lopez took her fans on a journey of her greatest hits running through "Love Don't Cost a Thing," "All I Have," and "Waiting to Tonight" in just 10 minutes during her 2018 performance. The highlight was when she broke for a costume change to ride in on the New York subway's 6 line and introduced "Jenny From the Block," with Ja Rule joining her for a surprise performance of hits "I'm Real" and "Ain't It Funny."

Watch the performance.

11. Ariana Grande’s fitness-inspired set

Ariana Grande (C) performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards at Madison Square Garden on August 28, 2016 in New York City. (
Theo Wargo / Getty Images for MTV

Ariana Grande and frequent collaborator Nicki Minaj led the ultimate workout sesh with her “Side to Side” set at the 2016 VMAs, impressively belting out high notes while lifting weights, spinning, and dancing.

Watch the performance.

12. Kelly Clarkson’s set with an indoor thunderstorm

Kelly Clarkson performs "Since You've Been Gone" soaring wet during 2005 MTV Video Music Awards
Christopher Polk / FilmMagic

The American Idol winner’s unique performance of “Since U Been Gone,” at the 2005 VMAs had never-seen-before visuals that included 3,000 gallons of water to create a stunning indoor thunderstorm.

Watch the performance.

13. Janet Jackson’s moving tribute to Michael Jackson

Singer Janet Jackson performs during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on September 13, 2009 in New York City.
Christopher Polk / Getty Images

Janet Jackson honored her brother with a recreation of the duet “Scream” – a song that they had worked together on — at the 2009 VMAs, which happened only a few months after the King of Pop’s passing. The powerful ode had everyone at the venue on their feet.

Watch the performance.

14. Rihanna’s mini concert with four performances

Rihanna performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards at Madison Square Garden on August 28, 2016 in New York City.
Kevin Mazur / WireImage

Rihanna, who received the Video Vanguard award in 2016, did what no other nominees had done. Performing a series of four performances instead of the usual 15-minute set, RiRi set the stage on fire with fan-favorite tracks “We Found Love,” “Pour It Up,” “Work,” and “Love on the Brain.”

Watch the performance.

15. Justin Bieber’s emotional comeback performance

Justin Bieber gets emotional during his performance onstage during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on August 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

Halfway through his performance of “Where Are Ü Now” and “What Do You Mean?” at the 2015 VMAs, Justin Bieber broke down in tears. He later explained that the last time he was at an awards show he was booed and that he was worried about what the audiences would think about his performance.

Watch the performance.

16. Queen B’s empowering set referencing the BLM movement

Beyonce performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards at Madison Square Garden on August 28, 2016 in New York City.
Larry Busacca / Getty Images for MTV

Beyoncé brought the mothers of Black sons killed by police officers to the 2016 VMAs, performing a fierce 17-minute medley of tracks from Lemonade, ending with her standing in front of a huge “FEMINIST” sign. Truly a historic moment in pop culture.

Watch the performance.

17. Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora’s acoustic performance

Jon Bon Jovi and Ritchie Sambora during MTV European Music Awards Press Conference at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, Spain.
Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic, Inc

Launching MTV’s Unplugged series, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora came together at the 1989 VMAs to perform acoustic versions of both "Living on a Prayer" and "Wanted Dead or Alive."

Watch the performance.

18. Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s masked performance of “Rain on Me”

(L-R) Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga perform with masks on during the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards, broadcast on Sunday, August 30th 2020.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images for MTV

Singing with a covered face, encouraging fans to wear masks as well, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande came together at the 2020 VMAs for a stunning performance of  their collaborative single “Rain on Me,” before Gaga transitioned into several other hits including "Enigma," "Chromatica II," "911,"  and "Stupid Love."

Watch the performance.

19. Miley Cyrus’s infamous performance with Robin Thicke

Miley Cyrus twerks in front of Robin Thicke during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards at the Barclays Center on August 25, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (
Jeff Kravitz

Who can forget Miley’s jaw-dropping performance of "We Can't Stop" and "Blurred Lines" with Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs, where she graced the stage twerking away in a nude bikini and foam finger? Never been anything else like this set! 

Watch the performance.