If the Grammys are “music’s biggest night,” then the MTV Video Music Awards are music’s most memorable. For three decades, the VMAs have had an incomparable ability to distill a year’s worth of pop music into a single killer ceremony-opening performance. Things don’t always turn out well — Britney’s 2007 comeback, for starters — but that’s what makes the VMAs the most adventurous award ceremony in the game. We relived the illustrious history of the VMAs, handpicking the best 20 opening performances, from the Eurythmics storming the second-ever show in 1985 to Lady Gaga’s debut as Jo Calderone in 2011.
MTV had a perfect post-summer summer jam moment in 2001 when Jennifer Lopez opened the show with the Ja Rule duet that had just topped the Hot 100. J. Lo did her best fly girl moves, Ja bellowed shirtlessly and flames licked the air inside the Metropolitan Opera House.
In the late Nineties Madonna began expanding her on-record religious interests beyond Catholicism, and 1998 album Ray of Light honored them explicitly — particularly "Shanti/Ashtangi," a Hindu prayer paired with a William Orbit beat. Clad in a black dress and her hair ironed flat, Madonna performed part of that track to open the 1998 VMAs on a more subdued-than-usual note. But things soon got frantic: The dress was quickly dispensed with (in favor of a tank top) and she broke into Ray's brightly curious title track accompanied by Lenny Kravitz and an array of flipping and breaking dancers.
Eminem, in his sensitive artist phase, makes the emotional, majestic hook of "Not Afraid" even huger with an orchestra and a bunch of drummers. Unlike the wacky VMA days when he would march a bunch of Slim Shady clones into Radio City Music Hall, there's not much smoke and mirrors, but there is a lot of emotion. Eminem, performing his most severe, never puts his hoodie down; Rihanna patiently walks over, a calm to his storm.
Unlike the American Bandstand-esque pantomimes of the first two VMAs, the first thing you notice in year three is the presence of real, live vocals — and who better to deliver them than Robert Palmer, one of the Eighties' most underrated vocalists. A no-frills rendition of "Addicted to Love" boasts a cool stage design with its neon MTV logos, smoke machines and Nam Jun Pak-style wall of televisions. The crooner's Hot 100-topping single held up without the video's army of fashion models — itself one of the most iconic images in MTV history and that night's winner of Best Male Video.
With the Video Music Awards still in its infancy, the Eurythmics' Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart's ceremony-opening performance of "Would I Lie To You?" was more a celebration of the music channel itself than an endorsement for their new LP, Be Yourself Tonight. From the onset, you could see all the makings of an award show still working out the kinks — obvious lip-synching, cameramen visibly patrolling the stage and cheesy Eighties video effects. But there was so much eye candy on the Radio City Music Hall stage that the performance still explodes with awesomeness, like the part when the bassist smashed his instrument mid-song.
Pop provocateur Lady Gaga showed up as her male alter ego Jo Calderone, a beer-chucking former Gaga paramour with a pompadour, a cigarette and a lot of bleepable jokes about his ex. Depending on your tolerance for Gaga's more meta moments, the monologue was either another ego stroke or a perfectly pitched bit of self-satire. The monologue eventually gave way to the arena-throwback ballad "Yoü And I" — which Gaga/Jo performed first at the piano, then as the frontman for a dance troupe straight out of West Side Story, then with Queen's Brian May serving up a triumphant guitar solo. Jo came back later in the show to (unsuccessfully) mack on that year's Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award recipient, Britney Spears.
More than a decade after “Basket Case” and the height of Alternative Nation, Green Day finally ascended the ranks to MTV Video Music Awards opening act. Instead of kicking off the festivities with the pop-punk burst of “American Idiot,” they confidently busted out the mid-tempo “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which ended up winning six trophies over the course of the ceremony, including Video of the Year. The “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” performance would mark the end of an MTV era in a way: In the nine ceremonies since, no rock group has served as the opener at a Video Music Awards, the network fully accepting life as a pop-centric platform.
In the multi-part "Confessions" saga, Usher says telling the truth is the hardest thing that he ever had to do. On the VMAs, he made it even more difficult by performing while being torrentially doused with a rain machine. Still, he managed to dramatically rip off his shirt like a pro. "Waited 'til the VMAs to say what I'm 'bout to say," he sang, perhaps updating the lyrics to address his estranged situation with TLC's Chilli. "Cause I know you still love me — I feel the same." Before he went full Robin Thicke, he climactically chucked a mic stand through a mirror, which signaled time for Ludacris and Lil Jon to join him for a thunderous, multi-stage stomp through "Yeah!" By the end it was fully crunk: Dancers swung through the air and Lil Jon indulged in a crowd dive.
"Tonight, Tonight," a gorgeous song about impermanence aptly reflected the turmoil tearing the Smashing Pumpkins apart from within in 1996. In the months leading up to the show, a fan was crushed to death during a show in Dublin, and keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin overdosed on heroin together. Melvoin died, and Chamberlin was fired after his arrest for possession. With new drummer Matt Walker crisply leading the rhythm section and a live string section providing sumptuous and dramatic fills, the band made "Tonight, Tonight" an assertion of rock dominance that would soon be in their rear view.
Even in the pre-"Dick in a Box" era, Justin Timberlake was taking chances. The Cyborg&B of "SexyBack" is one of the weirdest Number One singles in history — and it had yet to start its seven-week chart-topping run. With little more than a grey suit, black vest, white sneakers and hair shaved down to stubble, Timberlake dominated the stage during a FutureSex/LoveSounds twofer starting with "My Love." A dapper Timbaland (mostly) synched into step for "SexyBack," brushed some imaginary dirt off JT's shoulder, and they closed it down with beatboxing. Unlike a lot of these performances, there weren't too many pyrotechnics beyond his dancing: The futuristic sounds coalesced perfectly with old-school showmanship.
When Rihanna debuted new single “Disturbia,” the performance was straight-up good girl gone undead. A horde of zombie dancers with glowing yellow batons led the way as goth-styled Ri-Ri rolled out to the stage on a towering pyramid enveloping her lower half. Intro-ed with the synth riff from Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” and later interrupted with a scorching interlude from the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” this frenetic performance made a rock star out of Rihanna. For a song about going crazy, she was clear-headed and in control the entire time.
The VMAs have always been a place for Madonna to flex her visual savvy, often meaning a performance both iconic and distinct from the aesthetic of her hit videos. In 1989, however, she opened the broadcast by bringing a scaled down version of David Fincher's Fritz Lang fever dream in "Express Yourself." Wearing a lace bustier temporarily concealed by a baggy suit jacket, Madge descends a staircase, the steps lighting up as she touches them, "Billie Jean"-style. Years before Michael Jackson created controversy with the "Black or White" video, she grabbed her crotch while the microphone was held in place by her cleavage.
Before there was Jo Calderone, there was Madonna's gender-bending performance of "Bye Bye Baby," the singer donning a tailcoat and top hat in a burlesque/bordello setting that previewed Madonna's 1993 Girlie Show World Tour, which would kick off in a few weeks. In retrospect, the song selection is strange — "Bye Bye Baby" wasn't even released as a single in the States. But Madonna's VMAs portfolio is stacked with captivating presentations, and the risqué "Bye Bye Baby" performance (full of stroked inner-thighs, spanks, frottage, etc.) was another visual stunner.
In the late Nineties, the seeds of rap-rock that Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" planted over a decade earlier had grown into several huge multi-platinum acts. And one of them, Kid Rock, was eager to tip a fedora to both in a medley of "King of Rock," "Rock Box" and "Bawitdaba" that culminated, predictably and awesomely, in Steven Tyler and Joe Perry once again bursting through a literal wall to metaphorically break down barriers. Tyler and Kid Rock's mic-tossing routine, catching each other's microphones in mid-air four times with perfect precision, remains one of the VMAs' great showmanship moments.
MTV's Video Vanguard Award is the VMA equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, and even though Janet Jackson — the 1990 recipient — had only been a substantial presence on the channel for three years, she made a huge mark with her hyper-precise dance moves, stylized videos and songs that celebrated female empowerment. Before receiving her Moonman at the 1990 show, she opened the festivities with a rip-roaring performance of her scalding Rhythm Nation 1814 track "Black Cat," showing off her ability to channel the feline sensibility before ripping open her crisp white button-down to reveal a black bra, much to the audience's surprise.
To celebrate both the new songs and old hits of the recently released HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, Michael Jackson opened the 1995 VMAs with an epic 15-minute(!) medley that puts 10 songs from King of Pop's solo career in a blender. Vincent Price's "Thriller" laugh cackles over a four-second supercut of several different sections of "Beat It." He dances over the "Billie Jean" bassline for a minute before singing but one line of the song. Slash, then in his frustrating final months in Guns N' Roses, falls to his knees and solos endlessly like a man possessed. But in a surprising turn of events, it's a deep cut, "Dangerous," that gets most fully realized setpiece, taking breaks for "Smooth Criminal" and Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme
Mourning the loss of friend and associate the Notorious B.I.G., Sean "Puffy" Combs rush-released "I'll Be Missing You," which crams together "Adagio for Strings" from Platoon, traditional spiritual "I'll Fly Away," and the Police's biggest hit, "Every Breath You Take." To adequately recreate the anthem, Puffy invited everyone he possibly could — save Police guitarist Andy Summers — for a huge hip-hop production number. It has been reported that Sting initially wasn't consulted to clear the song's central sample, but everything seemed copacetic when he took the stage in September, and he inventively layered falsetto into the arrangement and mashed it up into his own tune. The widowed Faith Evans sang beautifully backed by a gospel choir, 112 got choice bars of harmony before all was said and done and video of B.I.G. played on a huge screen in the back. It was one time Puffy gladly ceded the spotlight.
Nearly a year after 9/11, the VMAs were once again held in New York. And to strike a somber note before getting the party started, the 2002 broadcast opened with a performance by rock's poet laureate, Bruce Springsteen. Backed by the reformed and renewed E Street Band, the Boss performed the title track of his recent 9/11-inspired album The Rising, giving a powerful gospel uplift to a night that otherwise belonged to the likes of Eminem and Justin Timberlake.
The 2009 Video Music Awards came less than two months after the death of Michael Jackson — a name so synonymous with MTV that there's an award named after him — so there was no doubt the King of Pop would be a focus of the ceremony. Madonna, his nearest peer in those halcyon MTV days, opened things up with a speech about Jackson, which then segued to a troupe dancing along with some of MJ's greatest videos. The highlight, of course, was Janet Jackson performing their dual hit "Scream" alongside video of her late brother. It was cathartic to watch the Jackson siblings dancing together onstage, Janet in the foreground, Michael on the video screen, their moves perfectly synchronized. After the miscast memorial concert at the Staples Center a month earlier, this was the King of Pop tribute America deserved.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, there is a famous kiss that happened within these five minutes, but don’t let that overshadow the monster summit of talent and fame collected on one stage. This is Madonna, arguably the most famous female pop musician who ever lived. This is Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, twin titans of teen-pop, both between multi-platinum albums. This is a tribute to the most iconic Video Music Awards performance of all-time (Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in 1984) that ultimately became the second most iconic Video Music Awards performance of all time. And after a wedding, who would be better for the reception than Missy Elliott? How we settled for Mya and Pink on “Lady Marmalade” after this is anybody’s guess.