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20 Best MTV VMAs Opening Performances

Michael Jackson, Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and more: Who kicked it off the best?

MTV VMAs

Michael Jackson and Slash open the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

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.

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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (2002)

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.

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Janet Jackson’s Michael Jackson Tribute (2009)

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.

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Madonna feat. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott (2003)

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.

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