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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?


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.


Janet Jackson (1990)

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.


Michael Jackson feat. Slash (1995)

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


Puff Daddy feat. Sting, Faith Evans and 112 (1997)

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.


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.


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.


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.