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Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best MTV VMAs Performances

Neil Young jamming with Pearl Jam, Britney wearing a snake and your other favorite moments from MTV’s wild show

britney spears vmas

Britney Spears performs at the The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City, New York (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

The 2014 MTV Video Music Awards aren't likely to go down in history as anything all that memorable. Sure, Miley let a homeless teen accept an award and Nicki Minaj had a (possibly planned) wardrobe malfunction, but mostly it was rather pedestrian — at least discounting Beyoncé's epic show-closing mega medley. Shortly before the broadcast we asked our readers to vote on their favorite moments from the history of the show. Here are the results. 


U2 – “Please” (1997)

U2 weren't in a very good place when the 1997 Video Music Awards rolled around. Their commercially disappointing (though vastly under-appreciated) album Pop hit shelves earlier that year, and they were in the middle of an American stadium tour that struggled to sell tickets in many markets. They just couldn't seem to find a single that connected. Their fourth attempt was the anti-war ballad "Please," which they felt they didn't quite nail on the record. It was re-worked for radio and they debuted a slightly stripped-down rendition at the awards show. This was the year Sting sang with Puff Daddy and Bruce Springsteen sat in with the Wallflowers, so it didn't get much attention. Looking back now, it's clear this is one of the best TV moments in U2's history — even if the only attention it generated was a joke by Chris Rock that Bono looked like the Unabomber. 


Guns N’ Roses – “Welcome To The Jungle” (1988)

The 1988 Video Music Awards were oddly focused on veteran acts. Elton John, Aerosmith, Rod Stewart, Cher and even Chubby Checker were all given performance slots. And even some of the younger acts, like Crowded House and Jody Watley, weren't exactly crazily high-energy live acts. That made this frenetic rendition of "Welcome to the Jungle" seem all the more amazing. Appetite for Destruction had been out for over a year, but it was a slow builder and the group was peaking in popularity. This is the band at their absolute best, and its a tragedy it began to fell apart so quickly after this. 


Pearl Jam – “Animal” 1993)

Pearl Jam were so insanely hot in 1993 that MTV let they play two songs at the VMAs that year. They kicked it off with "Animal," which wouldn't be in stores for another month. Host Christian Slater said it was the first time the song had been heard anywhere, which wasn't quite true since they'd been doing it on the road all year. Still, this was the first taste that most people had of the upcoming Vs. It was instantly clear that Pearl Jam weren't going to be a One Album Wonder, and that was before their surprise guest came out for the next song. We'll get to that later. 


Britney Spears – “I’m a Slave 4 U” (2001)

Britney Spears had a tough task at the 2001 Video Music Awards. In 1999 she did "…Baby One More Time" in a schoolgirl outfit and the next year she did "Oops!…I Did It Again" in a skin-tight, flesh-colored body suit. How could she possibly top that? Well, how about getting even more naked and "singing" on a Lion King-inspired set, complete with an actual green snake around her neck? It was big news for about a week, but then 9/11 happened and the story of Britney and the snake felt pretty unimportant.  


Madonna – “Vogue” (1990)

Madonna made her name at the original VMAs in 1984, and six years later she came back determined to top herself. This time, she swapped in a Marie Antoinette ensemble for a wedding dress and she transformed the stage into an 18th century French castle. It was the culmination of a big night for Madonna since she was nominated for nine awards, though she lost most of the big ones to M.C. Hammer and Sinead O'Connor. Needless to say, she won the long game. 


Michael Jackson – ‘HIStory’ Mega Medley (1995)

Just a few months after releasing his career-spanning LP HIStory, Michael Jackson opened up with VMAs with a 15-minute medley of his greatest hits. "Some of us like to play it safe and take each day as it comes," he said midway through. "Some of us like to take that crazy walk on the wild side, so for those of us that like living dangerously, this one's for you." That kicked off "Dangerous," which led into "Smooth Criminal" and a climactic "You Are Not Alone." He didn't appear to be singing everything live, but few people cared. It was still amazing. Later that night, he won Best Dance Video for "Scream." This was one of his last great moments before the downfall. 


Justin Timberlake/’N Sync – Medley (2013)

Justin Timberlake's plans to reunite 'N Sync at the 2013 Video Music Awards were a very poorly kept secret, but it was still a thrill to see Joey, Chris, Lance, JC and Justin share the stage for the first time in years and years — even if only lasted about 90 seconds. In that time, they managed to squeeze in parts of "Girlfriend," "Bye Bye Bye" and plenty of old choreography. It was a tiny part of a 15-minute medley of music from his solo career and it would have dominated all the coverage the next day had a certain barely-dressed Disney star not twerked with a foam finger earlier in the night. A Led Zeppelin reunion would have had a hard time competing with that. 


Madonna – “Like a Virgin” (1984)

Madonna had a handful of hits before the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, but her performance of "Like a Virgin" that night changed her career forever. Not many people had heard the song at that point, but when she came out in a wedding dress and began writhing around on the floor, all eyes were on her. She later claimed she had no idea the camera were zooming into her thighs, but it certainly didn't hurt her sales and it soon became her first Number One hit. 


Pearl Jam and Neil Young – “Rockin’ in the Free World” (1993)

Right after whipping the crowd at the 1993 VMAs into a frenzy with "Animal," Pearl Jam brought out surprise guest Neil Young and managed to up the energy in the room even more. This was Young at the height of his Godfather of Grunge stage, making him the single coolest classic rock figure in the world. Pearl Jam had been playing "Rockin' in the Free World" since early 1992, but this was the first time they ever do it with Young. The combination was explosive and two years later they teamed up in the studio to record Mirror Ball. 


Nirvana – “Lithium” (1992)

MTV expected that Nirvana would play "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. The network had been playing the video for months on end and it was up for a slew of awards. Executives freaked out when they learned they had no intention of playing the song, and before they went on one of them said, "Just don't play 'Rape Me.'" Big mistake. Cobain began the group's performance with a few bars of "Rape Me" (no doubt causing the MTV suits to nearly have a collective stroke) before kicking into a killer rendition of "Lithium." Near the end, Krist Novoselic threw his bass into the air, only to have it land directly on his head and nearly knock him unconscious. It's maybe the most unintentionally funny moment in the history of the show.