The 21 best performances at the MTV VMAs ever, ranked

britney spears 2001 mtv vmas
Britney's 2001 performance of "I'm a Slave 4 U" is one of most memorable moments in MTV VMA history.Kevin Mazur/WireImage
  • Some of the most memorable performances in pop culture history have taken place on the MTV Video Music Awards stage.

  • Insider has ranked all the best performances we've seen at the awards show, including performances by Prince, Madonna, and Britney Spears.

  • Beyoncé takes first place with her stunning 2016 "Lemonade" medley.

The MTV Video Music Awards have been a stage for unpredictable and iconic pop-music moments since the 1980s.

The show has given us over-the-top performances including a twerking Miley Cyrus, a blood-spattered Lady Gaga, and a serpent-carrying Britney Spears. But it has also given us some iconic medleys from Justin Timberlake, Diddy, and Beyoncé.

Take a look at the best performances since the show began in 1984.

Angélica Acevedo contributed to a previous version of this story.

21. *NSYNC had a mini-reunion at the 2013 VMAs.

vmas nsync
Justin Timberlake reunited with the *NSYNC boy band members for a medley of their hits.Rick Diamond/Getty Images

After receiving the show's vanguard award, Justin Timberlake performed a 15-minute medley of hits that concluded with the first reunion of his boy band 'N Sync in a decade.

Fans were hoping for a slightly longer reunion since Timberlake had so much time on stage, but the mini two-minute reunion medley of the group's hits still had the crowd rocking.

Watch the performance here.

20. Nirvana starts singing a song MTV forbade before singing "Lithium" and taunting Guns N' Roses.

nirvana 1992
Kurt Cobain at the 1992 VMAs.MTV, YouTube

Nirvana's 1992 performance of their single "Lithium" began controversially. Kurt Cobain kicked off the VMAs with the opening chords of their yet-to-be-released 1993 song "Rape Me" even though they were asked not to sing the song by the network.

Toward the end, it became a mess. Bassist Krist Noveselic threw his instrument in the air, and it landed on his face. He then stumbled around on stage until the end of the song. To top it all off, drummer Dave Grohl went to the mic and taunted Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses.

Watch the performance here.

19. Nicki Minaj's nearly 10-minute vanguard medley showed why she's one of the greats.

Nicki Minaj performs onstage at the 2022 MTV VMAs with a pink wig in a pink outfit.
Nicki Minaj performs onstage at the 2022 MTV VMAs at Prudential Center on August 28, 2022, in Newark, New Jersey.Theo Wargo/Getty Images for MTV/Paramount Global

Minaj rolled through her verses from Kanye West's "Monster," "Beez in the Trap," "Moment 4 Life," and "Super Bass" before accepting the award show's top honor, the vanguard award.

Watch the full performance here.

18. Prince's 7-minute performance of "Gett Off" seemed normal until he turned around to reveal his butt to the crowd.

prince 1991 mtv vmas
Prince proudly and boldly showed off his behind at the 1991 VMAs.AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian

Everything seemed normal until Prince turned around on stage to reveal his suit had two cutouts on his behind. He mooned the crowd during the song before turning back around to continue performing.

In the background, there were fire and flames and background dancers performing erotically.

Watch the performance here.

17. Kanye West's five-minute performance of "Runaway."

kanye west 2010 vmas
Kanye West played DJ at the start of his performance.MTV

Forget that messy moment where West interrupted Taylor Swift's 2009 VMA win. A year later he knocked it out of the park on stage with a performance of his single "Runaway" from 2010's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."

He started off DJing before taking the mic and having a group of ballerinas dance to the music behind him.

Watch the performance here.

16. Diddy's tribute to Notorious B.I.G. created a perfect blend of "I'll Be Missing You" and "Every Breath You Take."

sting mtv vmas
Diddy, Sting, and Faith Evans got together in 1997 for an iconic tribute. It may move you to tears.AP Photo/Adam Nadel

Everyone from B.I.G.'s widow, Faith Evans, Diddy, and R&B 112 took part in a tribute to the hip-hop artist. Sting even got in on this to sing along to the song which borrowed from Police's "Every Breath You Take." It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments watching Sting solemnly stand and sing as Diddy dances behind him.

The performance led to the crowd waving lighters in the air in remembrance of Biggie, Tupac, Princess Diana, and everyone else who had recently died.

Watch the performance here.

15. Eminem showed up to the 2000 VMAs with a bunch of look-alikes.

eminem vmas
Eminem singing on stage in a tank top and sweatpants.AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett

It made for a fun performance as he and his posse walked from the streets of New York City into the front of Radio City Music hall without ever missing a beat.

Watch the performance here.

14. Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performed an acoustic version of two of their hits.

richie sambora bon jovi vmas
Richie Sambora and Bon Jovi singing at the 1989 VMAs.hand90/YouTube

The duo performed acoustic versions of both "Living on a Prayer" and "Wanted Dead or Alive." The performance helped launch MTV's "Unplugged" series where artists played acoustic instruments.

Watch the performance here.

13. Lady Gaga gave a mini concert when she performed a medley of several songs with different masks at the 2020 VMAs.

lady gaga ariana grande 2020 mtv video music awards
Ariana Grande joined Lady Gaga to perform "Rain on Me" at the VMAs.Kevin Winter/MTV VMAs 2020/Getty Images for MTV

Before accepting MTV's inaugural tricon award, Lady Gaga danced and played the piano as she transitioned from "Enigma," "Chromatica II," "911," "Rain on Me," and "Stupid Love."

The singer encouraged fans to wear masks as she changed outfits several times all while singing with a covered face.

You can watch the performance here.

12. Jennifer Lopez took fans through her greatest hits in 2018.

jennifer lopez mtv vmas 2018
Jennifer Lopez had a few outfit changes in 2018. She glittered in all of them.MTV

Lopez kicked off a medley of her greatest hits soaring through the sky to "Waiting to Tonight" in 2018 before accepting the vanguard award.

Lopez ran through "Love Don't Cost a Thing," "All I Have," and more in 10 minutes. The highlight came when Lopez broke for a costume change to ride in on the New York subway's 6 line to introduce "Jenny From the Block" before Ja Rule joined her for a surprise performance of their hits "I'm Real" and "Ain't It Funny."

Watch the performance here.

11. Madonna tried to up her first performance with an opera-like rendition of "Vogue" at the 1990 VMAs.

madonna mtv vmas 1990
Madonna and her dancers perfected some mesmerizing fan work in sync.MTV, Madonna/YouTube

Madonna surprised viewers when she and her dancers came out dressed in elegant Victorian garb. The entire performance was like watching a Broadway medley.

But it wouldn't be a Madonna act without a little controversy. The singer shocked the audience when one of her background dancers came up behind her and squeezed her breasts. Later during the performance, she and a few dancers flashed the audience and later flashed the crowd their underwear.

Watch the performance here.

10. Missy Elliott gave a futuristic and visually stunning performance of all her dance-inducing hits at the 2019 VMAs.

missy elliott vmas
Missy Elliott performs onstage during the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center on August 26, 2019, in Newark, New Jersey.John Shearer/Getty Images

The hip hop legend, who received the vanguard award, performed a medley of her biggest bops, including "Work It," "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" and her latest single "Throw It Back." The impressive stage lent itself to futuristic and elaborate visuals, with a giant UFO looming over the stage that sucked up one dancer at one point in the set.

Another fan favorite moment was when Elliott brought out actress and dancer, Alyson Stoner, who appeared in the rapper's "Work It" video 17 years ago.

Watch the performance here.

9. Bruce Springsteen gave an emotional performance of "The Rising" in New York City the year after 9/11.

bruce springsteen vma
Springsteen at the 2002 VMAs.AP Photo/Stephen Chernin

Springsteen and the E Street Band's performance was a touching one for those in New York City nearly a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. They played the song in the rain outside the Museum Of Natural History.

Watch the performance here.

8. Britney Spears' 2000 VMAs performance was the year the singer shed her school-girl image.

britney spears oops i did it again mtv vmas 2000
This is one of the most iconic outfits that Britney Spears has ever worn.Scott Gries/Getty Images

Spears came out on stage in a pantsuit and hat singing a rendition of "Satisfaction."

But then a minute into the song, the singer shed the conservative look for a sparkly flesh-colored two-piece. Spears then transitioned into her hit, "Oops! ... I Did It Again."

Watch the performance here.

7. Beyoncé reveals her first pregnancy during her performance of "Love on Top."

Beyoncé performing "Love on Top" at the 2011 VMAs.Kevin Winter/Getty Images

At the end of her 2011 performance, Beyoncé opened her suit jacket and rubbed her belly, revealing her first pregnancy. No one realized it at the moment, but she started the song saying, "I want you to feel the love that's growing inside of me."

Watch the performance and pregnancy announcement here.

6. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera's 2003 tribute to Madonna before she popped out of a cake and shared a kiss with both on stage.

britney spears christina madonna
It wasn't enough to just see the three women on stage. Madonna made it a moment everyone wouldn't forget.AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

The princesses of pop took it back to 1984 when they both channeled Madonna's original VMAs performance. The two sang "Like a Virgin" in wedding dresses. They even had a replica of the cake from the original performance.

But it went to the next level when Madonna came out of the cake to join the singers for a rendition of "Hollywood."Kisses with both Spears and Aguilera on stage quickly became the show's most talked-about moment. Missy Elliot came out afterward to join, but by then the act was already set to become one of the most memorable moments in VMA history.

Watch the performance here.

5. Lady Gaga's first VMA appearance ended with her covered in fake blood.

lady gaga vmas
Lady Gaga hangs above the crowd at the 2009 VMAs.AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Lady Gaga made a huge impression during her first VMA appearance with a performance-art rendition of her single "Paparazzi." Gaga sang, danced, played the piano, and even sported fake blood which she smeared all over herself.

You can actually hear some people in the crowd gasp at the sight of the blood on the singer. They weren't sure if it was a gag at first. But it didn't stop there. She ended her performance by swinging from the air.

Watch the performance here.

4. Michael Jackson danced his heart out at the 1995 VMAs.

michael jackson slash
Michael Jackson on the VMA stage with Slash.AP Photo/ Bebeto Matthews

Michael Jackson moonwalked and did his iconic Billie Jean dance on stage at the 1995 VMAs. The performance included "Dangerous" and "Smooth Criminal" along with Slash, too.

Every time you think the VMA performance is over, he keeps coming back for more to make this a 15-minute medley.

Watch the performance here.

3. Britney Spears stole the show when she danced with a snake to "I'm a Slave 4 U."

britney spears snake vmas 2001
Britney Spears with a snake at the VMAs.AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser

The jungle-themed outfit and belly ring weren't enough for Spears at the 2001 VMAs. After coming out of a cage and dancing for over two minutes, she walked around the stage with a giant python around her neck like it was no big deal. Spears even crouched down near fans with the serpent.

Watch the performance here.

2. Madonna danced on a cake and rolled around on the ground performing "Like a Virgin" at the first VMAs.

Madonna at the 1984 VMAs. She was wearing a belt with the words "Boy Toy."MTV/VH1, YouTube

Madonna kicked off the first VMAs in 1984 with a hot and heavy performance of "Like a Virgin" before it was a hit. According to Billboard, the then-26-year-old pop star originally wanted to sing to a white Bengal tiger. Instead, she emerged from a 17-foot-tall wedding cake to perform.

In the middle of the song, she starts rolling around on the ground. It looks like it's on purpose, but the singer actually lost her shoe while descending the cake. She ran with it, using the moment to put her heels back on. She ended the song dramatically rolling around on the ground and revealing her undergarments to the crowd.

Watch the performance here.

1. Beyoncé performed a medley of songs from her album "Lemonade" in a stunning 16-minute set at the 2016 MTV VMAs.

beyonce mtv vmas
Beyoncé performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards at Madison Square Garden in New York City.Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Beyoncé stole the show that year with an incredible performance of songs from one of her most celebrated albums to date, with standout moments like her sleek dance breaks for "Hold Up" and "Formation."

That year, she also passed Madonna as the artist with the most MTV VMA awards, with 26 Moonmen. Watching her performance, it's not surprising.

Watch the performance here.

Read the original article on Insider