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The 13 MTV VMA performances everyone remembers — or should

Britney Spears, Madonna, Christina Aguilera's perfect side-eye.
Britney Spears, Madonna, Christina Aguilera's perfect side-eye.
Scott Gries/Getty Images

More than 30 years after they first debuted, the MTV Video Music Awards have become less about winners and losers than about the hijinks that happen on air during the ceremony broadcast. (The general exception is the ultimate award for Video of the Year, which has consistently rankled fans and artists alike.) Performers go all out for the VMAs, drawing on everything from zoo animals to twerking to get people talking about them, regardless of whether they win an award.

There have been hundreds of VMA performances since the awards kicked off in 1984, but here are the 13 everyone remembers — or should, anyway.

1) Madonna, "Like a Virgin" (1984)

Why it's memorable: Madonna became one of the VMAs' most frequent performers, but in 1984 she was still making her mark. Her performance of "Like a Virgin" in a wedding dress for the very first VMAs solidified her brand of good Catholic girl gone rogue for millions of viewers.

High point: Striding down a giant wedding cake and punctuating a crooned "like a virgin" with a Michael Jackson-esque "ow!"

Low point: Wrapping up the song by wrapping herself in her dress like a burrito.

2) Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, "Livin' on a Prayer"/"Wanted Dead or Alive" (1989)

Why it's memorable: Bon Jovi and Sambora were known for rocking out, belting into their mics as their voluminous hair whipped to and fro in the wake of plentiful wind machines. For this VMA performance, however, they sat center stage and sang acoustic versions of two of their biggest hits. (This was also the year MTV launched its acoustic concert series, MTV: Unplugged. The sweet sound of gently plucked guitar strings was in the air.)

High point: Bon Jovi's voice soaring to a languorous "Livin' on a Prayer."

Low point: Bon Jovi's multilayered choker.

3) Prince, "Gett Off" (1991)

Why it's memorable: The VMAs became known for provocative performances. No act better illustrates why than Prince's deliberately explicit rendition of "Gett Off." We're talking flames, splits, simulated sex, and assless chaps. The musical orgy lasted over seven minutes, which is something!

High point: I did say "assless chaps," right?

Low point: Prince droning "make ... love ... make ... love." We get it, dude. Sex.

4) Nirvana, "Lithium" (1992)

Why it's memorable: MTV wanted — and expected — Nirvana to play "Smells Like Teen Spirit" after months of showing the video for the song. Instead, Nirvana kicked off the 1992 VMAs with a few bars of "Rape Me" before launching into a passionate performance of "Lithium." It ended with the band's members throwing everything they could get their hands on around the stage.

High point: Kurt Cobain's raw, shredded vocals.

Low (but hilarious) point: Krist Novoselic throwing his bass in the air, failing to catch it, and almost knocking himself clean out.

5) Michael Jackson medley (1995)

Why it's memorable: This performance clocked in at just over 15 minutes, encompassing many of Jackson's greatest hits and dance moves. A wind machine blasted throughout songs like "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Smooth Criminal," "Billie Jean," "Black or White," and more. He even got Slash to come out and perform Van Halen's guitar solo from "Beat It."

High point: Jackson's extended solo dance party to the instrumentals of "Billie Jean."

Low point: By default, Slash.

6) Puff Daddy/Sting/Faith Evans/112, "I'll Be Missing You" (1997)

Why it's memorable: It was a tribute to Notorious B.I.G. as performed by his frequent collaborator (Puff Daddy), his wife (Faith Evans), a gospel choir, and Sting. How could it not be memorable?

High point: The gospel choir swelling on the chorus of "Every Breath You Take," which gave overt sentimentality a good name.

Low point: "Clap your hands for Versace! Clap your hands for Princess Diana! Clap your hands for Notorious B.I.G.! Clap your hands for everybody we lost!"

7) Britney Spears, "I'm a Slave 4 U" (2001)

Why it's memorable: Britney Spears's performances have been a consistent VMA highlight. Spears's limitations as a vocalist have never mattered, since she is first and foremost a killer dancer. When she's on top of her game — as she was for this astonishingly tight performance of "I'm A Slave 4 U" — there are very few people who can hope to match her.

Also, she brought a snake.

High point: Banana the albino python, obviously.

Low point: The sporadic thunderclaps that tried (and failed) to steal Britney's thunder.

8) NSYNC featuring Michael Jackson, "Dirty Pop" (2001)

Why it's memorable: If you ever need to prove that 2001 was an awesome year for the VMAs beyond Spears's snake handling, point to NSYNC performing "Dirty Pop" only to have Michael Jackson crash the stage in Etch-a-Sketch form.

High point: Michael Jackson dancing as Justin Timberlake beatboxes.

Low point: The pants. Dear god, the pants.

9) Madonna/Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera, "Like a Virgin" and "Hollywood" (2003)

(Note: this performance is almost impossible to find in full with all the sound, but at the very least, you can enjoy these peak 2003 visuals.)

Why it's memorable: Madonna recreating her first VMA performance with two of pop's biggest stars would have been story enough — but then she kissed both of them. No one could stop talking about the minuscule, microsecond kisses, even if you asked them nicely in homeroom because seriously, the "can you believe it!" drooling was getting kind of boring, Dan.

High point: The brief cut to Justin Timberlake after Madonna kissed Britney. Also: every cut to a tickled pink Snoop Dogg.

Low point: How the post-kiss chatter overshadowed a surprise Missy Elliot performance of "Work It."

10) Rihanna, "Disturbia" (2008)

Why it's memorable: Rihanna's first VMA performance was "Disturbia," from the appropriately titled album Good Girl Gone Bad. The singer, previously best known for the dancehall hits "Pon De Replay" and "SOS," opened the 2008 awards with mohawked hair and a take-no-shit attitude, one that lives on to this day.

High point: Backup dancers carrying Ri across the stage as the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" blends into the track.

Low point: The opening act of — I want to say — zombies with glow sticks?

11) Lady Gaga, "Paparazzi" (2009)

Why it's memorable: It's easier to dismiss Lady Gaga's particular brand of performative theatricality now that we have some distance from it. And that's not to mention that she herself seems to be slyly winking at it with her upcoming role in American Horror Story: Hotel. But this 2009 performance is the perfect embodiment of what made her huge, with its high-strung dancing, massive vocals, and a stunning breakdown on a white grand piano. At the height of her pop art powers, Gaga was not to be messed with.

High point/Low point: The end, in which a bleeding Gaga hangs listlessly from the ceiling.

12) Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke, "Blurred Lines" and "We Can't Stop" (2013)

2013 MTV Video Music Awards - Show

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke, 2013 VMAs.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for MTV

Why it's memorable: Do we really have to make a case for why Miley's twerking and a parade of psychedelic bears were memorable? Cyrus herself recently told the New York Times that she couldn't believe this performance was "a big deal. It wasn't shocking at all." To the millions of VMA viewers, though, seeing Cyrus as a club kid was jarring, and the set sparked countless tweets and think pieces — which is exactly why MTV thought she'd make the perfect host for the 2015 VMAs.

High point: "We Can't Stop" is a perfect reminder that Cyrus really is a dynamite performer when she's on.

Low point: "Blurred Lines" and Robin Thicke's leering, which Cyrus now attributes to him wanting her "as naked as possible."

13) Beyoncé medley (2014)

While Beyoncé has also seen repeat success at the VMAs (and even used one performance to publicly announce her pregnancy), she outdid herself at last year's show, with a 15-plus-minute medley of almost every song from her surprise 2013 album, Beyoncé. The performance had a lot to live up to, since that album also came with an accompanying series of gorgeous music videos, but Bey pulled out all the stops (and fog machines) to make sure it would go down in VMA history.

High point: The moment when she transitions out of "Partition" into the self-love anthem "Flawless," accompanied by voiceover from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while standing in front of a giant projection reading "FEMINIST." Whatever you think of the politics of the tableau, this defiant statement from one of the biggest pop acts in history was a spectacular moment.

Low point: Not being able to see Beyoncé through the aforementioned fog.

Correction: The solo on "Beat It" was played by Van Halen.