Snakes, moonwalking, queens: It can only be the VMAs

By Ruth Kinane
Updated August 15, 2019 at 07:36 PM EDT

Each year MTV brings the most celebrated names in pop to the stage of the Video Music Awards. More often than not, these performances produce jaw-dropping, eye-widening moments that have people talking for days (sometimes years) to come. This year is likely to follow suit, with a lineup including Ariana Grande, Travis Scott, Post Malone, Shawn Mendes, Logic with Ryan Tedder, and Panic! At the Disco. Before it all goes down, let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable moments to take place on the VMAs stage.

1. Michael Jackson, Medley, 1995

Proving why he was, is, and always will be the king of pop, Michael Jackson stormed the VMA stage 16 years ago to perform a 15-minute medley of his hits. “Some of us like to take that crazy walk on the wild side,” he told the crowd before proceeding to do just that: There was pelvic thrusting, moonwalking and crotch grabbing and Guns N’ Roses’ Slash joined him on stage for some massive guitar solos.

2. Britney Spears, “Oops!…I Did It Again,” 2000

In the early 2000s the words Britney Spears and MTV were pretty much synonymous and the then-teenage pop star was the VMAs’ darling. Perhaps her most memorable performance was later in 2001 (yes, the one with the snake) but 2000’s rendition of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” into “Oops!…I Did It Again” is equally as noteworthy. Not only did her pantsuit pretty mush dissolve into a flesh-colored, jewel-encrusted, skin-tight pants and bra set, but her dance moves were truly at their peak. Just look at that dance break at 3:25. Heroes, they truly exist.

3. Eminem, “The Real Slim Shady”/”The Way I Am,” 2000

May I have your attention, please? In 2000, Eminem kicked off the show with what must have been a logistical nightmare to rehearse. Starting in the streets of Manhattan, the rapper was surrounded by hundred of clones: they cussed like him, dressed like him, walked, talked and acted like him, they just might have been the next best thing, but they weren’t quite him. They did make for a lasting memory though. Note the moment where Eminem hits the lyric about Carson Daly and opportunely shakes hands with him in the crowd as he passes. MTV at its best.

4. Britney Spears, “I’m a Slave 4 U,” 2001

We promise this list isn’t only comprised of Britney songs, but this is the performance that all other VMA performances will — and should be — measured up against for the rest of time. Not just anyone would get on stage, drape an albino python around her neck and dance like it was no big deal — even Brit later admitted she didn’t know why she’d agreed to do it.

5. Madonna, “Like a Virgin” / “Hollywood,” 2003

What do you get if you put Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera on the VMA stage together? Well, a massive wedding cake, two brides, and a couple of kisses. In 2003, the leading ladies of pop gathered onstage alongside Missy Elliot to sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” nineteen years after the icon originally performed it at the 1984 MTV awards show.

6. Beyoncé, “Love On Top,” 2011

Yes, Queen B delivered an impeccable performance (we’d expect nothing less), but she also chose the end of the song to unbutton her sparkly pink blazer and reveal her pregnant stomach to the world. Cue a very excited Jay Z jumping about in the crowd. Talk about show-stopping.

7. Justin Timberlake, Medley, 2013

A medley of Justin Timberlake’s solo hits would’ve been enough of a treat during the 2013 VMAs, but add in a reunion with his ‘NSYNC band mates for “Bye Bye Bye” and “Girlfriend,” and even if you’re too young/old to be part of the TRL generation this was a pretty epic moment in pop music history. Even the-far-too-young-to-remember-‘NSYNC-at-their-prime One Direction men were getting hyped in the crowd.

8. Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop” 2013

If we remember this one for all the wrong reasons, is it still considered an unforgettable performance? From the moment she stepped out of a bear to dance with some bears, and then partook in some rude gesturing with a foam finger and twerking up against Robin Thicke (who was dressed in black and white, too-tight, pinstriped pants and matching jacket), Miley was on a mission to set tongues wagging and not just her own. It certainly shocked viewers, which — let’s be honest — is the entire goal of VMA producers.

9. Beyoncé, Medley, 2016

Queen Bey pretty much put those “middle fingers up” to every other future VMAs performer in a just-try-and-match-me way with her 2016 medley of Lemonade favorites. The intensity and ferocity of the 16-minute performance completely eclipsed every other artist taking the stage that night and had the Beyhive and beyond buzzing. From grinding in a literal ring of fire to wielding a baseball bat right into the lens of a camera, Beyoncé made it clear she really ain’t sorry for setting the bar so high.