32 of the most shocking performances ever
Lenny Kravitz accidentally gave fans more than they paid for during a 2015 performance at Gröna Lund. In his very first song of the show, his skin-tight leather pants split, and #PenisGate soon began trending. The rocker later tweeted Steven Tyler's text message about the incident: "Dude... No underwear and pierced...F--- me.. You never showed me that s---."
Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake
When you hear "wardrobe malfunction," chances are you think of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake's Super Bowl halftime performance in 2004. Singing "Rock Your Body," Timberlake tore fabric from Janet Jackson's clothing, exposing her breast to millions of people watching across the world. Though Nipplegate inspired the creation of YouTube, the accident also resulted in a record number of complaints received by the FCC and a challenging chapter in Jackson's career. That led to outrage when Timberlake was selected as the halftime headliner in 2018, as Jackson fans sought #JusticeForJanet on Twitter. Still, EW's Tim Stack argued in 2013 that the 2004 show was the best in recent memory.
Rock and roll legend Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a (reportedly already dead) bat during a 1982 concert in Des Moines, Iowa. The Black Sabbath musician believed that it was a toy bat, and went to get rabies shots after the show ended, according to reports. Regardless of what Osbourne actually thought, he sent the crowd wild with his extreme act that still sparks discussion today.
Britney Spears, Madonna, and Christina Aguilera
The MTV VMAs have been full of memorable moments over the years (several of which appear in this gallery), but this one may take the cake. During a joint performance at the 2003 VMAs, Madonna kissed Britney Spears and then Christina Aguilera during "Hollywood." The set — including a cut to Spears' ex Justin Timberlake's reaction in the audience — was a topic at water coolers before Facebook even existed.
The Dixie Chicks
The Dixie Chicks' most controversial live performance had more to do with political activism than music. During a 2003 concert at Shepherd's Bush Empire in London, frontwoman Natalie Maines said of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush, "We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." What followed was some serious criticism. However, the female group did not back down from the comments, and they discussed the ordeal in their 2003 Entertainment Weekly cover story, which showed them nude and covered with epithets like "Sadaam’s Angels" and "Dixie Sluts." Reflecting on the shoot, Emily Robison said, "It definitely was the most bold thing as a person and as a band we had ever done."
Beyoncé one-upped her usual phenomenal performances during the 2011 VMAs by announcing her pregnancy during a rendition of "Love On Top." In the opening bars of the track, Beyoncé said, "I want you to feel the love that's growing inside of me," making the audience even more excited. She also capped off the performance by dropping the mic, unbuttoning her jacket, and rubbing her stomach just so everyone was on the same page. The performance also included footage of an ecstatic JAY-Z accompanied by a supportive Kanye West.
While filming a Pepsi ad in January 1984, a special effects explosion went horribly wrong, ending with Michael Jackson's hair in flames. The King of Pop suffered second- and third-degree burns on his scalp. The incident is believed to have influenced Jackson's addiction to sedatives, though Miko Brando, a former Jackson friend, told Good Morning America in 2009 that he's not convinced.
With his popularity on the rise, Elvis Presley appeared on The Milton Berle Show in 1956. During a performance of "Hound Dog," the legend drew screams of excitement from the audience with his then-controversial hip-centric dance moves. The performance introduced Elvis to many American homes, but the critics were harsh. Penned New York Times critic Jack Gould at the time: "The gyration never had anything to do with the world of popular music and still doesn’t."
During the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Bob Dylan took to the stage with an electric guitar for the first time. Though it's still debated whether the crowd's negative response was due to the sound quality or Dylan's transition from an acoustic folk artist to an electric guitar-wielding star, the lack of applause was evident. Even with boos raining down, Dylan played through his new material, which included the not-yet-famous "Like a Rolling Stone."
Despite its upbeat pop vibes, the "Paparazzi" lyrics depict a serious struggle between wanting fame and love. Lady Gaga took the message to a dark place in a 2009 VMAs performance, shocking the audience by simulating her own death at the end of the song. Eventually, she would be covered in blood and dangling above the stage.
Iggy Pop has always had a reputation for unpredictable stage antics, but one particular set might outshine the rest. He smothered himself in peanut butter during a 1970 concert in Cincinnati while immersed in the crowd, simultaneously flinging some at the rest of the audience. While the video clip makes it seem like the concertgoers don't mind, cheering on the artist, it seems unlikely that the clean-up crew enjoyed the stunt quite as much.
Ashlee Simpson surprised many Saturday Night Live viewers when pre-recorded vocals began playing out of place during her 2004 performance. According to her manager, father Joe Simpson, she was unable to sing live without a backing track due to acid reflux, and her drummer forgot to reset the track after the first song. The singer-songwriter's career was never quite the same after this lip-sync scandal, though to her credit, the New York Times recently asked, "Was Ashlee Simpson Underappreciated?"
Don't give Green Day time limits. In a 2012 performance at the iHeartRadio Festival, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong went on an expletive-riddled rant after seeing that he only had one minute remaining in their set. "I'm not f---ing Justin Bieber, you motherf---ers," he said in part, going on to smash his guitar before storming off the stage. Armstrong sought substance abuse treatment shortly after the performance and later admitted that he was at his "pill-taking height" in that chapter of his career.
Guns N' Roses
Guns N' Roses lead singer Axl Rose stirred up some controversy by jumping into the crowd after seeing a fan taking photos of him during a 1991 show in St. Louis. Following his return to the stahe, the frontman announced the end of the show, citing the "lame ass security" as the reason. A riot ensued, and 65 people were reportedly injured. Rose and several others were arrested.
Following a reported dispute between whether The Who or Jimi Hendrix would perform first at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival (The Who won the eventual coin flip, electing to take the stage before the late legend), the "Hey Joe" singer promised to "pull out all stops," and he did not disappoint. Besides shredding the guitar with his teeth and behind his head, he concluded his performance by dousing his guitar in lighter fluid and setting it ablaze. In the process, Hendrix "graduated from rumor to legend," the Los Angeles Times said at the time.
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's lasts...screaming? Roseanne Barr screeched her way through the national anthem ahead of a 1990 baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres. Barr was booed loudly, leading her to make an obscene gesture and spit at the end of the anthem. “I was singing in my act at the time – and I am a good singer – I was flattered and fully intended to sing a good version of the song,” she told the Washington Post in 2015. Barr explained that she got some good advice from Johnny Carson — “Whatever you do, don’t start too high," he told her — but wound up starting "too high."
Madonna's live performance of "Like a Virgin" during her Blond Ambition tour plays an integral role in her Truth or Dare documentary, released in 1991. This live performance made headlines because the musician simulated masturbation, which EW in 1991 described as "hilariously kinky." But it actually got Madonna in real trouble: As detailed in the doc, Canadian police threatened to arrest the star for her performance in Toronto. And in one of the most Madonna responses ever, she told her inner circle, "I’m not changing my f---ing show."
If you're out of dance moves, check out Corey Feldman's 2016 Today show performance for some suggestions. The Stand By Me and Goonies star appeared on the show to perform his song, "Go 4 It," and well, he really went for it. Decked out in all black with the rest of his band sporting all white to depict "good versus evil," the whole thing was a bit surprising, to say the least, and immediately went viral. He returned to the show not too long after to defend his performance and play another track.
The idea of going to see Diana Ross perform in Central Park for free sounds incredibly appealing, right? Perhaps not in a torrential downpour with winds gusting up to 55 miles per hour. In the midst of the 1983 show, Ross told the 450,000 people in attendance, "It took me a lifetime to get here, and I'm not going anywhere," drawing a huge cheer from the audience. With the rain deluging and winds swirling, Ross went on until it was impossible to continue. She promised to appear again the next night and held true to her word, albeit for a smaller crowd.
Beyoncé takes the show-must-go-on mentality seriously. During a 2013 concert in Montreal, Queen Bey's hair got stuck in a giant fan while performing "Halo." Even so, she hardly missed a beat, continuing on with the song as staff worked to free her hair.
In the middle of an already unusual set at SXSW in 2014, Lady Gaga dropped a huge surprise on the audience in Austin, Texas. While performing "Swine," she introduced performance artist Millie Brown, who proceeded to vomit on Gaga repeatedly throughout the song. At one point, the two were on a mechanical bull together while Brown vomited black and bright green liquid on Gaga's white apron. SXSW always brings surprises, but this performance ranks near the top.
During a 2012 performance of the band's classic hit "Enter Sandman," things took a frightening turn when some equipment seemingly malfunctioned and one of the stagehands caught on fire and ran across the stage. The stage then began to collapse rapidly, with the band stopping the performance and later continuing. There have since been reports that the entire thing was staged.
In the midst of an admittedly difficult time for Nirvana, the band was set to headline the 1992 Reading Festival. With frontman Kurt Cobain in and out of rehab, many had questions about the future of the group. Cobain entered in a hospital gown, being pushed in a wheelchair, and then pretended to collapse. The band jumped into a performance of "Breed" and put on what is hailed as one of the better live shows in recent decades.
It's not easy to nab the bigger headline when sharing the stage with Madonna, but M.I.A. might have managed to do so during her 2012 Super Bowl guest appearance. Completing her guest verse on Madonna's "Give Me All Your Luvin'," the rapper gave the world the middle finger during her final line. Ironically, the line was "I'mma say this once, yeah, I don't give a s---." The NFL sued her for $16.6 million, and a settlement was eventually reached.
Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke
The musicians became the talk of the 2013 MTV VMAs after their medley of "We Can't Stop" and "Blurred Lines." During the performance, Cyrus twerked up a storm on the stage, including directly dancing on Thicke at one point. Whether a fan or not, Cyrus succeeded in getting everyone talking about her performance. For what it's worth, apparently Donald Trump was a big fan.
The Rolling Stones
During the Altamont Free Concert in California in 1969, the Rolling Stones were separated from the crowd by a small patch of grass and a four-foot high stage. Things got out of hand, and the patrol for the event, the Hell's Angels, responded with violence. In the image here, they are beating a fan with sawed-off pool cues, and a different fan on methamphetamine and brandishing a gun died after being stabbed by one of the Hell's Angels. The series of events was later shown in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter.
The seasoned Video Music Awards veteran was widely criticized for her 2007 performance of "Gimme More." In the midst of a tough time for Spears, her lip-syncing and lack of enthusiasm had some wondering whether she was down for the count. Over a decade removed from the incident, Spears has long since proven the performance doesn't define her.
Elvis Costello's record label wanted to play "Less Than Zero" — a song about a controversial British politician — during his Saturday Night Live debut in 1977. After performing the track for just a couple of bars, Costello whipped around to his band, yelling to stop. He apologized to the crowd, saying, "I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no reason to do this song here." He played "Radio Radio" instead and subsequently was banned by SNL until 1989.
During an infamous performance in Miami in March 1969, Jim Morrison exposed himself to the crowd, according to authorities at the time. However, ever since the trial, there has been a debate about whether the incident actually occurred. In 2010, Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek told NPR's Fresh Air that Morrison only asked the audience if they wanted to see more. "They hallucinated. I swear, the guy never did it," Manzarek said. "He never whipped it out. It was one of those mass hallucinations."
Talk about going out with a bang. During a 1967 performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Who played "My Generation" for a studio audience. At the end of the song, drummer Keith Moon set off an explosion that was waiting inside of his drumkit. Though the band members and staffers of the show reportedly knew about the surprise at the end, they had no idea of its magnitude. Lead guitarist Pete Townshend later claimed that the incident resulted in hearing loss.
If there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that Madonna isn't going to ever back down from a controversial performance. During her 2006 Confessions World Tour, the icon repeatedly donned a crown of thorns and performed "Live to Tell" in a mock crucifixion scene. "This is not a mocking of the church," Madonna said in a statement. "Rather, it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and to see the world as a unified whole. I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today he would be doing the same thing."
The Doors made their first and last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in September 1967. According to the show's website, Sullivan stopped by the band's dressing room following rehearsals and said, "You boys look great, [but] you ought to smile a little more." Shortly thereafter, a producer told the bang to change the lyric "girl, we couldn't get much higher" due to its association with drug usage. However, during the live performance, Morrison kept the original lyrics, and the band never appeared on the show again.