The Most Unforgettable VMAs Moments Ever

From scene-stealing outfits to performances that made history.

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The MTV Video Music Awards only began in 1984—but from their inception, they've been a reliably shocking part of award season. Known as the VMAs, the show often features out-there moments and equally dramatic set pieces, from stage rain to fire to (in one memorable case) a live snake. But it's also seen avant-garde fashion and some of our greatest artists performing at the top of their game. Below, the most exciting, shocking, joyful, and glorious moments from the VMAs ever.

Katy Perry and Riff Raff Do Denim, 2014

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I will never not be delighted by this full-throated homage: Katy Perry and Riff Raff attended the ceremony in 2014 with a modern reimagining of the double-denim look Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake wore to the 2002 American Music Awards.

*NSYNC Reunites, 2023

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More than two decades after their last studio album, *NSYNC took the stage in 2023 to give out the first award: Taylor Swift for Best Pop (she won for her "Anti-Hero" music video). Much like the rest of us, Swift was star-struck, calling the group "pop personified."

*NSYNC Reunites, 2013

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The same year Justin Timberlake won the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, he took the stage with his *NSYNC bandmates to perform “Bye Bye Bye” and “Girlfriend." It was the last time all five members would appear onstage at the same time until 2023.

Taylor Swift Has Thoughts, 2013

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Fans were intrigued by Harry Styles and Taylor Swift (who famously dated) together at the same ceremony. They were not disappointed; Swift said in her acceptance speech, in part, "'I also want to thank the person who inspired this song because he knows exactly who he is, because now I've got one of these!" Later, the camera panned to Swift maybe saying "shut the **** up" while Styles was on stage.

Prince Goes For It, 1991

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Prince was never known for shying away from a scandalous moment—and in 1991, he did it without saying a single word. Unbeknownst to the crowd (and arguably the cameraman), the seat of his yellow pants was totally sheer. So when he turned around, people saw...a lot of him.

Lorde Performs (But Doesn't Sing!), 2017

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When Lorde took the stage in 2017, it was to deliver an interpretive dance that had no vocals at all. The crowd was...confused, to put it mildly. She later shared on social media that she had the flu so badly it had required an IV—so the fact that she performed at all is quite impressive, actually.

Cardi B's "Baby," 2018

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Cardi B took the stage to introduce Shawn Mendes cradling a tiny bundle. Delighting her fans with the prospect that she might debut her new infant daughter Kulture onstage at the VMAs (and terrifying others for that exact same reason)—it was all a fakeout: she was actually holding a Moon Man statue.

Justin Bieber Gets Emotional, 2015

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By the end of his performance of "What Do You Mean" at the 2015 VMAs, Justin Bieber was so emotional that he was actively weeping onstage. He later explained that he was blown away by the public support (after having been booed the last time he was at an awards show).

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Perform, 2002

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As Bruce Springsteen and the E Street reunited by taking to the stage to perform "The Rising" in 2002, it was a moving performance in the wake of the recent September 11 tragedies. The moment was lost on no one, and the crowd was on their feet singing along.

Taylor Swift's "Squad," 2015

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If you're familiar with Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" music video, you'll know it contains cameos from her "girl squad" including Selena Gomez and Gigi Hadid. Joining her on the red carpet were some of those famous pals, with critics noting she'd brought together some of the most beautiful people on the planet.

Olivia Rodrigo's "Clones," 2023

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Olivia Rodrigo knows how to put on a show: she began her 2023 VMAs performance singing in a lush forest environment, then everything "fell apart," with props falling and catching fire. Then she re-entered, with a bunch of Olivia clones "singing" and performing alongside her.

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion Perform, 2023

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For their first live performance of "Bongos," collaborators and OTT performers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion put on quite a show. Naturally Cardi B came in from the ceiling on a disco ball, with Megan coming in with backup dancers for an energetic dance number.

Kelly Clarkson Makes It Rain (Inside!), 2005

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Replicating her music video for "Since U Been Gone," Kelly Clarkson's performance saw rain coming down inside the arena. "I wasn't supposed to be a part of the rain," she said. "They were like, 'Oh no, you're not allowed to do that.' I don't know if it was a liability or whatever, but then it was like, I didn't tell them so no one was really held accountable, only myself."

Kendrick Lamar Lights It Up, 2017

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Setting the stage on fire—and not just with his performance—Kendrick Lamar opened the 2017 VMAs with a commentary against police brutality with a wall of fire behind him being scaled by ninjas. It's largely considered one of the coolest performances the award show has ever seen.

Shakira's Greatest Hits, 2023

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There to accept the Video Vanguard Award, Shakira was about to prove why she deserved the award. She nailed it in a medley of her songs (including classics like "Hips Don't Lie" and newer Spanish-language hits)—a drum circle, stage rain, and crowd-surfing were all a part of the performance.

Janet Jackson's Tribute, 2009

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In tribute to the late Michael Jackson (who died in June 2009), the beginning of the VMAs was a dance sequence in recognition of the icon's contribution to music. Then Janet Jackson took the stage to do a live dance-off with a video of her brother projected behind her.

Stars Pay Tribute to Notorious B.I.G., 1997

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To honor the late Notorious B.I.G. (who died in March 1997), a live version of "Every Breath You Take" featured Puff Daddy, a gospel choir, Sting, Faith Evans, R&B group 112, and Biggie's widow all contributing vocals. Puff Daddy shouted out a number of names of "people we lost," including Tupac.

Nirvana Performs, 1992

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This iconic performance was also chaotic start to finish, with the band beginning their set by playing the chords of a song they were banned from playing, then the bassist throwing his guitar up in the air and accidentally whacking himself in the face. It's also a legacy to the brilliant talent of the late Kurt Cobain.

An Important Message, 2017

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To bring awareness to suicide prevention, Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid performed Logic's "1-800-273-8255" song (the same number as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). According to MTV and reported by USA Today, it "helped drive a 50% spike in call volume to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the hours following the show."

Ariana Grande's Last Supper, 2018

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There to perform "God Is a Woman," Ariana Grande recreated an iconic artwork onstage (for context, the song and music video contain references to Christianity and its art). She and 50 other dancers sat on one side of a long table, recreating Da Vinci's infamous "The Last Supper."

Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, 1989

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This stripped down acoustic version of "Livin’ On a Prayer"/"Wanted Dead or Alive" from 1989 is a testament to how powerful a quiet, unfussy performance can be. Case in point: this was so beloved by the audience that it reportedly inspired MTV's "Unplugged" series.

Beyonce Tells the World She's Pregnant, 2011

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At the ery end of a performance of "Love on Top," Queen Bey had one more gift for her audience: she unbuttoned her jacket and cradled her baby bump, revealing to the whole world (and confirming the rumors) that she was pregnant. Her fans went absolutely wild.

Missy Elliott Performs, 2019

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Missy Elliott's Video Vanguard performance was a remind of why she is so iconic: performing some of her most classic songs ("Get Ur Freak On," "Lose Control," and "Work It," to name a few), the stage was transformed to resemble the music videos for each.

A Special Guest Appearance, 2019

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During Missy Elliott's 2019 Vanguard performance, she was also joined by a special guest star: Alyson Stoner, who was the kid dancer who appeared in the original music video for "Work It." Stoner absolutely nailed the performance, and it was probably the coolest of many references.

Rihanna Performs (4 Times!), 2016

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Instead of performing one time and doing a few of her greatest hits, Rihanna spread the love out a little, performing four times during the awards ceremony. What's even cooler is that her first performance was a medley: “Only Girl,” “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Where Have You Been,” and “We Found Love.”

Whitney Houston Makes Her VMAs Debut, 1986

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For her first appearance at the VMAs, Whitney Houston had a banner year: she won Best Female Video for “How Will I Know" and also performed. It was a gorgeous, rousing performance, including a chills-inducing rendition of "The Greatest Love of All."

Demi Lovato Returns, 2023

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When Demi Lovato took the stage for the first time in six years to perform a medley of their greatest hits, including “Heart Attack,” “Sorry Not Sorry,” and “Cool for the Summer," it was an epic performance (complete with pyrotechnics!) and an incredible return to form for the singer.

Ariana Grande and a Bike, 2016

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Never will I ever have the core strength and lung capacity to get on stage and do an entire exercise performance. But that is exactly what Ariana Grande did, moving from singing while riding an exercise bike to lifting weights and crooning on a pommel horse.

Britney Spears and the Snake, 2001

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Constantly upping the ante of her own high-energy performances, Britney Spears may have hit her own personal zenith when she danced around with a live freaking snake while she sang "Slave 4 U." She later wrote in her memoir that it was terrifying.

Beyoncé Performs, 2016

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When Beyoncé performed her Lemonade medley, it was an epic 15 minutes long. The whole thing's worth a watch, really, but there were lights and spectacle, plenty of live singing, epic dancing from a bunch of performers, crowd work, incredible costumes, and an epic coat.

Lizzo Performs, 2019

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Lizzo is a joy to watch in any of her concerts, but for her 2019 VMAs set, she was in rare form: great dancing, taking a drink in the middle of the performance, and an emotional speech in the middle. And how can we forget: the performance included a giant inflated bottom! It was incredible!

Madonna Performs, 1984

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It could be argued there has never been a bigger or better VMA debut than Madonna singing "Like a Virgin" in a wedding dress onstage. It's also worth noting that this was the first VMAs ever—setting a precedent that this would not be your ordinary award show.

Katherine J. Igoe
Contributing Editor

Katherine’s a contributing syndications editor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle. In her role, she writes stories that are syndicated by MSN and other outlets. She’s been a full-time freelancer for over a decade and has had roles with Cosmopolitan (where she covered lifestyle, culture, and fashion SEO content) and Bustle (where she was their movies and culture writer). She has bylines in New York TimesParentsInStyle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Her work has also been syndicated by ELLEHarper’s BazaarSeventeenGood Housekeeping, and Women’s Health, among others. In addition to her stories reaching millions of readers, content she's written and edited has qualified for a Bell Ringer Award and received a Communicator Award. 

Katherine has a BA in English and art history from the University of Notre Dame and an MA in art business from the Sotheby's Institute of Art (with a focus on marketing/communications). She covers a wide breadth of topics: she's written about how to find the very best petite jeanshow sustainable travel has found its footing on Instagram, and what it's like to be a professional advice-giver in the modern world. Her personal essays have run the gamut from learning to dress as a queer woman to navigating food allergies as a mom. She also has deep knowledge of SEO/EATT, affiliate revenue, commerce, and social media; she regularly edits the work of other writers. She speaks at writing-related events and podcasts about freelancing and journalism, mentors students and other new writers, and consults on coursework. Currently, Katherine lives in Boston with her husband and two kids, and you can follow her on Instagram. If you're wondering about her last name, it’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.