1. Madonna and Janet Jackson paid tribute to MJ.
This was the big opening, and the event that MTV brass went into the 2009 VMAs thinking was going to be the water cooler moment following the ceremonies. Michael Jackson -- one of the biggest stars of the MTV era, whose death had shocked the world less than three months earlier -- was celebrated by two of the channel's other most enduring icons. Madonna gave a touching speech about the kinship she felt and brief personal relationship she shared with her fellow pop legend, while sister Janet joined an onstage dance routine paying tribute to MJ's hits, closing with a performance of her and Michael's '90s duet "Scream."
The merged presence of the three totemic artists from MTV's past was staggering -- though some of Madonna's sympathetic discussion of Jackson as an artist obsessed with childhood has aged uncomfortably -- but it would end up being dwarfed in the next day's headlines by events that combined three of the most important artists of the channel's present and future.
2. Wale and UCB led the house band.
Back in 2009, D.C. rapper Wale was enough of a rising star to land Lady Gaga as a hook singer, and MTV was convinced enough to let him (along with go-go backing outfit UCB) to lead the house band for the night. In addition to playing several of their MC frontman's own singles, the band also welcomed such timely guests as 3OH!3, Pitbull and the All-American Rejects to play some of their own recent hits, and (perhaps most improbably) welcomed a then-less-known Solange Knowles to the mic for a cover of Kings of Leon's 2009 smash "Use Somebody."
3. Katy Perry and Joe Perry performed "We Will Rock You."
For reasons unclear, Katy Perry -- then a new talent with just one album of pop stardom under her belt -- was tabbed in 2009 to sing Queen's perennial stadium-rocker "We Will Rock You," alongside guitarist Joe Perry of Aerosmith. (Brian May must've been unavailable; he'd show up with Lady Gaga a couple VMAs later.) The short performance essentially served as walk-on music for host Russell Brand -- Perry's then-boyfriend and future husband -- who strutted to the stage in a suit and top hat while a sign blaring his name was revealed on the backdrop behind him, basically the final time he'd ever receive such a reverent introduction stateside.
4. Taylor Swift delivered an excellent performance...
Though she was emotional following the onstage incident with Kanye, Taylor had to shake it off in time for her scheduled performance of "You Belong With Me" -- much of which had been pre-recorded during a one-stop trip on New York's F Train, but the final part of which Swift delivered atop a cab outside of Radio City Music Hall. The performance went smoothly, and marked a triumph for the still-teenage Swift -- particularly in the eyes of the MTV folks worried she might not be able to pull through. "She really dealt with it with true dignity and professionalism," VMAs director Hamish Hamilton recently told Billboard when discussing the '09 ceremonies. "Maybe after the immediate shock and sadness, she pretty quickly channeled that energy into determination."
5. ...and so did Beyoncé.
While it was Swift's first time being a major player at the Video Music Awards, Beyoncé was already an old salt at the VMAs by 2009, having performed multiple times and won several awards, both solo and with Destiny's Child. She showed that experience with a masterful performance of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)," recreating much of the choreography from the song's legendary video and demonstrating why Kanye might've been so aggrieved at her early loss. It was Beyoncé's first truly iconic performance at the Video Music Awards, though far from her last.
6. Green Day had a big night.
In your memory, 2009 might seem a little late for pop punkers-turned-freedom rockers Green Day to still be having a major VMAs impact, but the trio remained MTV stars at the close of their second decade. Not only did they perform 21st Century Breakdown single "East Jesus Nowhere" -- introduced by Megan Fox and Adam Brody, stars of the then-upcoming Jennifer's Body -- but they tied Beyoncé and Lady Gaga for most wins on the night with three, including best rock video for their most recent Hot 100 top 40 hit, "21 Guns."
7. The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" won best video (that should have won a Moonman).
Green Day weren't the only '90s alternative survivors honored on the night -- the Beastie Boys emerged victorious in this one-off category that attempted to right a historical wrong for one of ten classic videos that were denied a VMA win the first time around. (Other esteemed nominees included Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," George Michael's "Freedom '90" and OK Go's "Here It Goes Again.") The Beasties' '70s cop show parody "Sabotage" was certainly a deserving recipient -- though unfortunately, the award was handed out during the event's pre-show, so there was no chance of Nathaniel Hornblower adding to the evening's stage-crash tally. (And much more sadly, Adam Yauch -- the Beastie Boy behind the Hornblower persona -- would be diagnosed with cancer earlier that year, dying from the disease in 2012.)
8. The stars of Twilight introduced a New Moon sneak preview.
Don't forget that for turn-of-the-'10s MTV, the Twilight cast were bigger stars than any actual music video makers could ever hope to be, with the four films in the franchise essentially sweeping the MTV Movie Awards every year from 2009 to 2012. For the '09 VMAs, an exclusive extended trailer for second entry New Moon was every bit the draw that any of the actual performers were -- especially with love-triangle leads Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner all showing up to introduce it. "Twilight fans: Whether you're Team Jacob or Team Edward, we want to thank you for your undying support over the last year," exclaimed Stewart to a smattering of shrieks from the audience.
9. P!nk took to the skies for "Sober."
With a blindfold tied around her eyes and just a pasty covering her left breast -- perhaps a tribute to Lil Kim's iconic VMAs outfit from a decade earlier -- P!nk was hoisted dozens of feet into the air to perform her wrenching Funhouse hit "Sober." "I'm safe, up high, nothing can touch me," she sang with no shortage of irony, as she was lowered off a swing and dangled in the air, performing all kinds of aerial acrobatics with the help of a muscular male partner. The impressive performance would prove to just be a warmup for the next year's Grammys, where her famously spellbinding (and similarly airborne) rendition of "Glitter in the Air" would take her to the next level as a live performer.
10. Lil Mama struck a pose with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys
Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' closing performance at the '09 VMAs should be the stuff of legend, simply for introducing the world to "Empire State of Mind" -- a song never before performed by the two of them, which wouldn't see official release for another month, and which would ultimately become one of the most beloved hits of the entire 21st century. But the performance lingers in VMAs lore mostly because it introduced the night's second (albeit less world-stopping) stage crasher: rapper Lil Mama, who later said she simply felt moved to become part of the moment, but who also experienced heavy backlash that had a deleterious effect on her career and mental health.
Then-Viacom president Van Toffler, who served as the evening's executive producer, recently recalled to Billboard for the '09 VMAs' 10th anniversary that he was incredulous over it all happening again: "In the truck I said, 'Do we have any fucking security in the house? Is there anybody in the house that’s working security?'”