It's hard to remember a time when music award shows were more about the nominees than the performers. Over the years, so many ceremonies have popped up — with an increasing number of performances to keep viewers engaged over an hours-long telecast — that memories of winners and losers easily fade, leaving only recollections of who owned stage on the night in question. Do you remember Kendrick Lamar winning best male hip-hop artist at the 2015 BET Awards? Doubtful, but you probably haven't forgotten him bellowing "Alright" from the top of a cop car while the stage seemingly exploded beneath him. Can you name the video of the year winner at last year's MTV Video Music Awards? Probably not — Beyonce's blockbuster Lemonade medley performance clearly won the night. (For the record, she won that VMA, too.)
Performances have become increasingly crucial at the Grammys, one of the few shows where the awards themselves still do inspire water-cooler debates. Not every year will have a shocking album of the year winner and/or a Kanye rant to carry the next morning's headlines, so the ceremony especially needs built-in, dazzling moments like Pink's 2010 aerial display for "Glitter in the Air," or Lady Gaga's 2016 marathon David Bowie tribute, to spark conversation — for better and sometimes for worse.
Before this year's Grammys, Billboard presents you with the best of the better: our picks for the 100 greatest award-show performances, encompassing nearly a half-century of honors handed out on television. Performances from both sides of the Atlantic were considered, but only from shows with both winners and losers (sorry, no honors-only ceremonies like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions). Higher production values, superior television coverage (and YouTube re-circulation) and a bigger number of award shows in general mean that the last 25 years are better represented than the prior 25. And while we didn't automatically disqualify for obvious lip syncing, pop stars: you'd better have had a damn good reason for doing so to make it on this list. (Looking at you, Chris Brown.)
Relive the greatest musical moments of award-show history in our list below, and hope that after Sunday night, a couple performers from this year's Grammys — a pregnant Beyonce? A reunited Tribe Called Quest? A now-or-never Sturgill Simpson? — make a convincing case to elbow their way in.
100. Kermit the Frog, "The Rainbow Connection" (Oscars, 1980)
Not exactly the most hi-octane of displays -- just a frog on a log, probably not even singing live -- but easily as endearing as any performance with a fire pit or post-modern video montage has ever been.
99. Sheila E, Prince Tribute (BET Awards, 2016)`
The rare award-show tribute that felt less like an imitation than a final exam after a lifetime's tutelage: Sheila E., Prince bandmate and collaborator, brought the same energy, instrumental fireworks and irrepressible funk that she watched her mentor deliver for years on stage.
98. Donna Summer, "She Works Hard for the Money" (Grammys, 1984)
Who's that basketball player randomly emerging to dunk on a five-foot net? Doesn't matter! At one of the first Grammy ceremonies where the visual aspect of live performance clearly reflected the bar-raising impact of MTV, Donna Summer recreated the blue-collar fabulousness of her first smash video for a gonzo presentation that dazzled with disco nonsense.
97. Taylor Swift, "Blank Space" (American Music Awards, 2014)
Though people will make surprised-award-show-face jokes about Taylor Swift until she's physically unable to raise her hands to her gasping mouth, Swift made clear at the '14 AMAs that she was making no more concessions to needless humility. "Blank Space" was pop spectacle at its most professional, with Swift literally playing with fire as she guiltlessly shed her acoustic roots. Turns out, she loves the game, too.
96. The Arcade Fire, "Ready to Start" (Grammys, 2010)
The little 114-piece indie-band-that-could celebrated their Grammy introduction into the mainstream with an appropriately adrenalized version of Suburbs single "Ready to Start." The song's seething bitterness somehow just multiplied an obvious are we really doing this right now? excitement that not even an irritatingly early credits cut-in could quell.
95. David Bowie, "The Man Who Sold the World" (MTV Europe Music Awards, 1995)
The list of noteworthy award-show performances from the Thin White Duke is a sadly slim one, but he did offer the second MTV Europe Music Awards a memorably electro-fied rendition of one of his earliest rock HITS?standards, a sign that he'd soon slip into yet another alt-rock millieu with the same ease with which he slipped into a tailored white suit.
94. Method Man, "Bring the Pain" (The Source Awards, 1995)
Most performers at the now-infamous '95 Source Awards brought a whole lot of baggage to the stage with them, but Method Man only came to bring only one thing. He delivered his solo hit with more rampaging energy than all nine Wu Tang members brought to "C.R.E.A.M." at the same awards the year before, a blur in batting gloves and Wu Wear.
93. Amy Winehouse, "You Know That I'm No Good" / "Rehab" (Grammys, 2008)
Plenty of Amy Winehouse's high-profile live performances spiraled into Behind the Music third-act fare, but a too-rare example of her rawness not overpowering her elegance came at the '08 Grammys. Visa issues related to a recent rehab stint left Winehouse marooned in the U.K. the night of the ceremony, but no matter: her exhilarating, uncomfortably personal soulfulness ("My Blake!") translated clearly even from across the pond.
92. Ray Charles, "Eleanor Rigby" (Grammys, 1990)
As part of the Grammys' apparently biannual tribute to one or multiple Beatles, Ray Charles paid homage to Paul McCartney in 1990 with a tense, boogieing "Eleanor Rigby" cover, double-timing the song and seemingly quadruple-timing his vocals, as if to ensure that his backing band wouldn't dare slack a second. The ballad's chorus ("All the lonely people/ Where do they all belong?") never sounded quite so urgent.
91. Alanis Morissette, "You Oughta Know" (Video Music Awards, 1995)
Twenty-plus years of confusing album titles, unexpected film and TV cameos and hilariously self-parodic Black Eyed Peas covers has sadly come to dull the message originally delivered by "You Oughta Know" upon its mid-'90s arrival: Alanis Morrissette will f--king end you. But there was certainly no mistaking it at the '95 Video Music Awards: prowling the stage in leather pants and hair longer and greasier than Chris Cornell's, Alanis seethed with the hunger and fury of someone ready to violently seize the crown for all post-grunge alternative.
90. Usher feat. James Brown, "Caught Up" (Grammys, 2005)
Usher was hot enough in the mid-'00s that he could perform his fifth single off Confessions -- y'know, the one that didn't go to No. 1 -- at the Grammys and still scorch the earth with every tap of his soft-shoe. Not since the primes of Michael and Prince could a triple-threat performer bring out James Brown for a show-'em-how-its-done cameo and have it seem like he was doing the Godfather of Soul a favor.
89. Jerry Reed, "When You're Hot You're Hot" (Country Music Association Awards, 1971)
Smooth-talking country huckster Jerry Reed brought his first chart-topping hit to the CMA Awards with the cheshire-cat grin of a man who'd just won $100 shooting with loaded dice and the rushed energy of a man looking to skip town ASAP. His backing vocalists clearly had no idea what they were in for, but seemed to be having a good time just the same.
88. Backbeat Band, Beatles Medley (MTV Movie Awards, 1994)
Could there be anything more mid-'90s then a Greg Dulli-fronted supergroup of members of Nirvana, Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Soul Asylum and, uh, Gumball (?!?!?) performing a distortion-laden tribute to a misguided biopic about the Hamburg-era Beatles? How about Me'Shell Ndegeocello raving (accurately) after the fact about how kickin' the band was?
87. Miguel, "Adorn" (Billboard Music Awards, 2013)
Miguel's live-wire performance of his pristine soul smash nearly turned into a mini-disaster when a slightly mis-calibrated stage leap ended up crunching at least one female audience member. Once her lawsuit is resolved, even she'll probably have to begrudgingly agree with Kelly Clarkson that up until that point, it was the sexiest damn thing she'd ever seen.
86. Miley Cyrus, "Party in the U.S.A." (Teen Choice Awards, 2009)
The Madonna of the Kids' Choice Awards officially graduated to the Teens with the righteous live debut of her irresistible "Party in the U.S.A.," causing a mild uproar among the parents of America with her slightly exposed bra, a moment of implied crotch-grabbing and some mildly pole-adjacent dancing -- if only they'd known about the award-show material that lay around the corner for America's Soon-to-Be-Former Sweetheart.
85. Tina Turner, "What's Love Got to Do With It" (Grammys, 1985)
Shimmying around the stage with the spotlight framing the edges of her giant 'do like a halo, Tina Turner showed the world how a grown woman reclaims her pop career, and the entire country along with it.
84. t.A.T.u., "All The Things She Said" / "Not Gonna Get Us" (MTV Movie Awards, 2003)
Early-'00s pop phenomenon t.A.T.u. had exactly enough juice for one good MTV Movie Awards appearance, playing their two biggest hits in a head-rushing medley that saw the stage flooded with dozens of girls in school uniforms who capped the performance by partially disrobing and making out. Where exactly the three-minute display falls on the continuum from empowering to exploitative remains up for debate; how unforgettable an encapsulation it was of an exceedingly brief moment in music history does not.
83. Tom Petty & Axl Rose, "Free Fallin'" / "Heartbreak Hotel" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1989)
Two paradigmatic rock stars who didn't seem like they should even exist on the same timeline, let alone at the same awards show, nonetheless made beautiful music together at the '89 VMAs, united in agreement that "Free Fallin'" was a pretty cool song, man. Their encore duet on "Heartbreak Hotel" also foreshadowed Spaghetti Incident?-era Axl's uncanny ability to worm his nefarious way into unsuspecting rock standards.
82. Miranda Lambert, "Little Red Wagon" (Grammys, 2015)
Lambert dripped backyard swagger all over the Grammy stage with a rip-roaring run through her crackling Platinum single, whose sweaty strut split the difference between Jack White and Beyoncé.
81. Whitney Houston, "I Have Nothing" (Billboard Music Awards, 1993)
There are award-show ballads, and then there's Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing," a torch song custom-made to melt a room full of suits and evening gowns on impact. Whitney's immaculate performance of her Bodyguard show-stopper at the '93 BBMAs was a master class in bathroom-break-punishing; when she pauses to take out her gum (?) before launching into the climactic key-change, you know you're in the presence of an all-star.
80. Mya, Christina Aguilera, Lil Kim, Pink & Patti Labelle, "Lady Marmalade" (Grammys, 2002)
Turn-of-the-century pop's most effective showdown of one-upsmanship made for riveting Grammy viewing, with each of the Moulin Rouge jam's four leading ladies making their diaphragm-straining case for top billing while politely golf-clapping the others' efforts. But what makes the performance is the willingness of all involved to settle for silver in the presence of First Lady Patti Labelle, who announced her presence with a single wail to let 'em know this was never even a contest to begin with.
79. Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova, "Falling Slowly" (Oscars, 2008)
On Once's journey from low-budget Irish indie to pop culture touchstone big enough to be referenced on The Simpsons, the most endearing stop may have been at the Oscars, where the two leads' entire fraught history seemed to play out in stolen smiles throughout an exquisitely fragile rendition of surprise hit "Falling Slowly." Even though it maybe shouldn't have been eligible for an Oscar in the first place, the song won — and after that performance, who would protest?
78. PSY feat. MC Hammer, "Gangnam Style" / "2 Legit 2 Quit" (American Music Awards, 2013)
Eric Stonestreet's stunned, bemused reaction shot says it all: It was hard to fully grasp what we were witnessing when Korean sensation PSY reached across dance-rap generations to return Hammer Time back to the masses, and it it was even harder to resist the once-in-a-lifetime novelty of the moment. We can only hope whatever future-viral star reigns supreme for 15 minutes in 2035 pays it backwards to PSY at that year's AMAs.
77. Chris Stapleton & Justin Timberlake, "Tennessee Whiskey" / "Drink You Away" (Country Music Association Awards, 2015)
The 2015 CMA Awards belonged to Chris Stapleton, who won three awards and got whatever remaining signal boost he needed from pop titan Justin Timberlake playing second fiddle (er, second acoustic) to the country lifer on crowd-pleasing duets of one their respective recent jams. By the end of the night, Stapleton had become a star, and Timberlake had managed to remind people outside the Grizzlies organization that he's actually from Memphis.
76. The KLF & Extreme Noise Terror, "3 A.M. Eternal" (BRIT Awards, 1992)
Surely the most purposeful act of anarchy to ever open a major music awards show, professional pop con men The KLF kicked off the '92 BRITs with an unrecognizable crust-punk interpretation of their stadium-house chart-topper "3 a.m. Eternal," before showering the audience in fake gunfire and leaving the stage (and the entire music business). No one was exactly clamoring for a studio version of this collab (though they released one anyway) but it was the perfect parting shot for the forever-enigmatic duo.
75. Justin Bieber, "What Do You Mean" / "Where Are U Now" / "Sorry" (American Music Awards, 2014)
The Bieb capped a stunning comeback year with an AMAs performance that picked up where he left off two years earlier as one of the planet's biggest pop stars -- with much better songs to work with now, too. "Sorry" in particular, with its perpetual downpour barely dampening the sweat-shirted singer's glow, felt like the rainbow after Bieber had finally made it through the rain.
74. Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera & Missy Elliott, "Like a Virgin" / "Hollywood" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2003)
Ten points if you even remember what songs were performed in this one! The all-star kick-off to the '03 VMAs was meant to pay tribute to Madonna's MTV legacy while promoting her latest American Life single -- and it accomplished both pretty well -- but let's be honest: all anyone took from it was the kiss between Madge and Britney (and to a lesser extent Xtina), the first proto-viral moment to make us all wish, "If only the Internet had somewhere we could all react to this at the same time..."
73. Melissa Etheridge & Joss Stone, "Cry Baby" / "Piece of My Heart" (Grammys, 2005)
Pity poor Joss Stone, who sings her heart out in an admirable-enough attempt to do right by Janis Joplin in this tribute to the late rock great, but just gets completely murked by Melissa Etheridge, breathing 100 proof whiskey as she quickly proves the true Janis resurrector. This was Etheridge's return to the stage after undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer the previous year, but you don't need to know that for it to be a triumph.
72. Pink, "Try" (American Music Awards, 2012)
A ballet, a one-act play and an extended action sequence all in one brilliantly choreographed number -- which Pink sang live, and pretty damn well. The singer-songwriter had gotten a little snarky about lip syncing at award shows back at that year's Billboard Music Awards; after this one, she'd earned the prerogative to be self-righteous about such things forever and always.
71. Billy Gilman, "One Voice" (American Music Awards, 2001)
12-year-old future Voice runner-up Billy Gilman was the surprise star of a couple early-'00s award shows, delivering soaring renditions of his lone top 40 hit that put the grown-ups who'd been doing it for decades longer to absolute shame. Even today, there's still something refreshingly unadorned about Gilman's spine-tingling performance at the '01 AMAs; then as now, all he needs is one voice.
70. Chris Brown feat. Rihanna, "Wall to Wall" / "Umbrella" / "Kiss Kiss" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2007)
Before his late-decade horrors cast him as a pop villain, Chris Brown was just a kid who really wanted to be Michael Jackson — and had the talent to get himself most of the way there. His performance at the '07 VMAs was a marvel of physical grace, dexterity and confidence, and although it's tough in retrospect to watch Rihanna make her that's-my-girl cameo, it was exhilarating at the time to feel like the future of pop was in such capable hands.
69. Elliott Smith, "Miss Misery" (Oscars, 1998)
Two decades later, it still feels like it couldn't have actually happened: Elliott Smith, definitive indie singer-songwriter, strumming solo at one of the pop establishment's marquee events, nominated in the same category as skyscraper-leveling ballads by Celine Dion and LeAnn Rimes. Smith got creamed by the Titanic theme, of course, but it's his frayed rendition of "Miss Misery" that remains the evening's most indelible musical memory, a haunting two minutes that will never totally shed its dissonance between song and scene.
68. Paula Abdul, "Straight Up" / "Cold Hearted" / "Forever Your Girl" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1989)
Paula didn't enjoy a particularly long run as the mononymic pop equal to Prince, Madonna and Janet, but she got at least one night, when she tapped and twirled her way through a trio of her Hot 100 chart-toppers as the blazing-hot centerpiece performer of the '89 VMAs, while boy toy (and host) Arsenio Hall looked on approvingly from the wings. He didnt come to the show, but you just know that MC Skat Kat still brags to all of his friends about what a crucial part he played in Paula's biggest seven minutes.
67. Florence + the Machine, "Dog Days Are Over" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2010)
MTV took a decent-sized chance at the '10 VMAs on an artist who'd never had a major U.S. hit playing a two-year-old song based on harps, handclaps and the unique magnetism of its singer. But if Florence Welch wasn't a star Stateside before her "Dog Days Are Over" performance, she certainly was after, as her majestic delivery of the clarion-call single -- at the center of a grandiose theatrical number appropriately blending the angelic with the primitive -- resulted in the song catapulting into the top 40 the week after.
66. Robin Williams, "Blame Canada" (Oscars, 2000)
Back in the prime of South Park, there was nothing funnier than the Bigger, Louder & Uncut anthem ending up a "Springtime for Hitler"-esque live-action number on the Oscars stage in between Phil Collins and Randy Newman. If Robin Williams' opening "Oh my God, they killed Kinney!" bit hasn't aged particularly well, it just serves to emphasize how amusing the rest of the number's chaos remains.
65. Lady Gaga feat. Elton John, "Poker Face" / "Speechless" / "Your Song" (Grammys, 2010)
Having established her high-concept weirdness on the previous year's awards circuit, Lady Gaga took the stage at the '10 Grammys like a star who required no introduction. All that mattered was Gaga and mentor Elton John, covered in glitter and smeared facepaint while professing their love for each other on dueling pianos, as the rest of us at home watched in awe of how Stefani Germanotta had turned the pop world into her own fantasy factory.
64. Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Under the Bridge" / "Give It Away" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1992)
At the VMAs where alternative officially took its star bow, the Red Hot Chili Peppers teased the socially conscious rock of tomorrow with a brief feign at heroin ballad "Under the Bridge" before extending an arm to the party rock of yesterday with a full takeoff into punk-funk rave-up "Give It Away." These weren't your older brother's Down Boys, though; with Kiedis wearing his Mad Hatter getup and the rest of the group wearing not much of anything, the Chilis played pied pipers to a riotous crowd of thrashing Gen-Xers grateful to have something new to believe in.
63. Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and Vince Gill, Tribute to Glen Campbell (Country Music Association Awards, 2011)
Glen Campbell's failing health and extended goodbye from the music industry has resulted in a deluge of award-show tributes this decade, but none were better than the first, when three of the country great's most famed disciples paid him a cover each, with writer Jimmy Webb offering instrumental support. The simplicity and sincerity of the homage was quietly breathtaking, expanded by the shots of Campbell singing along in the audience, making us wonder why we don't pay respects to our still-living legends at these shows more often.
62. Stevie Wonder, "You Haven't Done Nothin'" (Grammys, 1975)
The 20-Something-Year-Old Genius cast such a shadow over the Grammys in the '70s that when he won album of the year in 1976, Paul Simon specifically thanked Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album the previous year. Stevie owned the stage as much as he owned the awards, though -- as he ably demonstrated with this rendition of the Nixon-excoriating chart-topper "You Haven't Done Nothin'," yelping and hissing and getting the audience clapping and hooting along as he preached the gospel.
61. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Maps" (MTV Movie Awards, 2004)
On a night when Seann William Scott and Carmen Electra were among the honorees, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' exquisitely fragile performance of their unlikely crossover hit "Maps" -- against a set apparently swiped from Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" video -- made for one of MTV's most ineradicable musical memories this century. As he watched singer Karen O get drowned in rose petals at video's end, the dude from Liars had to be thinking "I couldn't really have inspired all this, could I?"
60. Tim McGraw, "If You're Reading This" (Academy of Country Music Awards, 2007)
Years before Drake and his sloppy handwriting came along, Tim McGraw had the original viral "If You're Reading This." His acoustic performance of the heartbreaking ballad -- presented in the guise of a letter from a soldier to his family, to be read only if it's already, well, too late -- at the 2007 ACM Awards became so popular, it was released as a single shortly after and turned into one of the year's biggest country hits, thanks to its lump-in-throat delivery and strings weeping even louder than the fans at home.
59. D'Angelo, "Devil's Pie" (MTV Movie Awards, 2000)
D'Angelo's unsettlingly funky jam of sin and seduction was one richer than the MTV Movie Awards deserved, a full-bodied performance of spirituality and carnality, just like Voodoo's spiritual Daddy used to make. After MTV exhausted the "Untitled" video and no follow-up visual was delivered, they made do fashioning a video from this clip, further rendering its shirtless star unable to escape the overexposure beginning to take its toll on him.
58. Run-D.M.C., Kid Rock & Aerosmith, "King of Rock" / "Rock Box" / "Bawitdaba" / "Walk This Way" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1999)
By '99, rap-rock had vaulted to the top of the charts with such reckless velocity that MTV deemed it necessary to take a step back and recognize the legacy (luckily, Fred Durst was nowhere to be found). Kid Rock was at his American Badass-est flipping mics with Steven Tyler and getting down with the Kings of Rock -- the third appearance of "Walk This Way" at the VMAs, believe it or not, and possibly the most exciting.
57. Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Thomas Dolby & Howard Jones, "Synthesizer Showdown" (Grammys, 1985)
You can't have a Peak '80s conversation without mentioning this four-way synth-pop face-off, in which a Macintalk instructor demands login info from four of the era's synth greats, before an array of riffs and triggered samples from the likes of "Rockit" and "She Blinded Me With Science" wrestle in an octagon of black-and-white keys. We'll never see its equal again, and if we somehow did, it'd probably take us another 30 years to properly absorb it.
56. Bad Boy, Bad Boy Medley (Source Awards, 1995)
As one of the '95 Source Awards' controversial bookend performances, Bad Boy's closer began with the man then known as Sean "Puffy" Combs bowing his head in prayer: "I live in the East, and I'm gon' die in the East." From there, it was a scintillating run through hits by Craig Mack, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Total, and of course face-of-the-franchise Notorious B.I.G., capped by the crew bringing out plaques of their accomplishments, and marred only by a distractingly loud reference vocal track — which would sadly become accepted hip-hop awards practice.
55. Jay Z feat. Alicia Keys, "Empire State of Mind" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2009)
The VMAs where All That Other Stuff also happened closed out with the national live debut of one of the most beloved anthems of the 21st century. Lil Mama was so moved that she ended up crashing the stage at show's end; the move may have prematurely ended her career, but it ensured she'd forever be associated with a moment a lot more eternal than "Lip Gloss."
54. Ricky Martin, "The Cup of Life" (Grammys, 1999)
The late '90s may have been too early for the U.S. to really catch World Cup Fever, but Ricky Martin Fever was an idea we could all get behind -- particularly after he performed '98 theme "The Cup of Life" at the '99 Grammys, bringing a futbol stadium's worth of riotous fervor with every hip-swivel. The performance has since been cited as the beginning of the Latin Pop invasion that engulfed the U.S. mainstream by the turn of the century; watching Ricky today, you gotta wonder why it even took that long.
53. Metallica, "Last Caress" / "So What" (MTV Europe Music Awards, 1996)
Pegged to play mediocre Load single "King Nothing" at the '96 Europe Music Awards, Metallica instead offered an uncensored medley of blistering punk covers about mother-raping and farm-animal-f**king, flipping the bird to the establishment one final time before sidling in comfortably as part of the rock aristocracy. The band was subsequently banned from the EMAs, to which they unboubtedly say well, darn.
52. Britney Spears, "I'm a Slave 4 U" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2001)
Paula Abdul hissed about a cold-hearted snake, but Britney Spears literally wore one as a scarf in the shocking live debut of her third album's lead single. Though the performance itself might be less captivating than you remember, the image of Spears with the python draped around her neck quickly became one of MTV's most iconic, and Brit's ability to remain a step ahead of the rest of the TRL era could no longer be questioned.
51. Lil Wayne & T-Pain, "Got Money" / "Lollipop" / "A Milli" (BET Awards, 2008)
Lil Wayne took the stage at the '08 BET Awards having just sold a million copies in Tha Carter III's first week and ready to collect on his achievement. Beginning with mad-scientist T-Pain synthesizing Weezy as his very own Auto-Tuned Frankenstein's monster, the duo ran through Mr. Carter's three biggest '08 hits with the cockiness of unlikely heartthrobs, and by gig's end ("Hip hop is alive, don't worry, I got it"), even the angry villagers were putting their pitchforks in the air one time.
50. Kellie Pickler, "I Wonder" (Country Music Association Awards, 2007)
Pickler barely got through this abandoned-child lament without doubling over, bringing an arresting vulnerability to the CMA Awards stage with her tear-stained performance. If you think that's tough to get through without breaking down yourself, wait till you see the Idol finalist-turned-country darling's little brother wiping his own eyes dry during the audience-wide ovation for his big sis.
49. New Edition, Medley (MTV Video Music Awards, 1990)
By late 1990, New Edition had re-confirmed their pop supremacy as a group and established all six of their current and former members as stars in their own right; an unprecedented achievement that N.E. commemorated with a victory-lap performance at that year's VMAs. Ironically, the only member without a hit to perform was Bobby Brown (debuting soon-aborted new single "Tap Into My Heart"), but the rest of the gig showed off an entire era's worth of new-jack classics -- and until last month, stood as the greatest celebration of the group's overall legacy.
"And now, our national anthem," the voice booms, and by '94, no one but the real Francis Scott Key heads would've argued that the honors belonged to Dre and Snoop. Bouncing onto the Soul Train Awards stage in a low-rider, the duo launched into "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" with the ease of a Stockton and Malone pick-and-roll, before the D-O-G-G cleared out in the post for his own "What's My Name?" as the Doctor happily fell back to watch his protege go to work.
47. Prince & 3rd Eye Girl, "Let's Go Crazy" / "Frankenstein" / "Fix Ur Life Up" (Billboard Music Awards, 2013)
Prince was honored with the Icon Award at the 2013 BBMAs, but his ensuing performance was anything but a greatest hits set: He and new backing band 3rdyegirl reinvented 1984 smash "Let's Go Crazy" as a bluesy psych-rock scorcher, took an instrumental dip into Edgar Winter's synth-rock freakout "Frankenstein," and ran through incendiary new jam "Fixurlifeup," before closing with a fire-breathing "Crazy" encore. It seemed he had another lifetime's worth of achievement left in him; that we would ony get another three years was beyond unimaginable.
46. Beyonce, Beyonce Medley (Video Music Awards, 2014)
In which the VMAs established their infallible model for '10s success: When in doubt, Beyonce. Hitting on all 14 tracks from Bey's industry-flipping self-titled effort, the 18-minute performance's famously unequivocal messaging established the pop star as an active freedom-fighter, and its jaw-dropping professionalism cemented her as the pre-eminent live performer of her era -- truthfully, we'd be talking about this as an all-timer if she hadn't one-upped herself so dramatically two years later.
45. Eminem feat. Elton John, "Stan" (Grammys, 2001)
Following the Axl Rose playbook of inviting Elton John onto the national stage to combat accusations of homophobia, Eminem didn't necessarily achieve absolution for his previous (and future) hate speech, but he did get an iconic Grammy moment out of it. With Elton filling around the margins, the performance humanized the once nationally feared Marshall, and established him as a potential serious artist, who'd be sleeping through his Oscars victory in a couple years' time.
44. Kanye West / G.O.O.D Music, "Mercy" / "Cold" / "New God Flow" (BET Awards, 2012)
The best award-show performance from the most (only?) underrated period of Kanye West's career, back when we still had reason to believe that Cruel Summer would be the dopest crew-love album of all time. Maybe not, but the God Dream was alive for this BET Awards-opening G.O.O.D Music roll call, which ended with the big boss giving "New God Flow" its spellbinding a capella debut, stomping "BIGGIE SMALLS, DR. KING, RODNEY KING!" into our collective subconscious.
43. Eric Clapton, "Tears in Heaven" (Grammys, 1993)
Eric Clapton's supremacy at the 35th Grammys was so overwhelming that at one point host Garry Shandling advised all nominees going against him later in the show to just go home. Also a performer that night, Clapton somehow played through the pain with a stately, elegiac performance of "Tears" -- inspired by his son Conor's tragic recent death -- and the ballad bore out Shandling's forewarnings, winning song and record of the year.
42. Frank Ocean, "Thinkin Bout You" (Video Music Awards, 2013)
Back when it still wasn't totally guaranteed that Frank Ocean would stick as a mainstream figure, he was enlisted for the VMAs to perform his first (and to date, still only) crossover solo hit. Performing in front of what looked like a Game of Thrones mash-up backdrop, Ocean delivered a skeletal version of the ballad with piercing, reverberating luminosity, a stunning moment of true stillness and proof that Frank was cool enough to kick it on whatever stage he so chose.
41. Adele, "Someone Like You" (BRIT Awards, 2011)
Before when Adele could surprise viewers with heart-strangling renditions of her most vulnerable confessionals, she dropped jaws at the '11 BRITs, with a masterful performance of "Someone Like You" that ensured 21 would be no one-single phenomenon. As the singer seemed to be near tears in the song's bridge, the set started weeping glitter for her, an awesome visual metaphor for Adele's next half-decade of dominance.
40. Alan Jackson, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" (Country Music Association Awards, 2001)
Alan Jackson's imagined account of the collective reaction to one of the worst days in American history was admittedly unwoke -- "I'm not sure if I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran," he discloses. But it was relatable enough to tap into something enormously powerful upon its debut at the '01 CMAs, receiving a standing ovation and turning even the show's execs into blubberers.
39. Yolanda Adams, India.Arie, Prince & Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan Tribute (BET Awards, 2006)
You know you're a bad, bad woman when Prince and Stevie Wonder show up to play the sidemen for your award-show tribute. The two Hall of Famers supported Yolanda Adams for a sky-high performance of "Sweet Thing" and India.Arie for the molasses strut of "Tell Me Something Good," then stuck around for the real deal, as the honoree emptied her peerless pipes for "Through the Fire," "I'm Every Woman" and "I Feel For You" -- the latter reminding audiences that backing Chaka is a service Prince and Stevie have happily enlisted for since 1984.
38. M.I.A., Kanye West, Jay Z, T.I. & Lil Wayne, "Paper Planes" / "Swagga Like Us" (Grammys, 2009)
About as much cool on one stage as the Grammys has ever assembled: An exceedingly pregnant M.I.A. sounding the alarm for four of the biggest rappers of the late-'00s to come try to out-Rat Pack one another for one verse at a time. Kanye's opening gambit proves the verse to beat, but a scarfed Weezy proves up to the challenge, cooler than Doritos in the blue bag as he sheepishly spits: "Running this race like I got four thighs / No one has swagger like these four guys."
37. Whitney Houston, "How Will I Know" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1986)
A conspicuously frill-less performance for early Whitney Houston, the 23-year-old emerging onto the MTV stage with nothing but a microphone and that voice. More than enough, needless to say -- Whitney put the rest of the night's lineup to shame with expert vocal control and ad-libs that impacted like mortar blasts, as America fell further in love with every head bob and shoulder shimmy.
36. Mary J. Blige, "No More Drama" (Grammys, 2002)
If there's one thing you can count in this world, it's Mary J. never half-stepping her way through signature anthem "No More Drama," but the rendition she brought to the '02 Grammys was exceptionally visceral, threatening to reduce its singer to rubble with every "NO MORE!!" prayer. Performing a successful self-exorcism on national TV is hard enough to begin with -- doing so in high heels was a goddamn miracle.
35. Justin Timberlake feat. Timbaland, "My Love" / "Sexy Back" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2006)
Still no greater thrill at the VMAs than the pop performer(s) of the day demonstrating their claim to the throne, as Justin Timberlake and Timbaland ably did with this chest-puffing opening medley, dusting off each others' shoulders whilst getting their grown-man sexy on. By show's end, even Al Gore was making "Sexy Back" jokes -- one of the many reasons why you could've turned the '06 VMAs off after JT and Timbo, but their stage-stunting alone made the show essential.
34. Kylie Minogue, "Can't Get Blue Monday Out of My Head" (BRIT Awards, 2002)
As if Kylie Minogue's TCH-addictive electro-pop gem wasn't clairvoyant enough already, she gave "Can't Get You Out of My Head" a live splice with New Order's original future-shock masterwork "Blue Monday" at the '02 BRITs, making for one of the most forward-looking performances in award-show history. The mashup was natural and irresistible enough that it was commercially released as its own hit single, and Kylie's closing echo of NO's "How does it feel?" refrain was purely rhetorical.
33. Beyonce & Dixie Chicks, "Daddy Lessons" / "Long Time Gone" (Country Music Association Awards, 2016)
If for no other reason than because she simply hadn't yet, Beyonce cameoed at the '16 CMA Awards, with her folky blues stomper -- eh, country, close enough -- with the Dixie Chicks in tow, summoning a hoedown so rootin' tootin' that it inspired Bey to update her SoundCloud account for the first time in years. And when she decides she wants to play the Alternative Press Music Awards, she'll probably own those too.
32. The White Stripes, "Fell in Love With a Girl" / "I Think I Smell a Rat" / "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" (MTV Movie Awards, 2002)
The Detroit duo at the forefront of the so-called new rock revolution helmed one of the movement's most exciting moments at the '02 Movie Awards, bashing their way through breakthrough hit "Fell in Love With a Girl," while a throng of fans in red and white flailed appreciatively around them. Dancing to the flamenco-spiked sludge of "I Think I Smell a Rat" and the lurching garage rock of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" proved more difficult, but Jack and Meg launch back into "Girl" just in time, the Peppermint Twist for a new generation.
31. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Steven Van Zandt and Dave Grohl, "London Calling" (Grammys, 2003)
Paying proper respect to one of punk's central icons was not a challenge you'd necessarily expect the Grammys to rise to, but Joe Strummer got an all-time tribute when Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Dave Grohl (and sure, Little Steven can come too) tag-teamed one of Strummer's signature communiques following his '02 passing. The quartet seems inspired by each other's presence and the ghost of the combat-rocker, delivering a "London Calling" fiery enough to bring the meltdown all on its own.
30. Bonnie Raitt, "I Can't Make You Love Me" (Grammys, 1992)
Bonnie Raitt has called it a "sacred moment" whenever she shares unrequited-love GOAT "I Can't Make You Love Me" with her audience, and perhaps no such experience was more hallowed than her and pianist Bruce Hornsby's immaculate rendition at the '92 Grammys -- turning music's biggest stage into their own lonely-hearts nightclub. Raitt let out a loud sigh at performance's end for having gotten through it in one piece; more than could be said for the rest of us.
29. Kanye West, "All Day" (BRIT Awards, 2015)
Though it ended up being a minor single in the grand scheme of Kanye, "All Day" announced its presence with authority at the '15 BRITs, with a debut performance that aimed to be the living embodiment of the :flames: emoji. West, Allan Kingdom and their squad of black-clad hype men -- illuminated only be the fire being sporadically shot above their heads -- looked prepared for the resurrection (or at least some kind of insurrection), and in the audience, Taylor Swift looked both starstruck and terrified.
28. Eminem, "The Real Slim Shady" / "The Way I Am" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2000)
Middle America's worst nightmare, and maybe Eminem's, too: an army of Marshall Matherses, mobilized and ready for battle. The outside-in invasion of "The Real Slim Shady" at the VMAs was Eminem at the peak of his early-career excitement, even if following it with "The Way I Am" immediately after made it clear that playing the pop star was not something he had interest in doing much longer.
27. Neil Diamond & Barbra Streisand, "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" (Grammys, 1980)
The first national performance of the Hot 100-topping duet between the two Brooklyn legends was a moment of extreme Grammy wish fulfillment, the old schoolmates inching closer throughout the performance, instantly plausible as long-estranged lovers with a history much richer than the duo actually shared. The showdown ends with a hug and a kiss, and with that, a million Jewish mothers were newly born.
26. Michael Jackson, Medley (MTV Video Music Awards, 1995)
Aside from a couple satellite performances delivered from elsewhere, Michael Jackson had never properly played the VMAs, before his 15-minute performance at the '95 ceremonies more than made up for lost time by hitting nearly every MJ era, via "Billie Jean" moonwalking, Slash shredding and "Smooth Criminal" swaying. Bummer that he had to obviously lip sync the whole thing, though given how understandably out of breath he sounds addressing the audience halfway through, you can't really begrudge him.
25. Three 6 Mafia, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" (Oscars, 2006)
Nah, it wasn't the best Three 6 song, but few award-show performances in history have been as delightfully unprecedented as Juicy J, DJ Paul and Crunchy Black lighting up the Oscars stage in Phillies throwback caps and skull T-shirts, while Taraji P. Henson delivers the most dramatic rendering of the word "pimp" in musical history. Before presenting them the Oscar -- thank heaven they actually won -- Queen Latifah acted legitimately hurt to not have been involved in the performance, but some moments are just too historic to be open-invitation.
24. Madonna, "Vogue" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1990)
Hard to create an iconic live performance of a song that already has a classic music video, but no one's done it more often than Madonna, who threw back the old-Hollywood glamor of "Vogue" centuries further into Dangerous Liasons-era France at the '90 VMAs. Combining the classic with the confrontational -- plenty of fondling and flashing to be found amidst the expert choreography -- like only Madge can, "Vogue" raised the standard for lip-synced live performance, and remains a beautiful, magical high point of the artist's imperial phase.
23. Dixie Chicks, "Not Ready to Make Nice" (Grammys, 2007)
The post-conservative-backlash Dixie Chicks stormed the '07 Grammys stage halfway between pariahs and conquering heroes, having lost a disturbing percentage of their fanbase but at their absolute peak of mainstream acclaim. "Not Ready to Make Nice," their furious response-to-the-response, was powerful enough in studio form to win the trio both record and song of the year, but live it took on a guttural, life-or-death urgency, making it clear that award-show validation was still no match for the bitterness of nearly losing their career (or more) over some bullshit.
22. Beyonce, "Love on Top" (MTV VIdeo Music Awards, 2011)
Breaking Twitter land-speed records, Beyonce hardly needed a twist-ending to her triple-lutz landing of the absurd key-change challenge that is the final chorus to "Love on Top," but she gave us one anyway -- discarding her mic, unbuttoning her vest, and rubbing her growing love-in-the-middle. The best part wasn't a cackling Bey, overcome with joy at the success of her evil scheme, but the reaction of Kanye with Jay in the audience, giving his mentor the "That's you, you lucky MFer" shove, while all Hov could do was stand and salute.
21. Kanye West, "Hey Mama" (Grammys, 2008)
Though it was two albums old at that point, Kanye West had to follow up his and Daft Punk's crowd-pleasing performance of "Stronger" at the '08 Grammys with a special rendition of "Hey Mama" -- dedicated, of course, to Donda West, who had died the previous November. The stripped-down, string-soaked version of the Late Registration track cut to the very core, and Kanye's sung delivery of the song's newly bookending refrain -- "Last night I saw you in my dreams/ Now I can't wait to go to sleep" -- might be the most emotionally raw moment of his entire career.
20. Bon Jovi, "Livin' on a Prayer" / "Wanted Dead or Alive" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1989)
Bon Jovi stepped back in time a few years at the '89 VMAs for an unplugged performance of two Slippery When Wet classics, which ended up partly inspiring one of the most popular programs in MTV history. The Eureka moment still feels contagious nearly 30 years later; not just because Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora demonstrated just how electric their songwriting could feel when presented acoustically, but because damn, who knew Richie could match JBJ vocal-for-vocal like that?
19. Dolly Parton, "He's Alive" (Country Music Association Awards, 1989)
"As Mama would say, I hope you get a blessing out of it," Dolly Parton leads into her performance of Don Francisco's 1980 CCM greatest-story-ever-told song "He's Alive." Mama would be proud, of course -- Dolly absolutely shreds the inspirational anthem, captivating with her towering presence and providing the resurrection entirely with her lilting, mighty voice, rendering the gospel choir who enters at song's end for punctuation a virtual redundancy.
18. Bob Dylan, "Love Sick" (Grammys, 1998)
"SOY BOMB" is a good two-word test to uncover whether someone was born before or after 1987; anyone younger will show no recognition whatsoever, and anyone older will start chuckling maniacally at memories of shirtless gyration alongside a bitter-beer-faced Bob Dylan. The stage-crasher's since been excised from clips of Dylan's performance, but even without him, "Love Sick" at the '98 Grammys remains everlasting, a heart's dim flame attempting one final howl, fading but doggedly inextinguishable.
17. Death Row, Death Row Medley (Source Awards, 1995)
The opening salvo of the most storied award-show night in hip-hop history, Death Row records began the '95 Source Awards by putting their entire roster on display individually as inmates fresh out of jail, from pater familias Dr. Dre booming his Friday single "Keep Their Heads Ringin'," through best supporting singer perennial Nate Dogg getting the spotlight for "Ain't No Fun," and of course new label superstar Snoop Dogg raising hell with "Murder Was the Case." Later in the show, big boss Suge Knight would openly (and antagonistically) advertise for his label from the podium, but the real recruitment pitch was here: At Death Row, even Sam Sneed gets to play a key role in the $100,000 action movie.
16. Kelly Clarkson, "Since U Been Gone" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2005)
The '05 VMAs served as the unofficial welcome to a new alternative ruling class -- headlined by My Chemical Romance and The Killers and overseen by Green Day -- but there was still zero question about who rocked the stage hardest: Kelly Clarkson, pony-riding the mic like Axl Rose and yowling like Steven Tyler. "Since U Been Gone" was easily the best pop song of 2005, but the VMA performance argued for it being the best indie anthem as well, and that Kelly could whip fans from either side of the aisle into a rapturous mosh whenever she pleased.
15. Sheila E., "Glamorous Life" (American Music Awards, 1985)
Though invariably kept in the shadow of her mentor/bandleader/songwriter, Sheila E in her prime was absolutely a five-tool star in her own right, and at the same AMAs where Prince enjoyed one of his most legendary live moments -- more on that later -- his protege shined just as brightly. Sheila's fur-sporting, cymbal-kicking, glowstick-drumming performance of her biggest hit remains a staggering boast of skill and showmanship, a pop virtuoso at the peak of her criminally underrated powers.
14. Britney Spears, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" / "Oops I Did It Again" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2000)
An entire career's worth of not-that-innocent moments would follow, but still nothing like the original: Britney Spears shedding her schoolgirl image (along with most of her clothes) for a this-is-me performance at the '00 VMAs that unforgettably displayed her absurd physical control and knack for provocation. Somewhat lost to history has been how this performance began with Britney's version of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," a cover of sly genre-and-gender subversion that offered the ideal prelude to her national reclamation of her body and sexuality.
13. Puff Daddy and The Family feat. Sting, "I'll Be Missing You" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1997)
Puff Daddy could have simply glided his way through a heartfelt rendition of his Biggie-tributing mega-smash at the '97 VMAs, but you knew the do-it-bigger ethos that guided him and his associates towards late-'90s superstardom was gonna result in him packing an ace in the hole for the gig. That card ended up being a surprise appearance from Sting, whose "Every Breath You Take" obviously gave "Missing You" its instrumental backbone -- a cameo that risked gimmickry but instead expanded the performance into a heart-filling revival, and one of the most poignant moments in MTV history.
12. Kendrick Lamar, "Alright" (BET Awards, 2015)
The year that To Pimp a Butterfly single "Alright" became a modern day civil-rights anthem, the power of the song to soundtrack unrest was first broadcast at the BET Awards, where the sighing calm of the song's hook was blown out with flames, faked electrical outages and a whole lot of flag-waving. At the middle was Kendrick, a once-reticent national performer now looking born ready as he rabble-roused from atop a cop car, directed traffic from center stage and ended with his very own mini-cypher, an artist suddenly fearless in the face of the battles that lay ahead.
11. Michael Jackson, "The Way You Make Me Feel" / "Man in the Mirror" (Grammys, 1998)
If not MJ at his absolute most iconic, then as close as he ever got on an award-show stage, slithering his way through "The Way You Make Me Feel" with a balletic grace and an uncanny ability to switch speeds like he could warp time itself, then bringing out the gospel choir to give "Man in the Mirror" the live largesse it deserved. Best of all, Michael actually sings this time -- though not until the very end, when his mic gets audibly switched on for a round of soaring ad-libs so overwhelmed with the spirit he collapses at center stage, and still gets up for another couple heavenly minutes of "Make that change!" exhortations.
10. Mariah Carey, "Vision of Love" (Grammys, 1991)
Truly, a vision of Mariah; just 20 years old, and already carrying the confidence of an artist who knew she'd be dueting with Whitney Houston on even footing by decade's end. Carey's inaugural Grammys performance already saw the singer in full beast mode, tracing her unprecedented vocal runs with her hands and occasionally running out of room in the process; not excessively showy but unafraid of demonstrating, I can do these things that nobody else can do. America took heed: After her performance and best new artist win, Mariah's self-titled debut LP shot to the top of the Billboard 200 and stayed there for 11 weeks.
9. Nirvana, "Lithium" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1992)
Hi, Axl! Nirvana was never a group to wink their way through changing-of-the-guard historical snapshots, so rather than bring the house (and whatever remained of the hair-metal ruling class) down at the '92 VMAs with a chest-beating "Smells Like Teen Spirit," they teased a couple bars of "Rape Me" to give Tom Freston a heart attack, then launched into a shambolic "Lithium" that ended with them wrecking the set. Surprise, surprise, the performance became doubly iconic for its DGAFness, and marked them as new rock poster boys for '90s MTV: a band who'd really rather get into fights with themselves and their equipment than with anyone else.
8. Kanye West, "Runaway" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2010)
There's just nothing like the first 45 seconds of a Kanye West performance at the Video Music Awards. Those first few moments of him at center stage where you have no idea what he's gonna do, and you're not sure if he does either. It was never more exciting than in 2010; Kanye in a red suit at the eye of a black-and-white stage, introducing that chilling piano riff and sending shock waves through the audience with each triggered spoken-word sample, then grabbing the mic and making one of his definitive compositions an inextricable part of our lives. At the time, it was partly an appeal for absolution after the previous year's VMAs nearly derailed his career, but today it exists beyond the historical moment -- there's a reason why we're talking about "Runaway" this high and Taylor Swift's "Innocent" performance nowhere at all.
7. Pink, "Glitter in the Air" (Grammys, 2010)
Not exactly a stop-the-world Grammy Moment, but if you saw it (as a lot of Gaga critics apparently did), you remember it: Alecia Moore, the century's most under-appreciated award-show fixture, emerging on stage in a silky white robe to sing a few verses, then disrobing and taking to the skies. As riveting as the aerial display was -- in its elegance, its technique and its damn-near-inspirational sense of self-belief -- it'd be forgettable flash with a performer less transparently soulful than Pink, every bit as captivating wincing through lived-in lyrics like "Have you ever been touched so gently, you had to cry?" as she was pirouetting 50 feet above the ground. No award-show gig has better blended the intimate with the spectacular since.
6. Pearl Jam feat. Neil Young, "Animal" / "Rockin' in the Free World" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1993)
Don't forget about "Animal," the national live debut of Pearl Jam's Vs. single, and a much nervier, more blood-boiling performance than you might recall. But yeah, this one's mostly about Jammin' with Neil, the Godfather of Grunge joining ranks with his most devout disciples for an impossibly righteous performance of the classic Freedom rocker. If "Lithium" a year earlier was '90s alternative at its most culturally impactful, this was the music at its most viscerally (and historically) undeniable; band and mentor unleashing holy hell for six minutes of maximum guitar wattage before undergoing the ceremonial breaking of the instruments, and leaving the stage literally and figuratively smoking in their wake.
5. Lady Gaga, "Paparazzi" (MTV Video Music Awards, 2009)
What was missing from Lady Gaga's resplendent Super Bowl performance: the rush of sheer expectation defiance, the kind of imagery so new and so left-field that all Diddy can do in the audience is stare blankly in disbelief. This is still Gaga as the Little Monsters will ultimately best remember her: one leg on the piano Gaga, bleeding from the chest Gaga, too fabulous to be glamorous Gaga. There's never been a star-making performance quite like it before or since, as Stefani Germanotta basically pulled a reverse Weeknd; waiting until she was firmly in the mainstream's center, before taking off her pop star bunny mask and revealing what a wonderful weirdo she was underneath.
4. Aretha Franklin, "Nessun Dorma" (Grammys, 1998)
The Grammys caught a blessing in disguise when Luciano Pavarotti fell ill before his planned performance at the '98 awards, forcing them into a right-brained solution for a last-second replacement: Aretha Franklin, who'd previously stepped in for her friend at a MusiCares performance days earlier. Anyone expecting the Queen of Soul to struggle with the transition to such operatic fare wildly underestimated the versatility of Franklin's gifts; from the soaring highs to the trembling lows, Aretha made the piece so firmly her own she may as well have spent the refrain sing-spelling T-U-R-A-N-D-O-T. The Grammys have spent the decades since searching for similar success forcing square performers into round genres; can't blame 'em for trying.
3. Prince & the Revolution, "Purple Rain" (American Music Awards, 1985)
Prince's 1984 was triumphant enough that he got to spend the first couple months of '85 reaping his rewards, including a couple award-show performances to cement his status as the era's most singularly gifted superstar. "Baby, I'm a Star" at the Grammys was special, a demonstration of The Revolution's live ability to render blockbuster anthems even from their deep cuts, but "Purple Rain" at the American Music Awards was eternal, an instantly radiant performance of the group's signature power ballad that got everything perfect except for the set's background color. Watching Prince tear it up at song's climax, it's not even surprising the damn thing is still somehow winning AMAs over 30 years later.
2. Madonna, "Like a Virgin" (MTV Video Music Awards, 1984)
The singing is occasionally pitchy, the staging feels a bit haphazard, and the presentation is downright low-budget by modern-day standards. But if you had to pick one four-minute clip to demonstrate what an award-show performance could and should be at its best, there'd be absolutely no debate: Madonna's "Like a Virgin," in which she stepped down from a wedding cake at the very first Video Music Awards and writhed her way into the heart of the 1980s. Before Madonna, the best award-show performances could hope for was to get people to buy the record, after her, they became the historical record; the way we remember stars at their most iconic, and the way they demonstrate their immortality, no matter whose names are on the night's envelopes. It's the veritable big bang for the format as pop art.
1. Beyonce, Lemonade Medley (MTV Video Music Awards, 2016)
If you think we need more than half a year's distance to declare Beyonce's Lemonade melange the pinnacle of the award-show performance, maybe ask presenter Serena Williams how long she thinks tennis fans should wait after her latest major win before declaring her the GOAT. Fact is, Bey's 18-minute performance was so far ahead of the pack that comparing her to the rest of award show history feels like sizing public-access TV against Game of Thrones; the scale is just so wildly different that the comparison does no one any favors.
Truly, Beyonce's only real competition here was herself from two years earlier. But while her self-titled performance in '14 was still essentially a medley, this was nothing less than one-act drama in which Bey was star, playwright and conductor, taking a baseball bat to any performer who dared laze their way through a performance, thinking sheer star power would put them over. It was memorable and meme-able, technically proficient and emotionally enthralling, unpredictable and thoroughly un-followable. It was Beyonce at the VMAs, and it gets no better than that.