Over the past 44 years, the American Music Awards have produced dozens of memorable performances, from the quiet grace of Madonna’s duet with Babyface in 1995 to the controversial sexuality of Adam Lambert in 2009 to the historic collaboration of “We Are The World” in 1986. As we look forward to the 2016 American Music Awards on Sunday, Nov. 20, check out these 12 memorable moments in the show’s history:
Flanked by a pair of dancers just like in her “Single Ladies” music video, Beyonce shimmied and glimmered through the Sasha Fierce classic during the 2008 show. Moving her stunning body in a simple black-and-white outfit, Queen Bey effortlessly commanded the stage with some well-timed audience engagement and without any big-budget histrionics. Simply stated, it was a classic Beyonce performance in a long line of them, and had us pointing to our ring fingers by song’s end.
Miley Cyrus (2013)
The magic of Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz campaign and her artistic re-invention was captured in her performance at the 2013 AMA’s, in which she paired a meme-ready backdrop with a stunning vocal performance. Sure, the giant cat projected behind her was inexplicable and inexplicably hypnotic, but Cyrus’ live take on “Wrecking Ball” — her outfit dotted with feline heads, her back always to the murmuring kitten — held the Internet-ready clip together. Following the twerk-happy “We Can’t Stop” performance at the MTV VMA’s three months earlier, Cyrus’ AMA’s show was weird, understated, and just as effective.
Madonna and Babyface (1995)
Perched on adjacent platforms and backed by a full orchestra, Madonna and Babyface delivered their classic Bedtime Stories ballad with equal aplomb. Seventeen years later, the style battle is still difficult to judge — but we’ll give the slight edge to Kenneth Edmonds for rocking the no-fuss button-up. We have to give him something, since the telecast’s cameraman certainly didn’t give Babyface any extended airtime in this clip!
Britney Spears (2002)
Remember when Britney Spears sang live? Perhaps you don’t. Then let’s take a YouTube-authorized time machine back one decade, to a time when Brit slayed “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” at the 2002 American Music Awards. With beau Justin Timberlake watching on and footage from Crossroads (!) playing behind her, Spears showcased her vocal prowess — check out that emotional finale! — while sporting a tasteful evening gown. Sing your heart out, Brit.
‘We Are The World’ (1986)
“It was a song, it was an idea, and it was a prayer that was heard around the world,” Diana Ross told the audience at the 1986 AMAs of “We Are The World,” the African famine relief charity single that was the result of a stunning collaborative effort between pop music’s biggest stars. After honoring Harry Belafonte with a special award of appreciation, a slew of the “World” performers, including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen, came onstage for a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
Adam Lambert (2009)
The “American Idol” runner-up shocked the AMAs crowd with a racy rendition of “For Your Entertainment” in which he sang, “Can you handle what I’m about to do?” Some could not, as Lambert’s performance, which included a sloppy kiss with a male guitarist and some choice S&M gear, sparked immediate controversy. The performance still stands as Lambert’s most memorable awards show outing, although his career hasn’t slowed down at all — “Trespassing,” his sophomore album, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in May 2012.
‘N Sync (2000)
‘N Sync’s album title No Strings Attached is a nod to the group’s split from their old management, and their 2000 AMAs performance certainly played up the puppet-strings metaphor featured on the album cover. As magical gloves “direct” five aerial artists in back of them, the boy band delivered a tireless performance of “Bye Bye Bye,” complete with some of the same choreography as its music video. 13 years later, we still have fond memories of Justin Timberlake’s luscious blonde locks.
Lady Gaga (2009)
As Lady Gaga’s art-pop aesthetic began to hypnotize more and more fans, the singer unveiled one of her patently bizarre award-show performances at the 2009 ceremony, when she sank her teeth into the Fame Monster monster hit “Bad Romance.” Obscuring her face with a bony light-up mask and clawing her way in front of her dedicated troupe of dancers, Gaga sells the darkly lit performance when she crashes a mic stand through a faux glass window and hunkers down on a flaming piano. It may not have been a giant egg, but chalk this one up as one of Gaga’s most innovative award sets.
Party rock was in the house the night that LMFAO closed out the 2011 AMAs with their pair of Hot 100 No. 1 hits. If turning the awards show into a rave for eight minutes was not quite enough excitement, how about Justin Bieber gracing the stage with an impromptu version of the running man? Or Redfoo deciding to wiggle it after stripping down to his skivvies? Or David Hasselhoff — yes, the Hoff himself — ripping off his pants in front of all of America? Thank you, LMFAO, for simply being yourselves at the 2011 AMAs.
Taylor Swift (2014)
When Taylor Swift hit the stage to perform her Hot 100 No. 1 “Blank Space,” she dangled from the ceiling, fed her boyfriend a poison apple, started everything on fire, and made crazy eyes at the camera. It was not only a visual feast, but a brilliant send-up of the public perception that she’s “boy crazy.” Taylor 1001; Haters 0. -Joe Lynch
PSY feat. MC Hammer (2012)
Never has being a one-hit (or two-hit) wonder looked like so much fun: PSY, who can unwittingly conquered the U.S. with “Gangnam Style” in the fall of 2012, brought his beloved horsey dance to the AMAs that year, and after getting the crowd to crow “Heyyyyyyy, sexy lady!” in unison, he invited MC Hammer onstage for a glorious mash-up of “Gangnam” and “Too Legit To Quit.” Yes, the team-up was highly silly… but that choreography was actually impressive!
Celine Dion (2015)
Less than two weeks before the 2015 American Music Awards, the terrorist attack on the Bataclan in Paris brought the world to a standstill. In a stunning tribute to a vibrant city, Celine Dion took the stage and belted out “Hymne à L’amour” by Édith Piaf, as memorials to the victims were shown onscreen behind her. Multiple celebrities were shown crying in the audience — but the performance ended with a message of endurance, unity and hope.