The 2016 MTV Video Music Awards will mark the 31st year of the sometimes shocking, and often-great program. Over the past three decades, it’s easy to name the all-time classic and/or memorable performances.
There’s your writhing “Like a Virgins”s and your slithering “Slave 4 U”s, and of course, your pregnant “Love on Top”s, but what about the too often forgotten great performances? Sure, they catch your attention the night of the ceremony, but it’s downright crazy they haven’t stood the test of time.
These are ten of the most underrated VMA performances.
Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band: “The Rising”
The 2002 Video Music Awards took place in New York City a little under a year after the 9/11 attacks. With a city still reeling, Bruce Springsteen opened the show (with an introduction, aptly, from James Gandolfini) with the Big Apple’s unofficial anthem in that first horrible year, “The Rising.” A touching, necessary, and poignant performance that still captures the sorrow of that time.
Bruno Mars: “Valerie”
There is no replacing Amy Winehouse. She was a once-in-a-lifetime talent with a once-in-a-lifetime voice. But, there is honoring Amy Winehouse and paying tribute to her memory, and Bruno Mars did just that during his performance of her hit “Valerie” during the 2011 VMAs. Mars didn’t try to emulate Winehouse (who passed away just a few weeks before the show), rather he gave her classic tune new life, all while showing how transcendent her music truly was. When Mars croons “Amy, we miss ya, baby” he spoke for all the grieving fans.
Adele: “Someone Like You”
To date, Adele has only performed one song at the VMAs and it was her 2011 visit when she belted out her hit “Someone Like You.” It’s simple, it’s stunning, it’s Adele. Sure, other flashier performances are remembered, but this is Adele in her truest form, and that in and of itself, is perfection.
Kanye West: “Blood on the Leaves”
Kanye West will always be synonymous with the VMAs, but not for the reason he should be. Yes, Kanye will forever go down in VMA history for his infamous “Imma Let You Finish” interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech (and, oh boy, we’re still hearing about it) but it should be for his simple, yet powerful performance of “Blood on the Leaves” during the 2013 show. When your lyrics and a haunting backdrop do the job, you’re a true artist.
Florence and the Machine: “Dog Days Are Over”
Florence and the Machine’s 2010 VMA performance has all the makings of a classic: there’s a wild outfit, there’s back-up dancers and singers, and there’s a song that everybody knows and loves. As one of the best live performers out there, Welch gave it her all on the VMA stage, all while sounding as good live, if not better, than she does on the album.
Frank Ocean: “Thinkin’ About You”
There’s been so much talk over the past few years about desperately waiting for the new Frank Ocean album, and rightly so. But why aren’t we clamoring for more VMA performances like the 2012 he knocked out of the park (or, in this case, the Staples Center)?
Rihanna: “Disturbia/Seven Nation Army”
Rihanna’s set during the 2009 VMA was every bit the spectacle that makes these shows go ‘round, but she sounded as good as she looked with the badass mash-up of her hit “Disturbia” along with the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” Sure, RiRi is good at collaborations, but she doesn’t get enough credit for what she can do on her own.
Nine Inch Nails: “The Fragile”
Somewhere between Ricky Martin and the Britney/*NSYNC mash-up at the 1999 VMAs, NIN was there to remind viewers that rock was far from dead, and they did a damn good job with that duty. Rock like theirs was nearly non-existent in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, but they persevered and this performance is a reminder of that.
Tori Kelly: “Should’ve Been Us”
This “Should’ve Been Us” performance really should’ve turned Tori Kelly into a household name. She looked and sounded like a damn rock star on that 2015 VMA stage, and she was all but flawless on a night where there had been so many missteps.
OK Go: “Here It Goes Again”
It wasn’t gimmicky that OK Go recreated their innovative treadmill music video on the 2006 VMA stage: it’s just damn amazing that they didn’t miss a beat doing it live in front of millions, all while wearing suits.