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Iconic VMAs performances show the awards aren't what they used to be

Jenny Cohen

The MTV Video Music Awards are once again celebrating the best that music videos have to offer, but will there be any actual productions from the night that are worth praising?

Maybe I'm looking back too fondly at my youth or maybe MTV itself just isn't what it used to be. But iconic performances at the VMAs have been few and far between, at least in the past decade and maybe even longer.

Sure, there was Miley Cyrus twerking and Beyoncé revealing she was pregnant, but neither of those were high on production and creativity. Lady Gaga put together a shocking version of "Paparazzi," but even that was a decade ago.

So perhaps it's better to take a nostalgic look back on what the VMAs used to be when they aired on a network dedicated to music videos. Here are some of our historical favorites, starting from the very beginning. 

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Madonna, 'Like a Virgin' (1984)

When it comes to iconic VMA performances, there's nothing like the first time. For the inaugural awards show in 1984, Madonna came dressed as a scantily clad bride with a "Boy Toy" belt buckle getting hot and heavy as he rolled around on the stage. It was a spectacle for sure, some would even call it "crass," but that performance still holds up as one of the most iconic in VMA history. Over the years, the singer has followed it up with a Marie Antoinette-like costume drama for "Vogue" in 1990 and an infamous kiss on stage with her, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in 2003. But "Like a Virgin" is still the best from the Material Girl.

Bon Jovi, 'Wanted Dead or Alive'/'Livin' on a Prayer' (1989)

It was technically a Bon Jovi performance, but the band was actually stripped down to only singer Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora doing acoustic versions of their two major hits at the time while sitting on bar stools at center stage. But the songs were done before MTV launched its successful "Unplugged" series, giving this performance some extra love before MTV decided to dive into acoustic concert specials.

Prince, 'Gett Off' (1991)

The Purple One brought out his new band, The New Power Generation, for a hedonist over-the-top performance of "Gett Off." The stage featured scantily clad dancers, fire and the singer himself in a "cheeky" yellow pair of pants that left little to the imagination when he turned around.

Nirvana, 'Lithium' (1992)

Nirvana's classic performance came during the height of grunge music as flannel from Seattle pushed out the glam hair rockers of Los Angeles, which may explain the alleged feud between the band and Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose backstage at the show. After a few bars of the band's hit "Rape Me," a song MTV had forbidden them to play, Nirvana shifted into a roaring version of "Lithium." By the time the song was over, singer Kurt Cobain had trashed the band's drum kit, drummer Dave Grohl was yelling "Hi, Axl," into the mic and Krist Novoselic was stumbling off stage after tossing his bass in the air and having it come down on his head.

Puff Daddy, 'I'll Be Missing You' (1997)

Six months after the death of rapper Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy assembled a hip-hop all-star group to perform "I'll Be Missing You" on the  VMAs stage. The single, a tribute to the slain rapper, included Biggie's widow Faith Evans, the group 112 and Sting, who's voice was sampled for the song from The Police's "Every Breath You Take."

Eminem, 'The Real Slim Shady'/'The Way I Am' (2000)

Eminem brought a whole crowd of minions with him with dozens of extras standing in front of Radio City Music Hall in New York City dressed just like him. As he asked, "Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?" the crew of Eminem look-a-likes followed him through the lobby and then down the aisles of the theater, past other celebrities in attendance, as the rapper from Detroit took to the stage with his clones and switched to "The Way I Am."

Britney Spears, 'I'm a Slave 4 U' (2001)

Spears has had some iconic performances over the years on the VMAs, including her debut with 'N Sync for a medley of "...Baby One More Time" and "Tearing Up My Heart," and stripping down to a crystal-clad costume for "Oops...I Did It Again." But none of those compare to the 2001 production for "I'm a Slave 4 U" featuring Britney in an iconic green bustier as she gyrated across the stage draped with an albino Burmese python. It was a quintessential representation of all the glam, high-energy dance pop performances that littered MTV airways – and pop culture – at the time.

Bruce Springsteen, 'The Rising' (2002)

Almost a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band set up for a remote VMA performance of "The Rising." The song, which tells the story of a firefighter ascending into the World Trade Center that fateful day, was especially poignant for Springsteen fans who turned out to watch his live performance in front of New York City's Hayden Planetarium.

Justin Timberlake, 'Like I Love You' (2002)

'N Sync was one of the biggest acts on MTV in the late '90s and early 2000s, so it was a little surprising to see Timberlake on the VMA stage by himself. But there he was with "Like I Love You," the debut single from his first solo album, "Justified." It may have been a bit of a shock for the boy band's fans , but it kicked off a remarkably successful solo career for the singer that is still going strong.

Beyoncé, 'Baby Boy'/'Crazy in Love' (2003)

Speaking of solo acts, a year after Timberlake's performance, Destiny's Child singer Beyoncé took to the stage on her own, descending from the rafters for "Baby Boy" followed by "Crazy in Love," in which she was joined on stage by rapper Jay Z. Beyoncé went on to blockbuster success and married Jay Z.

Lady Gaga, 'Paparazzi' (2009)

It wasn't so much the high-energy performance itself that made people pay attention as much as it was how it finished. In a shocking ending to her song "Paparazzi," the eccentric singer ended up hoisted from the rafters, her costume "bloodied" to finish off the single, which was a critical take of the photographers who glorify and chase celebrities. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iconic VMAs performances show the awards aren't what they used to be