The MTV Video Music Awards are this Sunday, featuring performances by Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Kanye West, and probably a reunited *NSYNC. But they’ve got some big shoes to fill. Because over the years, the VMAs have played host to some legendary divas in legendary performances, from the moment Madonna dry-humped a wedding veil to a barely-legal Britney Spears striptease and Beyoncé preparing the world for the arrival of the Messiah.
Check out these and other showstopping diva performances from MTV VMA history.
1. Madonna, “Vogue” (1990)
A stage full of pantless queens and Madonna in full Marie Antoinette drag, this performance remains the best thing the Video Music Awards stage has ever seen. Everyone at the VMAs knew Madonna had just shut it the fuck down, including Madonna, smirking as she’s carried away by her ladyboys in waiting.
2. Janet Jackson, “That’s the Way Love Goes/If” (1993)
Janet eased into this one with the undeniable mid-tempo groove of “That’s the Way Love Goes” before kicking it into perfectly synchronized high gear with the dance break by which all dance breaks will be forever judged. And can we talk about how perfect 90s R&B girls dressed? The world would be a better place with more leather crop tops and belted dad jeans.
3. Britney Spears, “Satisfaction/Oops! I Did It Again” (2000)
Who doesn’t love a tear-away tuxedo? At only 18 years old, Britney proved that she was not that innocent once and for all with a performance so sexy, even us gay boys were contemplating hitting it. But as has been Britney’s M.O. for years, she’s more suggestive than anything — hell, she’s wearing a jazz pant. To think, that was 13 years ago and pop tarts are wearing even less — if they bother to wear anything at all, Miley Cyrus.
4. Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi” (2009)
Lady Gaga arrived as a force to be reckoned with — and not just that weird girl who could kind of dance in the crazy outfits — with this performance. For many, it was the first glimpse of Lady Gaga as a fully formed performer, with the pianist bravado, the elaborate and campy staging — oh, and she could kind of dance and sing live, too.
5. Madonna, “Like a Virgin” (1984)
At the time — the very first VMAs — Madge writhing around in a slutty wedding dress and bustier while humping the floor was provocative. Looking at it now, she kind of just looks like a nervous stripper who had too many peach schnapps before getting on stage at a talent show. But this performance shot Madonna to international infamy and inspired little girls — like Britney Spears — with the timeless message that sex sells.
6. Beyoncé, “Baby Boy/Crazy in Love” (2003)
It’s generally acknowledged that Bey is the greatest live performer in the game right now and for her first solo appearance on the VMAs, she pulled out all the stops and all the lace fronts that she could to prove it. You knew as soon as she descended — wailing and upside down — from the ceiling, this diva-in-waiting was not fucking around.
7. Whitney Houston, “How Will I Know” (1986)
Her voice in top form and her hair the worst it’s ever been, a young Whitney tore the roof off the sucker then hit a bunch of notes right into the stratosphere.
8. Adele, “Someone Like You” (2011)
Sometimes, you don’t need a fancy set, fog and wind machines and a cadre of backup dancers. For Adele, she just needed that big old — not to mention, incredibly emotive — voice and a spotlight. Of course, perfectly manicured claws only help.
9. Madonna, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, “Hollywood/Like a Virgin” (2003)
The best part of this performance is how openly unimpressed Mary J. Blige is (1:15). Britney and Xtina performing together for the first time already had every gay teenaged boy wetting himself with excitement — just check out the queens from Queer Eye (1:23). Oh, wait, I take my previous statement back. The best part of this performance is how uncomfortable Justin Timberlake looks after Madonna comes out and tongues his ex-girlfriend (3:57). Give that camera man all the Emmys.
10. Beyoncé, “Love On Top” (2011)
Stunt Queen Bey. Perhaps the greatest pregnancy announcement of all time, Mrs. Carter dropped the goddamn microphone — after climbing those octaves without the help of a sherpa — and threw open that Dolce & Gabbana jacket, signaling the beginning of a new era. A new era of fake pregnancies. Kidding.