From surprising collaborations to emotional tributes, the most memorable Grammy performances have kept viewers entertained for years.
Since its inception in 1959, the Grammy Awards ceremony has been used as a yearly touchstone to highlight the most notable achievements in the recording industry. Winning a Grammy can launch the careers of artists and producers, cementing their place in music history. Performing at the show can have a similar effect.
Starting in the 1970s, the Grammys have been broadcast live. Unpredictable moments from Wu-Tang Clan member Ol' Dirty Bastard storming the stage after losing Song of the Year to Shawn Colvin in 1998 to Kanye West and Taylor Swift hugging it out in a short-lived truce in 2015 all took place during the live televised event. While the must-see fashion reveals, interviews from the red carpet, mid-show acceptance speeches, and crowd shots have never failed to deliver can't-miss moments, the performances are what keep viewers tuning in every year.
Performances at the Grammys typically include appearances by the night's biggest nominees and tributes to musical greats lost that year. The Grammys have also been home to all-star collaborations on stage, from Paul McCartney, Jay-Z, and Linkin Park in 2006, to Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Sting, and Damian and Ziggy Marley in 2013. Additionally, the iconic award show has featured several highly anticipated reunions, including The Police performing in 2007 and Aerosmith teaming up with Run D.M.C. in 2020 to duet on their massive 1980s hit "Walk This Way."
From surprising collaborations to emotional tributes, gravity-defying spectacles to politically charged statements, a great Grammy performance is one that is of the moment and can also stand the test of time. Here are 10 of the most memorable Grammy performances.
Best for: Fans of unlikely duos
Grammy stats: Eminem has 15 wins among 44 nominations, while John has six wins among 35 nominations
The 2001 Grammys were a controversial affair before the show even began. On one side were members of GLAAD who protested Eminem's nominations and scheduled award show performance, citing his lyrics as hate speech. On the other side were fans who couldn't get enough of the rapid-fire rapper's style of music. Acting as a bridge was John, who appeared on stage to play the piano for and sing the chorus of the rapper's performance of "Stan." The six-minute performance, which concluded with the pair embracing, instantly became the most buzzed about moment of the ceremony. Showing the power of a single Grammy performance, the duet was spoofed almost 20 years later by Saturday Night Live with cast members Pete Davidson and Bowen Yang appearing as Eminem and John, respectively.
"When the pair finally arrived for their performance of 'Stan,' a song about an obsessed fan, they lived up to all expectations. It was a show-stopping demonstration of Eminem's rapping and storytelling skills." — Robert Hilburn, The Chicago Tribune
Best for: Jazz fans and music lovers who embraced Winehouse's throwback style and deeply personal heartbreak anthems
Grammy stats: Winehouse has six wins among eight nominations
In 2008, Winehouse was one of the most celebrated and criticized musicians in the world, receiving accolades for her album Back to Black, while also acting as tabloid fodder for her struggles with drugs and alcohol. Winehouse's well documented addictions and visibly thin frame created an unease throughout her satellite performance of "You Know I'm No Good" and "Rehab," a feeling that was accentuated by a sped-up tempo that made it seem like the band was rushing Winehouse to ensure she made it through the performance without issue. Winehouse did make it, giving a stunning rendition of her hits in an appearance that would act as her one and only time performing at the Grammys.
"There is no doubt about the creative talent that woman had and what she exhibited in that moment in time." — Jack Sussman, CBS
Best for: Pop fans who want to be entertained with death defying stunts
Grammy stats: Pink has three wins among 21 nominations
Pink set a new level of difficulty for Grammy appearances in 2010 when she took her performance of "Glitter in The Air" to new heights — literally. Walking down a set of stairs in high heels at an awards show already seems like a recipe for disaster, but Pink upped the ante with a performance that also displayed her incredible athleticism. She wowed the audience with an aerial act that featured her, wet, soaring above the crowed, soaking them below. Singers hitting all their notes while standing still at a mic is impressive, but what about hitting all the notes while spinning upside down in a leotard that we have to assume is not comfortable? We bow down to Pink.
"In her iconic Grammy moment, P!nk introduced her acrobatic routine to TV audiences, while singing 'Glitter in the Air,' the emotional ballad from her 2008 album Funhouse." — Nina Braca, Billboard
Best for: Avant-garde pop fans who are on board for Mother Monster's beautifully bizarre and meticulously choreographed performances
Grammy stats: Gaga has a dozen wins among 34 nominations
Never a drag, always a queen, Gaga is an artist that plays the long game. Case in point, her 2011 Grammy performance, which began when the singer arrived on the red carpet in a giant egg carried by four people. She hatched on stage a few hours later for her debut performance of "Born This Way," displaying an alien-like appearance that included facial horns, pointed shoulder pads, and high heels meant to look like they had been made from the singer's skin. Along with her dancers, Gaga performed the "Born This Way" choreography that would become iconic thanks to the song's massive music video.
"All in all, a fine use of giant egg/pod and a good start to the night." — Jennifer Armstrong, Entertainment Weekly
Best for: Fans of fitting tributes who aren't afraid to cry at awards shows
Grammy stats: Hudson has two wins among eight nominations
While awards shows are a great place for artists to display big scale productions, the Grammys have also been home to some of the simplest yet most emotional performances in music history. The night after her tragic death was announced to the world, Whitney Houston was memorialized at the Grammys by Jennifer Hudson. The singer managed to keep her emotions in check and deliver a moving performance of "I Will Always Love You" in honor of Houston. The moving tribute was a beautiful full-circle moment for Hudson, who had been presented with her first Grammy by Houston in 2009.
"Hudson emphasized on Houston's vocal depth by staying true to her own, owning the classic from the start." — Erika Ramirez, Billboard
Best for: Fans of inclusivity that love pop music and wedding reality shows
Grammy stats: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have four wins among seven nominations; Lambert has two nominations; Madonna has seven wins among 28 nominations; Latifah has one win among seven nominations
There are a lot of great wedding bands working today, but it's tough to beat the lineup at the 2014 Grammys. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were joined by their "Same Love" collaborator Lambert and musician Trombone Shorty for a performance of their inclusive love song. The group was introduced by Latifah, who returned to the stage near the end of the song to marry the 33 couples lining the aisles of the Staples Center, an act that left many of the superstars in attendance in tears. The memorable moment was capped off by Madonna, who sang a few lines of "Open Your Heart" before harmonizing with Lambert on the final chorus of "Same Love."
"Parts of the performance were irrefutably moving. Yet the presentation felt also like it had been designed to quell criticism of the group's polarizing presence." — Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times
Best for: Viewers who love to see musical greats honoring musical greats
Grammy stats: Adele has 15 wins among 18 nominations
Adele made several trips to the Grammy stage in 2017, including twice for performances. The first was as stirring rendition of her massive hit "Hello" and the second was a tribute to the late George Michael with a slowed-down cover of "Fastlove." The pair's close friendship already set the performance up as one that would be fraught with emotion, but Adele stopping the song after a few lines to start over, telling the audience, "I'm sorry, I can't mess this up for him," is what made it truly memorable.
"Adele's sensitive rendition did justice to Michael's soulful spirit, songwriting chops, and vocal skills. And her palpable desire to do the icon justice provided a very human reminder of how large his legacy looms." — David Canfield, Slate
Best for: Viewers who want to feel empowered, uplifted, and in the presence of greatness
Grammy stats: Beyoncé has 28 wins among 79 nominations
Has there ever been a more ethereal being than Beyoncé at the 2017 Grammys? We think not. Queen Bey matched her deeply personal and electrifying visual album Lemonade with a stunning Grammy performance that brilliantly brought the tracks "Love Drought" and "Sandcastles" to life. It opened as a family affair as Beyoncé appeared in a video alongside her mother Tina Knowles and her daughter Blue Ivy, as well as twins Rumi and Sir, who (kind of) make their awards show debut inside a pregnant Bey. Spoken word poetry, a troop of dancers, dream-like visuals projected onto the stage and a very cool chair trick that made us slightly nervous all came together to create a performance that transported viewers through Beyoncé's vision.
"It combined both impressive digital technology and real-life choreography featuring two dozen dancers. It was fresh, yet called upon classical images of art. It was opulent, yet subtle." — Morgan Baila, Refinery29
Best for: Fans of political and cultural statements being made at events
Grammy stats: Lamar has 13 wins among 39 nominations
Lamar set the stage for his 2018 Grammy performance two years earlier with his evocative and thoughtful performance of "The Blacker the Berry" and "Alright," marrying his lyrical masterpieces with a cinematic visual element complete with a jail cell, traditional dancers, and fast-paced camera work. Creating high expectations for future performances, Lamar returned to the Grammy stage in 2018, where he was joined by Bono and The Edge, as well as Dave Chappelle. The satirical performance proved Lamar is one of few artists able to brilliantly deliver political and cultural prose in songs that also dominate the mainstream. Lamar's mastery at pushing boundaries that need to be pushed is so in contrast to typical award show displays that it even caused Chappelle to ask mid-performance, "Is this okay, CBS?"
"For the gripping final segment, the rapper delivered his verse from Jay Rock's 'King's Dead' as the dancers around him, clothed in red, fell to the ground one by one as gunshots sounded." — Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic
Best for: Viewers who want all entertainment boxes checked right from the opening number
Grammy stats: Lizzo has three wins among eight nominations
Lizzo opened the 2020 Grammys with a performance that had it all: ballerinas on pointe with LED tutus and doo-rags, a dance crew with a refreshing variety of body sizes, ball gowns, bodysuits, an all-female orchestra, rapping, high octave notes, and a flute. If viewers weren't entertained by Lizzo's mashup of "Cuz I Love You" and "Truth Hurts," we have to ask, what more could you have wanted?
"Her performance was a momentary exorcism of pain, achieving its goal through feverish submersion and then operatic power." — Max Cea, GQ