The Grammy Awards have celebrated the most important and influential artists in music since 1959. The number of prizes has changed as genres have emerged, with rock first honored at the 1980 ceremony and rap added in 1989. The category system has also changed, with the Grammys folding categories that were no longer relevant and adjusting others to reflect contemporary tastes. In 2011 NARAS radically restructured the awards and cut the total number from 109 to 78.
Despite the changes, there have been some remarkable moments at music award shows over the years. Whether it was a pregnant Beyonce swaying on a stool at the first VMAs or a Greg Dulli-fronted supergroup thrashing through a distortion-laden cover of a Nirvana classic, some performances have managed to stand the test of time, transcending any gimmick or controversy.
These are the greatest musical moments at award shows:
In the early ’80s, Madonna was one of the hottest performers in pop music, and her performance at the very first MTV Video Music Awards is still considered a high point for the show. Stepping down from a wedding cake to perform “Like a Virgin,” Madonna managed to convey the sexy, swaggering energy of the decade while still managing to make the entire audience swoon.
Country lifer Chris Stapleton has risen to the top of his profession, and he proved it at the 2015 CMA Awards. The award show saw the Tennessee native win three trophies and snag a pair of crowd-pleasing duets with pop superstar Justin Timberlake.
It’s no secret that American Idol alum Kellie Pickler has the voice of an angel. But no one could have expected the sheer emotional intensity she brought to this tear-stained lament at the 2014 show. The singer barely made it through the song without doubling over, and her performance was so powerful that even her little brother had to wipe his eyes.
The Pulitzer Prize in Music is a prestigious prize that gives recognition to artists who have exhibited “artistic excellence, intellectual achievement and public benefit.” This distinction may not be as commercial as the Grammys or the Billboard Hot 100, but it does seem to be an attempt to honor cultural achievements rather than market share.
The AMAs are an award show that rewards fans’ favorite musicians, based on the votes of millions of listeners. In addition to recognizing popular artists, the AMAs have helped put lesser-known acts on the map. The AMAs also hold an annual poll to elect the Artist of the Decade. Past winners include Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks and Olivia Newton-John.