The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Iconic TV Performances
Nirvana on Top Of The Pops (1991)
The nation’s favourite Friday night music show (before that ill-fated 2003 rebrand), Top of the Pops, never made a particular secret of its predilection for less-than-live performances. Occasionally bands had insisted on playing for real, and through the 70s audiences were treated to real performances from artists such as the Who, David Bowie and Iron Maiden. In 1991 however, TOTP formulated a new policy that required the vocalist to perform live over a pre-recorded backing track. Never ones to bow to authority, Nirvana’s performance of their first mainstream hit proper ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ made a mockery of the new regulations. Cobain sings the entire song an octave lower, changes the first line to Load up on drugs, kill your friends resulting in a very audible ‘WOT?!’ from an audience member, and strums his guitar a foot away from the actual strings. Novoselic meanwhile can be seen stage-left swinging his bass round his neck and doing scissor kicks, while Grohl smashes through the track with not a care in the world. The whole thing, in classic Nirvana style, ends with a stage invasion.
Michael Jackson and Jarvis Cocker at the Brits (1996)
In 1996 Michael Jackson gave a controversial performance at the Brits that has gone down in history, but perhaps not for the reasons Jackson had hoped. During the opening moments of ‘Earth Song’ everything’s going to plan. He rises up in front of a gigantic sun in a sedate opening that will soon bloom into an epic tableau resembling a scene from Les Mis. Over the course of the song, however, Jackson veers misguidedly from the position of a concerned environmentalist to an embodiment of the literal Messiah. It’s all got a bit Second Coming, and one concerned on-looker isn’t having it.
Two thirds of the way through the performance, a long-legged intruder lollops over to centre-stage. The camera pans in to reveal Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, and it looks like now he’s up there he wishes he’d thought it through a bit more. In a bit of a tight spot now, what with the millions of people watching him, he does the only thing a man in his position can: he bends over and gets his bum out. Security by now has cottoned on and are storming towards him which results in a sort of cartoon chase scene in which three burly men pursue a man-giant absolutely pegging it. It’s an absolute gem of a moment, musical or otherwise, and one of pleasing symmetry: the performance began with Jackson standing in front of the sun, and Cocker tried to end it with a little moon.
Madonna, Britney, Christina and Missy Elliot at the Grammys (2003)
In 2003 the Queen of pop and her princesses-in-training gave a performance at the VMAs that that was guaranteed a place in the TV performance hall of fame. A gigantic wedding cake rolls out onto the stage, and two flower girls who we can only assume are baby Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift sprinkle the stage with petals. The opening synths of ‘Like A Virgin’ ring out and a veiled bride rises from the top of the cake. Lo! ‘tis Britney, here to prove that she is in fact not that innocent. Then, from round the back of the cake comes Christina, who warbles her way through the second verse before church bells chime and Madonna herself, the groom to her two brides, pops up out of the cake to great hysteria. She, Britney and Christina bosh their way through a rendition of ‘Hollywood’, which would be underwhelming were it not for a Missy Elliot feature and a snog between Madge and Britney that our descendants in future millennia will be describing to their children at bedtime on Mars. Shout out also to the audience cameos. Miss you, sweat-bands-era Avril.
Amy Winehouse at the Grammys (2008)
We term famous artists ‘stars’ because we expect them to exude a shine, to light up rooms. So great was the stellar glow of Amy Winehouse that she lit up rooms she wasn’t even in; her performance and acceptance speeches, screened via satellite from London, were the highlight of the 2008 Grammys. Subverting the pomp and ceremony of the stateside show, her performance from her small stage exuded jazz bar cool in a way that only she could manage.
She begins nothing but doe-eyes and Bambi legs, and then the mouth that butter wouldn’t melt in curls into a snarl, and spits out ‘I’m No Good’, and ‘Rehab’. When ‘Rehab’ is announced as Record of the Year, the four seconds it takes for her to compute, not that she’d just won, but that Tony Bennett, her hero, had spoken her name, is a moment that glows even brighter than her performance.
Future Islands on Letterman (2014)
The Late Show with David Letterman has for many years boasted an impressive range of musical performances, unafraid to embrace left-field genres and unusual tones. In 2014 the Baltimore synth-pop band Future Islands took to the Letterman stage and gave a performance so visceral, so multitudinous, that for us it tops the Letterman leader board.
Samuel T. Herring’s Simon Cowell aesthetic jars deliciously with a performance so honest, so charged that the viewer feels simultaneously welcomed into a communal moment and a voyeur of a private one. Dancing like no one’s watching, Herring pioneers a move so fluid it’s as though all the bones have momentarily been removed from his body; his vocal delivery veers between light-as-a-feather indie pop and heavy metal death growl; at one point, he seems to have to hold back the tears. It’s a perfectly imperfect performance, and one that invites viewing after viewing.
Katy Perry’s Left Shark at the Super Bowl (2015)
In 2015 Katy Perry performed a medley of her hits at the Super Bowl Halftime Show in all her typical technicolour boldness. Her performance of ‘Teenage Dream’ was set against a stage design replete with dancers rammed, faceless, into massive cartoon palm trees, bouncy balls, and surf boards, and two big blue shark costumes. Perry’s performance was polished and watchable, but it was someone else on stage that night who captured the heart of the internet. Left Shark, we see you.
Left Shark will not take the injustice of his ten years of dance training only to be made to dress up like he’s a supporting cast member of that nativity play in Love Actually lying down, and appears at first to have taken his revenge by simply refusing to learn any of the choreography. He spends the first half of the performance resembling an uncle at a wedding who’s stormed onto the dance floor because his favourite song’s come on but is so drunk that he spills his own beer, slips in it, stumbles into the PA and cuts the sound out. Right Shark valiantly tries to hold the show together up at the front, while Left Shark bins it all off and takes on the role of hype-man, circling laps around the stage like he’s just won the Premier League. And in a way he has. Scuffling around in obscurity one minute, an international star the next, Left Shark is my Jamie Vardy, and if I’m not mistaken he was in fact having a party.
Kendrick Lamar performs at the Grammy’s (2016)
When Kendrick Lamar took to the stage at the Grammys earlier this year he gave a performance so galvanising that its iconic status was instantaneous. In an electric 6 minutes, he drew the eyes of the watching world to the enduring oppression of African Americans in the US, continuing the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has served (among many other things) to shine a light on the police brutality that plagues America’s black communities.
Lamar enters at the lead of a chain gang, hands bound, his band performing from within cages, before he reaches the microphone and unshackles himself. As he heads into a ferocious performance of ‘Blacker the Berry’ and ‘Be Alright’ an enormous pyre burns funereally behind him. In the final minute, he appends ‘Be Alright’ with a new coda referencing the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Throughout the performance, Lamar draws parallels between the America’s history of black oppression, and the treatment of African Americans today. He asks his audience ‘what have you learned?’ and presents the answer: ‘not enough’.
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