In name, the MTV Video Music Awards are all about, well, videos. But throughout the show’s three decade history, it’s often the elaborate and jaw-dropping performances—and their sets—that have stolen the show.
Below, just some of the most memorable MTV VMA sets in recent history.
At the inaugural Video Music Awards, Madonna performed “Like a Virgin,” in a moment that’s since been cemented in pop culture history. The whole performance began when a wedding dress-clad Madonna stood upon a giant wedding cake—an image that was brought back during another now-iconic VMAs performance.
Kendrick Lamar, 2017
As Kendrick Lamar sang and rapped his medley, a wall of flames, complete with flipping Ninjas, erupted behind him. Eventually the rapper scaled the wall to the awe of the crowd.
Lady Gaga, 2009
Lady Gaga has created her fair share of shocking on-stage moments. But her 2009 performance of “Paparazzi” was one of the most ornate: it saw Mother Monster recreate a Baroque-esque ballroom—complete with a collapsed chandelier—in Radio City.
A Beyoncé performance is always epic. But her 2014 one featured simply powerful set design: she performed a 15-minute medley in front of a screen that said “FEMINIST.” “As far as feminist endorsements are concerned, this was the holy grail: A word with a complicated history reclaimed by the most powerful celebrity in the world. And then she projected it —along with its definition, by the Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—into the homes of 12 million unassuming Americans,” wrote Time’s Jessica Bennett.
Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande, 2016
There’s no question that this gym-style set brought the fun. Between stationary bikes, colorful dumbbells, and giant blow-up fishnet legs, it had the audience dancing in their seats (and likely mentally preparing for their next spin class).