When you think about the MTV VMAs, what comes to mind? Is it Britney and the snake? Britney and Madonna smooching? Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift? Or maybe even Drake confessing his love for Rihanna only to have her dab in his face and evade a kiss on the mouth?
The VMAs are a time capsule, and those are all moments from the main spectacle that are etched into the collective memory, but what about the pre-show? During the pre-show red carpet, everybody at home is tuning in and out at random moments, going to the bathroom, setting the snacks up, figuring out where they’re going to post up for the evening. You don’t usually give your undivided attention to the pre-show—that’s what the main show is for—but in most cases, this rite of passage has actually been a fairly good indicator of who the big names will be at the main show the following year. And many of the pre-show performers of the past were actually big enough to be performing main stage, but for some reason were relegated to being an appetizer before the main course. When you think about it, the pre-show may turn out to be a more prescient gauge of talent than the main show itself.
The first MTV Video Music Awards ceremony took place in 1984, but by the time 1996 rolled around, the network decided to implement a pre-show performance to entice viewers to get ready for the show on the main stage. A then up-and-coming band called No Doubt took the pre-show stage to perform a medley of “Spiderwebs” and “Just a Girl” on the roof of Radio City Music Hall. No Doubt had been around for about a decade, and they gained popularity by being included on the Clueless soundtrack in 1995, but it was this moment that introduced the band to a much wider audience than their hometown listeners in California. This performance set the bar high for all the pre-show performances to come, including ones from Foo Fighters, Usher, Smash Mouth, and Blink-182 before the turn of the century.
Using the pre-show as a metric for determining who will be an even bigger, more popular star the following year doesn’t always work, though. In 2000, the pre-show performance was by Papa Roach, and 2001 boasted entertainment courtesy of Alien Ant Farm (their rendition of “Smooth Criminal” was a thing then) and City High featuring Eve (truth be told, “What Would You Do?” and “Caramel” still slap). But the following year, Avril Lavigne performed a medley of “Complicated” and “Sk8r Boi” and Ludacris performed “Rollout (My Business)” and “Move Bitch.” Looking back on this moment in history, it’s clear that both Lavigne and Ludacris would become some of the biggest names to define early aughts music. And frankly, these performances are so much more entertaining to even think about than the ones that made it to the main stage, except for P. Diddy’s “Bad Boy for Life”/”I Need a Girl (Part One)”/”I Need a Girl (Part Two)”/”Pass the Courvoisier, Part II” medley that also featured Busta Rhymes, Ginuwine, Pharrell, and Usher—that was a real main show moment.
During the early to mid aughts, the pre-show performances were a bit of a mixed bag, and for a few years the main show was really the event that you wanted to tune in to see. In 2003, we moved on to Sean Paul (again, he defines the early aughts era to some degree, but is not exactly relevant 16 years later) and The Black Eyed Peas (also irrelevant now). 2004 gave us Jadakiss, Ashlee Simpson (yes, of course she sang “Pieces of Me”), and New Found Glory.
And then, in 2005, a young woman who would go on to become one of the most popular and well-respected names in the music industry (and beyond) performed her debut single in Miami. That’s right, even Rihanna was a pre-show performer once. That same year, Fall Out Boy performed “Sugar We’re Going Down” (and Mike Jones, Slim Thug, and Paul Wall all gave us a taste of “Still Tippin”).
And for some reason, My Chemical Romance was given the privilege of performing on the main stage in 2005 (“Helena”) but in 2006, they were put on the pre-show lineup for “Welcome to the Black Parade” along with Fergie, who had already done the pre-show with the Black Eyed Peas two years prior, for her rendition of “London Bridge” outside of 30 Rock.
MTV was trying something different in 2007, so it’s a little convoluted, but Nicole Scherzinger and Lil Wayne performed “Whatever U Like” and then the rest of the show’s performances were split up into “suites.” So, there were mini venues with “fantasy suites” hosted by Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, Fall Out Boy, Kanye West, and Foo Fighters. Basically the only thing that makes sense about that year is that Britney Spears performed “Gimme More” as part of the introduction to the main show and that’s all you need to remember.
The 2008 pre-show was a dance-off. (We don’t acknowledge that.) The controversial 2009 VMAs didn’t even have a pre-show performer at all, and instead just involved the presentation of two awards presented by Buzz Aldrin and Sway Calloway. Thankfully, in 2010, Nicki Minaj saved the pre-show performance by singing “Your Love” and “Check It Out” (with will.i.am).
In 2011 the pre-show performance came from Cobra Starship, but then in 2012, the pre-show performance put Demi Lovato front and center. Her performance of “Give Your Heart a Break” was confident enough that you might have expected her to be one of the main stage performers that year, alongside Pink and One Direction.
The 2013 VMA pre-show was split. On one hand, there was a performance of “What About Love” by Austin Mahone (whom the industry is still trying to push on audiences) and on the other, Ariana Grande singing “Baby I” and “The Way.”
Grande still had yet to fine tune her stage presence, but rest assured she did because the next year she opened up the main show with Nicki Minaj and Jesse J (they did a “Break Free”/”Anaconda”/”Bang Bang” medley) and has become one of the main acts to look forward to whenever she decides to deign the VMAs with her presence. That same year, Fifth Harmony and Charli XCX opened up the pre-show with “Boss,” and “Boom Clap” at The Forum.
And in 2015, Nick Jonas (who already performed “Lovebug” at the 2008 VMAs with his brothers) sang “Levels” at the pre-show, followed by Alessia Cara and Troye Sivan in 2016, and Cardi B, Bleachers, and Khalid in 2017. These are still arguably some of the biggest names in contemporary pop music, whose pre-show performances proved that they are deserving of main stage attention, which they eventually got in the years immediately following their pre-stage debut.
2018 also was a rare year where an artist who performed at the pre-show (Bazzi) also performed a song during the main show (but as part of the Push Artist Stage), while also presenting a performance from the Backstreet Boys.
That brings us up to speed in 2019, where the VMA pre-show will see performances from Megan Thee Stallion, Ava Max, and CNCO. We all know Megan Thee Stallion has proven herself worthy of performing on the main stage this year, but if the track record of pre-show performers who ended up being a big deal in the coming years is any indicator of talent and success, she’ll be on that main stage in no time.