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17 of the Greatest Televised Moments in Music History

Did video kill the radio star, or did it just kidnap them for a while?

Either way, mobile streaming seems to have stolen all of our beloved video stars with irrefutable might. But today, as we welcome back one of the strangest global holidays, World Television Day, let’s reflect on the irrefutably mighty influence that television has had on the development of music in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Popular music’s journeys via the variety of entertainment platforms built to allow it to reach vast audiences greater than any one nation could contain have shaped the way trends arise, thrive, and inevitably wane. Whether through special-event appearances, music videos, soundtracks, or entire channels (once) dedicated to the artform, television has always been one of the biggest proponents of these cultural progressions. Some moments in particular have stuck out from the ordinary and had a greater influence or made a longer lasting impression on us than others.

So today, on World Television Day ’17, we’d like to commemorate 17 of the greatest moments in American-music-television history. Follow us chronologically as we explore the last 50-plus years and rehash some of the best, most awkward, and memorable times music stole the small screen and our hearts in the process.

1. The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show (February 9, 1964)

While not the first television performance by the Liverpool four-piece, the Beatles’ first US television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show has been shown in classrooms, presentations, and to children by fan parents ever since it happened all those years ago.

According to the Ed Sullivan website, the popular host struck a handshake deal with Beatles manager Brian Epstein for, rather than a one-time appearance, a three-time opener/closer appearance. This offered exposure to over 23 million American homes on that very first performance, and thus, the ensuing Beatlemania took the United States by storm.

2. The Who on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (September 17, 1967)

The Who is the Who. They are expected to break their instruments, light them on fire, and treat them with the utmost disrespect. Even in their early years, they had made quite a name for themselves doing so. When the band appeared on the Smothers Bros Comedy Hour in 1967, however, drummer Keith Moon, always one to push limits, put 10 times the normal amount of gunpowder in his kick drum. This not only shocked the audience and people watching at home, but surprised the host and the rest of his band when everything started exploding at the end of the song.

The Who’s penchant for rule-breaking, as seen in this performance, no doubt influenced the ethics of all the proto-punk acts that came after them. If anti-establishment antics become the norm, push it a step farther and never stop. Well done, Keith.

3. The Launch of MTV (August 1, 1981)

Music Television, or MTV, came out with a bang (a rocket ship taking off and the words, “This is rock and roll”). Never before was there a 24-hour music channel, and the music that has shaped us may not have so severely affected popular culture at large if it weren’t for the invention of such a thing.

And what better way to kick off this revolutionary new television outlet than to air the newly minted music video for the Buggles’ song, “Video Killed the Radio Star” at 12:01 AM on August 1st, 1981, in all its glorious irony?

While many artists we’ve come to know and love first broke out through the channel in the ’80s and ’90s, I attribute parts of my own musical discovery to MTV. If it weren’t for Total Request Live taking an interest in independent (and alternative) music, I never would have heard a band like My Chemical Romance before they were huge or their predecessors, like Blink-182 and New Found Glory.

MTV helped break punk in the ’80s, ’90s, and continued through the ’00s with so many alt-rock bands that have become classic simply by virtue of their televised videos. Regardless of what the content of MTV has become of late, we still have a lot to be thankful for in the past.

4. Fear on Saturday Night Live (October 31, 1981)

I love whenever I get to talk about punk rock. Two people recommended I write about this performance, so I did a little research, and this is what I found (read a fuller synopsis here):

John Belushi struck up a relationship with Fear after becoming a quick fan seeing them on another TV show and commissioned them to write a song for the movie Neighbors. The band, however, wrote the song for Belushi himself to sing, which he recorded reluctantly. The movie’s producers refused to use it, but Belushi still wanted to do right by Fear, so he booked them on Saturday Night Live as the musical guest for the Halloween Special in 1981.

I’m not certain, but this might be the only time mosh-pit dancing and stage diving has occurred on SNL, and inevitably they ended up causing $20,000 in damages to the show’s set. In the middle of the song, a Fear fan grabbed the mic and yelled, “F**k New York!” causing their set to be cut short. While the footage has since been shared, it was initially banned by the NBC network from ever being shown again.

5. Michael Jackson’s First Moonwalk (March 25, 1983)

This happened on my birthday, um, nine years before I was born. Unfortunately, Jackson’s dancing skills were not passed down to me on this of most holy days. The brilliant dancer he was, the King of Pop popularized the Moonwalk on Motown 25 in 1983.

According to author Steve Knopper, this dance and performance publicly solidified Michael Jackson as a solo artist and not just part of the Jackson 5. Because of this, the day after the performance, he received an encouraging phone call from Fred Astaire, 84 years old at the time, who told him how great of a dancer he was. Jackson, shellshocked, actually threw up out of modesty, and the rest is history.

And if you’re as spellbound by those infectious grooves as we are, check out Soundfly’s conversation with Dan Freeman on the beat-making techniques of Quincy Jones here.

6. Mick Jagger and David Bowie “Dancing in the Street” (August 12, 1985)

“Dancing in the Street” is not a Bowie/Jagger original. It’s actually a cover of a song that was originally performed by Martha and the Vandellas and was written by Marvin Gaye. This version, however, is without a doubt the most famous modern rendition and representation of the old song. (Fun fact: It was also covered by Van Halen shortly before Bowie and Jagger did it.)

Originally recorded for a Live-Aid concert, the video was voted one of the worst of all time by an NME survey. I, however, find it hilarious and always get a kick out of it. I’d like to think, based off of how goofy Jagger and Bowie are acting in the video, they were thinking the same thing.

7. Nirvana at the VMAs (September 9, 1992)

Our editor Jeremy actually recommended I write about this one and, boy, did he choose a good one. This video of the grunge gods, Nirvana, performing at the Video Music Awards, starts off with “Rape Me,” which they were told not to play at the event. After the show, Krist Novoselic threw his bass up in the air and hit himself in the head with it. Then, the band pulled a Who and got destructive with Dave Grohl running to the mic and calling out, “Hi, Axl!” to Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose.

We don’t see things like this anymore. Maybe MTV makes artists sign contracts to say they won’t misbehave as such now. Who knows. But Nirvana did misbehave and fought hard to make music dangerous again.

8. Green Day “Longview” Premiere (February 1, 1994)

If it weren’t for this music video (directed by Mark Kohr), there probably wouldn’t have been the success of the Offspring, Sum 41, or Blink-182. It encouraged a slew of youngsters to go out and get Fender Stratocasters (or knock-offs) and cover the darn thing with stickers. If it weren’t for Green Day, I probably wouldn’t have done the same thing as a young guitar player.

This was the first single off of Dookie, which has sold 20 million copies to date. In 2004, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the album, artists such as Good Charlotte and Sum 41 recalled the impact Dookie had on their lives for an article on MTV.com. My favorite quote, which kind of encapsulates what Green Day first contributed to music, comes from Billy Martin from Good Charlotte. “I remember he said ‘masturbation’ in [‘Longview’], and I was like, ‘No way!’ Green Day didn’t care. They were just doing their thing and there was nothing like them on TV.”

9. Rage Against the Machine on SNL (April 13, 1996)

Say what you want about rap metal, Rage Against the Machine brought it. They brought their supreme rhythmic tightness and their politically leaning message, which is more pertinent now than ever. In the mid-’90s, they were blowing up, and they were asked to play SNL. (I can only guess that after this incident, whoever asked them to play was fired.)

That night, Steve Forbes, ex-Republican Presidential nominee candidate, hosted the show. The band tried to hang upside-down American flags on their set to make a statement about the forthcoming election but were told they could not do that by SNL executives. Being on the show was controversial as is, but in true Rage fashion, they had their roadies put the flags up anyway. Literally seconds before they went on, the SNL crew tried to take the flags down. Rage was ordered to leave immediately and did not get to play a second song.

10. Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera Kiss at the VMAs (August 28, 2003)

Known as “the kiss heard round the world” during Madonna’s mashup performance of “Like a Virgin” and “Hollywood” at the 2003 VMAs, something pretty unexpected happened when all three divas were onstage together. The three-way kiss. Just look at that quick cut to Spears’ ex-boyfriend, a young Justin Timberlake, and watch his awkward reaction. Yup, that’s how everyone felt. It’s still weird to watch this after so many years.

11. Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Performance (February 1, 2004)

Speaking of Timberlake, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl in 2004, but I remember kids at school telling me about it later. If you don’t know the story already, I’m here to fill you in.

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake played the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII. Jackson came out with a politically charged, very serious song, and everything was going as expected. Then Timberlake came out and brought sexy back, as he does. At the very end of their set, Timberlake reached over to grab at Jackson’s clothes in the choreography, and then it happened. The infamous “wardrobe malfunction” — a.k.a., “the nip slip” — a dancing artist’s worst onstage nightmare. This video is NSFW, though I’m sure your boss has seen it already. What is so impressive is how quickly the whole thing got covered up as they finished their performance in perfectly timed darkness.

12. Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” on The OC (May 19, 2005)

This scene, where Marissa shoots Trey (I never watched The OC but I’m getting this all from the YouTube description), was where a lot of people were introduced to the artistry of Imogen Heap. Her song “Hide and Seek” stands alone for the British singer, and in this clip, where one character is killing another by choking him, the gunshot by Marissa is justified to the viewers by Heap’s line, “It’s all for the best.”

Possibly even more iconic than this moment was the SNL skit that parodied this, done by Shia Labeouf, Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis, and Kristen Wiig. I won’t ruin it for you. Just watch it for yourself.

13. Scrubs’ “My Musical” (January 18, 2007)

While many sitcoms have musical episodes, I think Scrubs might’ve outdone the rest. Primarily, because the musical theme actually fits the plot of the episode. The show, which revolves around the daily lives of people working at a hospital, features a variety of hospital patients with different problems and diseases throughout its nine seasons, and this episode involves a woman who literally hears everything anyone says as if they’re singing it.

All of your favorite Scrubs characters get to act out different themes of a musical, with tons of genres present — sad songs, happy songs, ballads, the like. And every important hospital topic in the show is covered as well: drama, love, uncertainty, Mr. Cox’s hate of JD, and poo (I’m not kidding). If you, too, hear the world in song, feel free to check out our course, Music Theory for Broadway Actors.

14. Prince’s “Purple Rain” at Super Bowl XLI (February 4, 2007)

Is there anything more iconic than Prince singing “Purple Rain” in the rain, at Super Bowl XLI?!! Not for the Soundfly staff! It was a rainy day, anyway, but when someone from the Super Bowl entertainment staff asked Prince if he was okay playing in the rain, his response was, “Can you make it rain harder?”

It has gone down in history as one of the most epic Super Bowl performances ever, and these halftime shows are already pretty epic in and of themselves. In 40 years, it had never rained at a Super Bowl, and Prince really brought the party with four absolutely perfect songs for the occasion, and, of course, the one. “Purple Rain” is later in the video, but the whole thing is a good watch.

15. Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent (April 11, 2009)

News Flash: The majority of the music industry is shallow and appearance driven. This applies especially to women. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a successful female pop singer who doesn’t fit a particular body image or age window for most of music history, sadly. For these reasons, the story of Susan Boyle is pretty incredible.

Susan Boyle does not fit the magazine standard, which of course is basically impossible for any woman, anyhow. Frankly, though, she doesn’t seem too interested in trying to do that. She just walked herself out there on internationally syndicated TV and slayed the competition on Britain’s Got Talent, and it was beautiful. She made a shallow and heartless industry take notice of her talent and judge her not on age or appearance but on the voice she possessed. Since then, she’s been praised by people in all walks of life, and one blogger even reported crying when she saw the video of Boyle singing. Thank you, Susan, you’ve sparked hope in a lot of people that this shallow world can have a heart and can change.

16. Kanye and Taylor Swift “Imma Let You Finish” (September 13, 2009)

Oh, KanTay (I promise I didn’t make that up, and I am already regretting using it). Before all of this “Famous” garbage happened, Taylor Swift and Kanye West had a hilarious run-in at the VMA’s way back in 2009. Well, not hilarious for them. But super funny for the rest of the world watching.

As the story goes, in case you don’t know, Swift won “Best Female Video” with her song “You Belong to Me,” beating out Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video. Leave it only to West to interrupt her acceptance speech. “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time. Of all time!” Leaving people like me to forever quote it out of context. Fast forward to 2017, and this incident has forever changed their relationship and careers. Check this out, courtesy of our friends at Genius:

17. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at the VMAs (August 25, 2013)

In 2013, a 20-year-old Miley Cyrus was trying to shed her Hannah Montana good-girl youth image. Stuff like that can usually take an album or two, a couple promotion campaigns, and some time to sculpt, but not for Miley. Her image was resculpted in a matter of minutes with this viral good-girl-gone-bad performance at the the VMAs alongside the also-controversial Robin Thicke.

Cyrus started the sexually (and psychedelically?) charged performance with her song “We Can’t Stop” and was joined onstage by Thicke to perform his song “Blurred Lines,” the video for which featured nude models walking around a studio. During this televised barrage of near-nude twerking and tongue-flashing, apparently a record-setting 306,000 tweets were being published every minute.

What will the future hold for televised music? Only time will tell.

Looking to advance your skills and open up more opportunities in music? Explore Soundfly’s growing array of Mainstage courses that feature personal support and mentorship from experienced professionals in the field, such as Faders Up: Modern Mixing Techniques, Beat Making in Ableton Live, Orchestration for Stringsand Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords.

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Robert Lanterman
Robert Lanterman

Rob Lanterman is a writer, musician, and record label owner from Boise, ID. He enjoys writing about how aspects of punk rock and DIY have informed all areas of his life, as well as his own experience touring, writing, recording, and being a label owner.

  • Carlos Alberto Augusto

    All you need is love was and still remains one the biggest live tv broadcasts ever. Someone forgot to do the homeowork…