Lorne Michaels really hit the jackpot when he somehow conjured up Saturday Night Live. The live TV sketch comedy show has just completed its 37th season, parodying everything from politics, to popular culture, to the very musical acts that perform on stage at Studio 8H. The show has been the perfect arena for some classic musical performances on a stage only small if you’re speaking in terms of physical size.
While many acts that have performed on SNL have been technically precise and entertaining, there have been a few snafus that are just as memorable. So without further ado, here are The 10 Most Memorable Saturday Night Live Musical Performances, featuring the good, the bad, and the awkward jig.
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10. David Bowie
Original air date: December 15, 1979
Why it was memorable: David Bowie is a weird guy, but that’s never stopped him from putting on great performances. Confined in a very restrictive outfit – so restrictive that he had to be carried towards his mic – Bowie performed “The Man Who Sold The World” alongside Klaus Nomi. This performance was memorable for many reasons, but the most important one being how strange it was. Shit, this performance was probably inspiration for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. Bowie let his freak flag fly, and if you watch it once, you’ll probably never forget it.
9. Lana Del Rey
Original air date: January 14th, 2012
Why it was memorable: The indie darling who fell from grace in one fell swoop. At this point of her career, Lana Del Rey was already facing intense scrutiny from critics. It was predicted that this SNL performance would either make or break her career, either propel her into mainstream fame or push her further into indie obscurity. Perhaps reviews were harsher than they needed to be, but Del Rey was criticised for being awkward and uncomfortable, not ready for the stage.
Lana continued to perform on live television, improving with each performance and doing alright for herself. Turns out that one questionable SNL performance won’t kill your career after all, so long as you won’t let it.
Original air date: October 28th, 2006
Why it was memorable: As far as originality goes, Beck’s performance takes the cake. Even though “Clap Hands” wasn’t what the audience knew Beck for back in ’06, he played the song anyway, with some help from a percussion section. This wasn’t any ordinary percussion section, though. It was all done on a dining room table, complete with a roast turkey. Is that not enough? Apparently not for Beck, who also brought along some puppets to help out.
7. Ashlee Simpson
Original air date: October 23rd, 2004
Why it was memorable: Ah, the infamous jig. For her second performance of the night, Ashlee Simpson had planned on lighting up the stage with “Autobiography.” As she was getting prepared to sing that first note, the track from her first performance started playing. “Quick, Ashlee, do something,” she must have thought. But in that moment of panic and embarrassment, all Simpson could do was give an awkward look, shrug, and continue on with a jig, making this perhaps one of the most embarrassing moments ever on live television.
6. Arcade Fire
Original air date: February 24th, 2007
Why it was memorable: If you recall, there was a time when not many knew who Arcade Fire was. After Funeral, the indie crowd was in love, but mainstream America got a taste of the Montreal-based group when they hit national television with their performance of “Keep The Car Running.” While pure talent, of course, increases your chances of nabbing that Grammy, getting your name out there by killing a live performance helps too.
5. Sinéad O’Connor
Original air date: October 3rd, 1992
Why it was memorable: Those who watch SNL know that the show likes to dabble in a bit of politics, but this was one of those unscripted moments that left the jaws of both audience and viewers at home dangling. To finish up her performance of “War,” Sinéad O’Connor then held a picture of Pope John Paul II up, urging the audience to “fight the real enemy!” O’Connor then tore up the image and threw it towards the camera. Needless to say, O’Connor met some pretty tough repercussions to her actions, namely, losing the traction she had gained as a pop sensation. But she never felt bad about it, responding with a resounding “hell no!” when asked if she regretted the incident.
4. Simon & Garfunkel
Original air date: October 18th, 1975
Why it was memorable: For SNL’s second episode ever, Simon & Garfunkel were invited to perform. The only problem was that the duo had just broken up. While the two were no longer making music together, Simon & Garfunkel reunited for SNL, with this being their second performance together since having broken up. In addition to their wonderful performances of “The Boxer,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “My Little Town,” the familiar dynamic that existed between the two during their performance was just another nice little bonus. And from that day forward, a certain standard has been set for SNL musical guests (Karmin and One Direction aside).
3. Kanye West
Original air date: October 2nd, 2010
Why it was memorable: 808s and Heartbreaks caught everyone off guard. With Kanye West’s incorporation of autotune, singing, and synthesizers came an era of experimentation by the unpredictable rapper/producer. While some argue that 808s is a misunderstood masterpiece, other longtime fans were left disappointed.
When he came out with My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, that debate of Kanye’s greatness was silenced. He hit SNL and brought a grandiose, stunning performance of “Runaway.” The stage at SNL is usually pretty bland, but Kanye transformed the small, humble set into his own vision.
Original air date: January 11th, 1992
Why it was memorable: At the time that this grunge band appeared on SNL, Nirvana was in their prime having just topped the Billboard charts with Nevermind, and this performance was one of the most pivotal moments in the band’s career. Following “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Kurt Cobain and company decided to perform “Territorial Pissings,” despite having been warned not to, and the performance was finished off with some equipment smashing. At no point were any fucks given.
In true Nirvana fashion, the band proved that no matter how big you get, it’s important to keep that punk ethos alive as best you can.
1. Elvis Costello
Original air date: December 17th, 1977
Why it was memorable: Despite receiving very precise and strict orders from both Columbia Records and Lorne Michaels, the producer of SNL, not to play “Radio, Radio” due to its anti-media sentiments, Elvis Costello went ahead and played “Radio, Radio.” During the performance, Costello started to play “Less Than Zero” then changed his mind and did what he really wanted to do. With every action come its consequences, so Michaels banned Costello from SNL. Eventually, Costello was forgiven and invited on stage for SNL’s 25th anniversary, when he interrupted the Beastie Boys’ performance with the very song that started all the controversy in the first place: “Radio, Radio.”