The Must-See Moments of the 2016 VMAs

It wasn’t VH1’s Hip Hop Honors: All Hail the Queens, but women ruled the VMAs this year. MTV’s flagship award show took place Sunday, August 28 at Madison Square Garden, and featured a host of first-name-only divas, from Rihanna to Beyoncé to Britney (and back to Rihanna).

VMAs seats

Alicia Keys had a front row seat at the 2016 VMAs. Photo courtesy of MTV.

As always, the VMAs were a cultural phenomenon. We can quantify this in new ways thanks to social media. The 33rd annual ceremony drew nearly 50 million streams on Facebook, and tripled in Snapchat impressions since last year. According to Nielsen, the VMAs produced 90 percent of TV social conversation that night.

Read more to find out why the VMAs broke the internet.

Rihanna work, work, worked her way through a decade of hits.

Michael Jackson’s Video Vanguard Award honors artists, including Madonna and David Bowie, who have had a profound effect on pop culture. It’s fitting that this year’s winner, Rihanna, performed an unprecedented four times at the VMAs, both opening and closing the show.

She took us on a tour of her decade-spanning career, beginning with Don’t Stop the Music, Only Girl (In the World, We Found Love and Where Have You Been). The opening medley radiated girl power. Clad in bubblegum pink and surrounded by a fluffy stage, Rihanna and her backup dancers executed a tightly choreographed dance number for these beloved songs.

US singer Rihanna performs during the 2016 MTV Video Music Award at the Madison Square Garden in New York on August 28, 2016. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Rihanna performs a stellar throwback opening act at the 2016 VMAs. Click through to watch the video. (Photo courtesy of JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Her next act was, on the surface, less composed. It featured a crowd of dancers wearing mismatched club-wear grinding to hits including Work. The relaxed routine worked for her low tempo beats.

In her next sultry segment, Rihanna sang Needed Me swathed in fog, red stage lighting, and a giant puffy coat.  She finished with Bitch Better Have My Money, wearing thigh-high boots as an LED lightning bolt pierced the stage behind her.

To close the night, Rihanna sang Stay, Love on the Brain, and Diamond accompanied by a string orchestra.

A candelabrum hung above her head and the stage was draped in white cloth, creating an elegant atmosphere to match the graceful ballads.

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 28: Rihanna performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Music Video Awards at Madison Square Garden on August 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/WireImage)

Rihanna’s ethereal closing performance at the VMAs . (Photo by D Dipasupil/WireImage)

When life gave Beyoncé lemons, she made lemonade (and eight Moon Men).

Beyoncé’s performance was announced by tennis superstar Serena Williams just moments before it began. Those of us who weren’t able to snag tickets to The Formation World Tour were treated to nearly 16 minutes of uninterrupted time with Queen Bey.

The medley of tracks from her LP Lemonade matched the visual prowess of the concept album.  She opened with the effusive Pray You Catch Me, where backup dancers pantomimed being shot by red lasers in a symbolic gesture against police violence. It wasn’t her first political statement of the evening. Beyoncé surrounded herself with a powerful entourage on the red carpet—the mothers of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Oscar Grant.

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 28: Beyonce and mothers of gun violence attend the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards at Madison Square Garden on August 28, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Beyonce and mothers of gun violence on the VMA red carpet. Click through to watch the video. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Onstage, Bey transitioned to the spunky hit Hold Up. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” Asked Beyoncé, looking directly into the camera right before smashing it with a baseball bat.

The star followed with Sorry, Don’t Hurt Yourself, and Formation. Like her performance at the BET Awards, Beyoncé’s VMA extravaganza didn’t end without bringing some natural elements onstage. Instead of splashing through 60 gallons of water, this time the singer actually lit the stage on fire.

Oops, she did it again…

In another historic moment, Britney Spears performed at the VMAs for the first time in nine years. She looked like the iconic diva of her heyday, wearing a sparkly yellow leotard as she powered through dance moves for her current hits, Make Me and Me, Myself, & I.

Ariana Grande’s sweat-provoking performance set a new standard for VMA acts and your workout.

Most people would consider a Soul Cycle class difficult enough without singing during it. Ariana Grande proved she is not like most people, as she danced and sang her way through Side to Side on an exercise bike.

Key and Peele’s alter-egos, the Shamester and Lizard Sheeple spewed social media wisdom.

Yes, there were men at the VMAs. Comedic duo Key and Peel promised to “change the world, one meme at a time” and while they may not have achieved their goal, they certainly were hilarious. The characters took the place of traditional hosts at this year’s ceremony, and it was fire.

MTV gave Yeezy four minutes to do whatever he wanted. Here’s what happened.

“I am Kanye West,” began Kanye West…

Watch the full show here, and find more curated highlights on


The 2016 VMA Winners

Click through to watch their performances and other clips.

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