Since its inception in 1975, US TV show Saturday Night Live has been a cultural touchstone like few others. Headline-generating cultural takedowns are part and parcel of the weekly variety show, with open-minded, self-effacing celebrities clamouring for the opportunity to roast and be roasted.
Its music segment has fast become the go-to destination for artists looking to crack the upper echelons, too. Like precious few UK-based telly shows, the SNL stage is opportunity for artists to make a big, brash statement, beaming ambitious, often show-stealing performances into the homes of millions. Below, we’ve rounded up 15 of the very best SNL musical performances from the past 44 (!) years.
Kanye West – Black Skinhead
Why: If ‘Yeezus’ marked the moment Kanye went from hip hop’s head honcho to avant-garde genius, his SNL performance was all the evidence needed that he’d gone from a ‘College Dropout’ to a cultural icon.
Megan Thee Stallion – Savage
Why: Megan used her debut Saturday Night Live performance to protest the recent Breonna Taylor ruling. Performing ‘Savage’ on a backdrop reading “protect black women”, midway through Beyonce’s verse in the song the music cuts out, replaced by gun shots and then a recording of Malcolm X’s ‘Who Taught You To Hate?’, followed by audio of activist Tamika Mallory speaking about Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (who announced last week that no significant charges would be brought against the officers who killed Taylor). Megan herself then states: “We need to protect our Black women and love our Black women, because at the end of the day, we need our Black women.” It’s a hugely powerful and important performance.
Frank Ocean – Pyramids
Why: The reclusive chanteuse trimmed the original ‘Pyramids’ down to half its length for the telly version, but kept that John Mayer guitar solo in. Not that Frank himself was fussed – while Mayer noodled away, he wandered off to play on an arcade machine.
Sinead O’Connor – War (Bob Marley cover)
Why: Never one to mince words, O’Connor’s rendition of the politicised Marley classic saw her swapping out the lines “fight racial injustice” for “fight sexual abuse,” before tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II. It resulted in over 4,000 calls of complaint to NBC.
Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Why: The first certifiably massive moment for the grunge-rock revolution, Nirvana ended their performance with a textbook ‘smash everything to pieces’ routine, destroying amps, guitars and gear after their run-through of the now classic single. SNL producers got the upper hand, though – knowing what Nirvana were like, they swapped out the usual studio amps for cheaper versions. Good job, really.
Billie Eilish – Bad Guy
Why: Inspired by a scene in Fred Astaire’s Royal Wedding, which sees the dancer appear to walk on the walls, Eilish’s gravity-defying rendition of ‘Bad Guy’ is a masterclass in performance illusions. The disorientating version saw Eilish positioned in a revolving rig, which made it look like the teenage sensation was walking on the ceiling – it’s mind bending stuff.
Elvis Costello – Radio Radio
Why: Ordered by his label to perform his current single ‘Less Than Zero’ on the show, Costello told them where to stick their ideas. Ten seconds into that aforementioned single, he screamed at his band to stop, before launching into the then-unreleased ‘Radio Radio’ – a fitting takedown of overly sanitised media. “The confused and indignant faces behind the camera were the funniest things we’d seen all night,” Costello wrote in his memoir, “and we laughed all the way to the bar if not the bank.”
Childish Gambino – This Is America
Why: It might not have been the show-stopper that the official music video was, but Gambino’s on-air debut of ‘This Is America’ still stunned audiences, coming off the back of a Donald Glover-hosted show which also saw him act in nearly every sketch. Busy guy.
R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People
Why: A wilfully silly appearance from Michael Stipe and co., complete with madcap dance routines and guest vocals from Kate Pierson of the B-52’s.
BTS – Boy With Luv
Why: The K-pop sensations Saturday Night Live debut (and the first time ever that a K-pop band had been on the show) is a treat. With fans camping outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza days in advance (to make sure they could get into the show), the slickly choreographed performance of the group’s infectious tune is an absolute killer.
David Bowie – TVC15
Why: Walking a pink poodle around the stage, dressed in high heels and a lovely dress, Bowie was in the midst of his ‘Berlin years’ when he popped up for this madcap SNL showing, which also featured his friend, the avant garde artist Klaus Nomi. Typically Bowie, it’s as weird as it is wonderful.
The Strokes – Hard To Explain
Why: Arguably the breakthrough moment for the group who defined (and arguably, still define) modern guitar music, The Strokes’ appearance on SNL cemented their spot as present day cultural icons.
Fear – New York’s Alright
Why: A lesser-known entrant into the SNL hall of fame, L.A. hardcore punks Fear nevertheless gave the SNL stage one of its most memorable showings. Performing in front of a huge, chaotic mosh pit (itself featuring members of hardcore heroes Minor Threat, Cro-Mags and Negative Approach), the group brought punk extremity to music’s biggest nationwide platform.
Lorde – Green Light
Why: Featuring Lorde’s always excellent dancing and, confusingly, a lot of red lights, this version of ‘Green Light’ is utterly brilliant.
Arctic Monkeys – A Certain Romance
Why: Long before they properly cracked the States, Turner and co. brought ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ to US tellyboxes. Worth it for Turner’s frankly brilliant cry of mock-shock: “That man just yawned!” he shouts at one point, pointing out a clearly less-than-impressed member of the audience.
The 1975 – The Sound
Why: Proof they’d gone from emo-pop hopefuls to transatlantic heroes, The 1975’s sugary explosion of ‘The Sound’ was one of the ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ era’s most defining moments.
Queen – Under Pressure
Why: Despite reportedly having no voice, Freddie Mercury stormed through ‘Under Pressure’ on SNL – a performance that would prove to be their last in the US.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (featuring Dave Grohl) – You Don’t Know How It Feels
Why: Fresh from the firing of his drummer, Tom Petty hired some hopeful named Dave Grohl to be his sticksman for his upcoming SNL show. It brought a headbanging ferocity to Petty’s usual storyteller’s style.
Sia – Elastic Heart
Why: Before this performance, the still-mysterious Sia was largely an unknown entity. A beautifully choreographed run-through of ‘Elastic Heart’ was all the impetus she needed to step out from behind the writer’s desk for good, and strike out solo once and for all.