From memorable fashion statements to stunning performances, let’s revisit eight unforgettable moments from Grammy Awards history.
The Grammys 2021, set to take place on January 31st, will be unlike any in decades past. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the show will go on with a live broadcast from Staples Center in Los Angeles. And, although many of the details have yet to be confirmed, it’s guaranteed to be a memorable night, with Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Dua Lipa dominating the game.
For starters, Beyoncé will make history as this year’s most-nominated artist for her groundbreaking visual album Black Is King and the song “Black Parade,” released at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Depending on how many trophies she takes home, she could become the most-awarded artist ever.
Meanwhile, BTS will become the first K-pop group to receive a Grammy nomination, and Ben Winston will take over as producer from the recently-retired Ken Ehrlich. In honor of this year’s Grammy Awards, we took a trip down memory lane with images from the Shutterstock collection. From memorable fashion statements to stunning performances, read on to revisit just eight unforgettable moments from Grammy Awards past.
1. God Is a Woman (1973)
When Helen Reddy, the powerhouse behind the feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” took home the Grammy for best female vocalist in 1973, she made headlines by thanking God, “because she makes everything possible.” At the time, it caused quite the stir, and some have described it as a precursor to Ariana Grande’s 2018 hit “God Is a Woman.”
“I’m a woman, I’ve experienced a lot of life, and one night I realized that I couldn’t have survived unless I had been pretty strong,” Reddy told The New York Times in June of 1973. “The lines ‘I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman’ kept going over and over in my head and I thought, ‘I guess that’s the beginning of a song.’”
It was the year Shirley Chisholm ran for President. The moment also coincided with the Senate passing of the Equal Rights Amendment. Throughout the following decades, the Australian-born artist would continue to inspire generations of women. In 2017, she joined in the Women’s March in Los Angeles, reiterating the message of “I Am Woman” for a new age. She passed away in September 2020 at the age of 78.
2. Annie Lennox in Drag (1984)
For the 1984 awards, Annie Lennox arrived in full Elvis Presley-style drag, causing confusion backstage with producers and other musicians who didn’t recognize her in her gender-bending look. The only person she let in on the secret was Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. At one point, the stage manager became frantic looking for her backstage, before realizing she’d been there all along.
Later, Lennox would perform “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” in drag, dazzling the world. “I remember enjoying very much being in another persona,” she would later reflect in conversation with CTV. “That was interesting. That was like a piece of performance art. Apart from performing, I actually inhabited this male persona for a few hours.”
3. Prince Steals the Show (1985)
The Grammy Awards have played host to some of the most iconic performances of the last fifty years, among them Prince’s 1985 showstopping rendition of “Baby I’m a Star,” which closed out the show. He did the splits. He joined the crowd. By the end of the performance, the stage was full of dancers.
“The Grammys represented a little more of the old-school back then,” Bobby Z., the drummer for the Revolution, would later recall. “But Prince just went out there and wreaked havoc. He was the punk and the wild card. He went out into the crowd and the cameraman was chasing after him.” That year, Prince would also bring home three trophies.
4. Aretha Franklin Saves the Day (1998)
At the eleventh hour, the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who was scheduled to perform at the 1998 Grammys, had to cancel because he was ill. That’s when Aretha Franklin stepped in to perform “Nessun Dorma,” an aria from Giacomo Puccini‘s opera Turandot. The idea came from the longtime producer Ken Ehrlich, who had seen her perform the famously difficult aria at a Pavarotti tribute.
Franklin had just twenty minutes notice before she was set to perform on live television, with no rehearsal, but she pulled it off—and then some. That year, more than a billion viewers tuned into the awards, and the performance earned its spot as one of the greatest in awards show history. Faith Hill cried. Céline Dion shook her head in wonderment. And, everyone stood up when she hit that high B at the end.
“It was a genuine shock,” Ehrlich later told Billboard. “I remember looking out on the audience as she walked out. There was the rush of applause, and then there was this thunderous applause that followed the performance. Everybody knew that she was incomparable.”
5. J. Lo’s Dress (2000)
No Grammys history would be complete without mention of Jennifer Lopez’s plunging green Versace dress, a fashion statement so buzz-worthy and searched-for that it famously inspired the launch of Google Images. It was actually a last-minute pick. According to her stylist, the star had been so busy with The Wedding Planner and a new LP that she didn’t find “the dress” until the day before the show.
Lopez would recreate the iconic moment in 2019 when she walked the runway for Versace at Milan Fashion Week, wearing an updated version of the dress. “It was one of those perfect moments,” she would recall to mark the occasion. “I walked out on stage and it kind of blew open, and the dress was just provocative enough, I guess, to make people really interested.”
6. Lady Gaga’s Egg (2011)
In 2011, Lady Gaga arrived on the red carpet encased in a giant, Hussein Chalayan-designed egg, later “hatching” to perform “Born This Way.” “She is incubating,” the choreographer Laurieann Gibson famously told Ryan Seacrest while Gaga was carried across the red carpet. “She won’t be born until her performance this evening.”
That night, Gaga had an oxygen tank inside and her blackberry to keep her comfortable until her emergence. “I want to give my fans nothing less than the greatest album of the decade,” she told Vogue on the eve of the Born This Way release. “I don’t want to give them something trendy. I want to give them the future.” Surely, something similar could be said of her Grammys entrance.
7. Queen Latifah Officiates (2014)
At the 2014 Grammys, Queen Latifah, joined on-stage by Madonna, officiated a mass wedding of thirty-three couples, of all ages, both gay and straight, during a performance of “Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. “This song is not a love song for some of us, but for all of us,” she announced to the audience, many of whom were moved to tears by the show of support for marriage equality.
“We are gathered here to celebrate love and harmony in every key and every color.” In anticipation of the event, the star had gone through the process of being sworn in as a commissioner in California. Backstage, she told reporters, “I look forward to the day when presiding over a historic wedding ceremony like this is just the norm.”
8. Michelle Obama’s Surprise (2019)
As part of the 61st Annual Grammy Awards, the former First Lady joined Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lady Gaga, and Alicia Keys as part of an appearance at the start of the show. The surprise left viewers stunned and delighted, while audience members welcomed the author and lawyer with a twenty-five-second standing ovation.
“From the Motown records I wore out on the South Side to the ‘who run the world’ songs that fueled me through this last decade, music has always helped me tell my story, and I know that’s true for everybody here,” Obama told the crowd.
“Whether we like country or rap or rock, music helps us share ourselves, our dignity and sorrows, our hopes and joys. It allows us to hear one another, to invite each other in. Music shows us that all of it matters—every story within every voice, every note within every song.”
In 2020, she would become a Grammy winner herself, taking home the trophy in the Best Spoken Word category for the audio recording of her book Becoming.
Looking for even more celebrity moments and current events? Check out these image tours from the Shutterstock Archives:
Cover image via Rob Latour/Shutterstock.