Performances That Pop

What is Performances That Pop?

Performances That Pop is a review series exploring some of the best musical performances in the pop culture canon. The performances featured in this series vary in genre, notoriety, and style. What they share is a particular cultural resonance. They can be a perfect representation of a given artist, or it can bear important historical significance. They don’t have to be vocally pristine, or offer any kind of spectacle. But they do have to matter.

The goal of this series is highlight these significant, resonant performances, examine the context that surrounds them, and offer an understanding about our collective culture, especially as it becomes increasingly fractured. Hopefully, this series will expose readers to performances they weren’t aware of, offer new perspectives on performances and artists they were aware of, and provide a greater appreciation for what a performance can mean, on and off the stage.

Performances That Pop is meant to evolve over time; in fact, I insist on it. If there is a performance that you’d like to share for consideration, please send an email to, with “Performances That Pop” in the subject line.

“Killer / Papa was a Rollin’ Stone”
George Michael
The Concert of Hope (1993)

George Michael’s performance at the Concert of Hope at Wembley Stadium in 1993 – in support of AIDS research and attended by Diana, Princess of Wales – encapsulated his exhilarating and fully-formed presence as a performer. His mash-up of Adamski’s acid house track and The Temptations’ funk masterpiece was an electrifying, stylish, and sexy display of Michael’s stage presence.

“Lover Man / My Man / All The Man That I Need”
Whitney Houston
1991 Billboard Music Awards

Whitney Houston’s medley at the 1991 Billboard Music Awards came during a period of great transition, right before she attained a level of superstardom rarely seen with the release of The Bodyguard. By singing standards popularized by Billie Holiday and Barbra Streisand alongside her own hit, Houston codified her right to stand beside them as the female pop voice of her generation.

“Nessun dorma”
Luciano Pavarotti
Dodgers Stadium (1994)
Aretha Franklin
1998 Grammy Awards

“Nessun dorma,” the famous aria from Giacomo Puccini’s Turnadot, is one of the most famous compositions in opera, thanks largely to the transcendent performances delivered by the Italian great Luciano Pavarotti. When he was unable to perform at the 1998 Grammy Awards, his friend, soul legend Aretha Franklin, stepped in at the last minute and achieved her own piece of musical nirvana.

The Confessions Tour (2006)

When Madonna first released “Erotica” in 1992, the pop superstar experienced severe pushback from audiences, even though the song and its parent album weren’t as libidinous or depraved as the negative reaction suggested. She revisited the song 14 years later for The Confessions Tour, turning it into a sensual disco romp that was far more challenging to polite, sexless sensibilities that its original version.

“The Woman’s Work”
MTV Unplugged (1997)

Maxwell was still an up-and-coming R&B singer when MTV invited him to headline his own gig for the MTV Unplugged acoustic concert series. His astonishing performance of “This Woman’s Work”, a cover of Kate Bush’s touching ballad about impending fatherhood, established him as a budding genius.

The Spice Girls at the 1997 BRIT Awards

“Who Do You Think You Are”
The Spice Girls
1997 BRIT Awards

By the time that Emma, Mel B, Mel C, Victoria, and Geri took to the BRIT Awards stage, they had completely conquered the music world, topping the charts everywhere and selling millions of albums. Their performance of the rowdy, rambunctious “Who Do You Think You Are” was a victory lap, celebrating their immense cultural power. Also, that dress.

“Can’t Help Falling in Love”
Céline Dion
The Colour of My Love Concert (1994)

Céline Dion is one of pop music’s most under-appreciated camp icons. While she became one of the best-selling artists in music history of the back of her adult contemporary masterpieces like “Because You Loved Me” and “My Heart Will Go On,” Dion was at her most exciting when she embraced her quirkier sensibilities and melded it with her extraordinary voice. Her cover of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” foretold her recording-breaking, trendsetting success in Las Vegas.

“Coming Out of the Dark”
Gloria Estefan
1991 American Music Awards

Latin pop superstar Gloria Estefan was on top of the world when a bus crash nearly ended her career. After ten months of intensive rehab and recovery, Estefan made a glorious comeback at the 1991 American Music Awards, singing her future #1 hit “Coming Out of the Dark.” Tentative and then powerful, Estefan’s performance was a riveting career rebirth in real time.

“Battle Hymn of the Republic”
Judy Garland
The Judy Garland Show (1963)

Judy Garland’s gift was her vocal storytelling, her innate ability to bring a song’s emotions to life with startling, heartrending clarity. She used that gift to pay tribute to her close friend President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas in November 1963. A month later, Judy performed “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” blending captivating theatricality, soul-stirring poignancy, and steely resolve. It was the performance grieving Americans needed, and as she often did during her lifetime, she delivered.

“We Belong Together / Fly Like a Bird”
Mariah Carey
2006 Grammy Awards

In 2006, Mariah Carey made a triumphant return to the Grammys stage after ten years away. However, the performance had little to do with the Recording Academy and the eight nominations she received for her comeback album The Emancipation of Mimi. Carey used the stage to emancipate herself from the guarded perfection and burdens that defined the first phase of her career.

“Someone Like You”
2011 BRIT Awards

When Adele took to the BRITs stage in February 2011 and sang “Someone Like You,” the second single from her sophomore album 21, she delivered a once-in-a-lifetime performance that re-wrote the trajectory of her career forever. For the millions who watched, Adele proved herself as the custodian of our collective emotions. She earned our trust, and we rewarded her handsomely, with album sales that crossed 30 million copies and established her as a pop music juggernaut in her own right.