The mother of all SNL musical gaffes, Ashlee Simpson’s now-infamous October 2004 appearance turned her into a national joke for months. As she was set to perform her second song, “Autobiography,” a pre-recorded version of her hit “Pieces of Me” began playing instead, while Simpson’s microphone was still at her side and her mouth was shut. Her band gamely played on but Simpson abandoned ship and wandered offstage—but not before subjecting the audience to 30 seconds of a bizarre, awkward jig and a sheepish smile. While she initially placed the blame on her band (“I feel so bad,” she said at the end of the show. “My band started playing the wrong song. And I didn’t know what to do, so I thought I’d do a hoedown.”), she later changed her tune and blamed a case of “severe” acid reflux. However shaky Lana Del Rey’s vocals were on Saturday, they at least guarantee that she sang her own song.
Lana Del Rey also can be credited with not destroying the set she was given, the way that punk band Fear did on Halloween, 1981. Surrounded by fans clad in tight jeans, chains, spiked boots and leather jackets, Fear sang “Beef Bologna” and incited a near-riot. As John Joseph, who was in the audience at the time, recalled, “We were just f--king kicking cameras over, screens, anything that look like it cost money. We were just like, ‘Bam! Next!’ ” Gory details of the night include much more than just the standard slam-dancing typical at punk shows, according to Joseph (who also was the lead singer of hardcore punk band Cro-Mags in the 1980s). Noses were broken, brawls broke out between New York and Washington, D.C., natives, pumpkins were launched at security guards’ heads and a NYPD-versus-punks chase out of Rockefeller Center spilled into the streets outside. All told, it was a punk’s dream show, but an SNL producer’s worst nightmare. Total property damages caused that night by Fear and their fans are rumored to be around $250,000—needless to say, they were promptly banned from ever performing on SNL again.
Before Lana Del Rey was even known as Lana Del Rey (she used to sing under her birth name, Lizzy Grant), Kanye West was the pariah of the SNL stage. His 2008 rendition of “Love Lockdown” was regarded as generally terrible, without the aid of the vocoder that usually smooths his voice into its trademark robotic croon. Despite the zealous dancing and fancy background screens, Kanye’s singing remained mostly flat, prompting Gawker to quip that West “sounded disturbingly like a quiet man doing bad karaoke.” To his credit, however, West did have the good sense to spare the audience his non-machine-aided high notes—he turned away from the microphone and let a disembodied female voice take over for those.
Two years later, in 2010, Ke$ha was the one branded the worst act in SNL history. Her pitchy performance of “Tik Tok” in particular seemed to attract the ire of SNL audiences. The unflattering space suits, robotic dance moves and bizarre laser harp (which she played while asking her audience what is surely the most enduring question of our generation: “Does anyone ever stop to think that maybe we are the aliens?”) probably didn’t help either. The second half of her performance, during which she played the song “Your Love Is My Drug” featured better visuals (glow-in-the-dark paint!) but vocals that somehow seemed to deteriorate even further.
Though he didn’t have the misfortune of having his backing track start without him, the way Ashlee Simpson’s did a week before, it was clear from Eminem’s 2004 SNL performance of “Just Lose It” that the vocals booming out into the audience weren’t coming from his mouth. No matter how talented a rapper Eminem is, after all, he doesn’t have the ability to spit lyrics while licking his lips (see 1:15). He also seemed to have difficulty keeping up with the recording, often bringing the microphone to his lips half a beat after the rapping had already begun.
Back when platform boots and blonde highlights were all the rage, the Spice Girls’ SNL performance was the underwhelming act worth griping about. The disparity between their live vocals on “Wannabe” (which were more shouting than singing) and the abruptly perfect melody of the chorus drew speculation that the girls used a backing track to save the act. Regardless of the weak performance, Earth remained a Spiceworld for another three years until the group broke up in 2000—so there is hope for Lana yet!
If Destiny’s Child had ever shown up to a performance without Beyonce, most will admit that a certain degree of oomph would be lacking. Likewise, when En Vogue took the SNL stage in 1997 without their lead singer Dawn Robinson (who abruptly quit the group a few weeks before), the resulting performance, though still quite good, lacked the dynamism that the group’s previous gigs could boast. This translates into another point for Lana: she at least showed up for her performance.
If there’s one thing you don’t want to do on the SNL stage, it’s get political. Rage Against the Machine were allegedly thrown out of the building after just one song for attempting to hang upside-down American flags around the set (a statement against that episode’s host, billionaire and ex-Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes). But in RATM’s case at least, none of the controversy was caught on camera—woefully, the same can’t be said about Sinead O’Connor’s 1992 guest spot. After sing-talking her way through a cover of Bob Marley’s “War,” O’Connor produced a photo of former Pope John Paul II and ripped it to shreds, declaring, “Fight the real enemy!” The stunt earned her zero applause at the end of the performance, making her exit from the stage all the more uncomfortable.
Chris Gaines for Creepiest Act.
With the onstage performer sporting an emo haircut, glued-on chin hair and hints of eyeliner, you may or may not have guessed that Chris Gaines was simply country star Garth Brooks’s bizarre alter ego, who performed on the same episode that Brooks hosted in 1999—though you won’t hear Brooks confirm that. While under the guise of “rocker” Chris Gaines, Brooks stubbornly refused to acknowledge any connection between his two selves. Props to Lana again for, if nothing else, at least being herself.