The Five Worst Saturday Night Live Musical Performances of All Time

Saturday Night Live commemorated its 41st anniversary. In addition for groundbreaking talent, the show is also known for offering the stage to groundbreaking performers. However, not all the SNL musical artists turn in a bravura performance. Playing on live TV is not a frequent occurrence for all musicians, especially those who have honed their talent in the studio rather than in front of live audiences. The SNL stage is also an intimate affair; despite the show playing to millions of people around the world, the audience only consists of a few hundred people. This creates the conditions that have led to some infamous screw-ups.

Here’s our list of the biggest SNL Musical Fails.

5. Lana del Rey

Lana del Rey arrived at SNL in 2012, in advance of an avalanche of publicity about whether she would be music’s next big thing. Although she had won over some early acolytes, she also had many detractors. Her act was essentially created a lab – making SNL a dicey proposition indeed. Although her performance of her hit song “Video Games” wasn’t necessarily the worst thing ever, it did play into the hands of Rey’s critics. Lana sings dispassionately and awkwardly, but not in a “good” way that often propels artists to superstardom.

Del Ray was not ready to perform for actual people – which speaks volumes about the music business in the early 21st century, yet here she was appearing on SNL before her album was even released. There was blood in the water and the performance was roundly criticized. Many said it proved that she was an overrated, plastic-surgery enhanced phony; SNL actress Kristen Wiig even played the singer in a sketch mocking the performance. The performance set her back for a long time. But in 2016, four years later, del Rey was celebrated for her album Ultraviolence.

4. Fear

We’re reaching way back into the archives for this one. Hardcore band Fear showed up in 1981 in order to bring punk destruction to live television. It did not go well. The band got their fans stirred up immediately, causing them to rush the stage and proceed to destroy it like it was a 1969 hotel room booked by the Rolling Stones.

The slam dancing and jumping caused a wee bit of damage to the set – somewhere between $20,000 and $500,000, according to legend. Nobody knew who Fear was at the time, but they were friends of John Belushi and there they were, performing on the Halloween show. This winds up being the most famous thing Fear has ever done.

3. Chris Gaines

Garth Brooks was a mega-star in the 1990s when he decided to take his critics up on their observation that his concerts were more like rock extravaganzas than traditional country. He created an alter ego (groan), donned a rocker wig (groan), recorded a rock album (groan), and insisted on failing to admit that Garth Brooks was Chris Gaines (faceplant). If you missed this episode in music history, consider yourselves lucky. Brooks was a big star though, so people tried to play along. That’s how “Chris Gaines” got the call to perform on Saturday Night Live during the same week that Garth Brooks performed as the host.

It’s a mediocre performance, relying heavily on the kind of sound you experience at Friday night’s #1 rated dive bar, with a singer who is singing his head off trying to make it big (but you know he will never make it big). The best thing we can say about this episode is that it almost qualifies as another sketch.

2. The Rolling Stones

Well, I never promised you that great artists would not be on this list. The Rolling Stones played SNL during an era when John Belushi was bringing the party with him everywhere. The Stones got smashed. By the time it was 11:30 EST, Jagger had blown his voice. Even the signature strut couldn’t save Jagger from a wince-inducing performance of the great “Beast of Burden” – as sung by Harvey Fierstein.

  • Ashlee Simpson
  • Ashlee Simpson wasn’t the first artist to find themselves outed as a lip-syncer in disastrous fashion. Milli Vanilli also imploded in front of a technical malfunction in their vocal track. The lesson that none of these talentless hacks never seems to learn is that lip syncing is destined to fail.

    Oh did I call Simpson a talentless hack? That’s the most kind thing that can be said about Simpson, who grew up in the shadow of big singer Jessica Simpson. Say what you want about big sis, she at least had the pipes. Ashlee had a studio-engineered hit, but what producers were hiding was a singer who couldn’t sing. All the auto-tune available at the time could barely cover it. Still, she scored a hit and a reality show before it all came crashing down on the SNL stage.

    Simpson prepared to perform the hit song “Pieces of Me,” but her vocals started without her. Meaning that the track was playing, but she wasn’t singing. Rather than recover somehow, she panicked, dancing a little polka and then wandering off the stage. That’s a big no-no in live TV, since it forced SNL to dump straight to commercial. Over the closing credits, Simpson threw her band under the bus, claiming they played the wrong song.

    This is why I told you that “talentless hack” was a compliment.

    The fiasco pretty much ended her career.