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'SNL' Just Wrapped Its 45th Season: It's Time To Cruelly Rank Its Musical Guests

May 12, 2020
Originally published on May 11, 2020 4:31 pm

We're roughly two months into a collective crisis that's kept us sheltered in place, cut off from friends and fearful for the future of our health, our families and our economic well-being. Our emotions frequently form a thick slurry of anxiety, worry, boredom, rage and desperate desire for threads of normalcy; for moments of mundanity; for the calming comfort of the familiar.

Which is why, in the interest of national unity — of shared struggle, of resilience, of all-in-this-togetherness, of patriotism — it is vital that we reflect on the most recent season of Saturday Night Live and mean-spiritedly rank the quality of its musical guests. We did this last year (with apologies to Greta Van Fleet) and the year before (with apologies to James Bay, whose performance almost definitely happened, though we can't be 100 percent certain). So now, friends, that tradition continues.

A few quick notes about SNL's 45th season, which ended Saturday: Due to COVID-19, what was intended to be a 21-episode season was shortened to 18 shows, only 15 of which took place before a live audience. The last three, nicknamed Saturday Night Live at Home, were cobbled together from performers' residences — including those of the musical guests. SNL's Studio 8H stage isn't always kind to musicians, but it's bound to present advantages over a setting that provides no audience feedback. We'll attempt to take that into consideration.

Finally, maybe it was the smaller sample size, but no one in this year's lineup toppled headlong into a grisly train wreck the way certain acts (cough Kanye West cough DJ Khaled cough Greta Van Fleet) did last season. So last place in Season 45 should be read as more "meh" than... you know, traumatic.

All right, let's do this! (Oh, and we've linked to every performance that's still officially available on YouTube.)


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18. The Weeknd, "Blinding Lights" and "Scared to Live"

Okay, so let's start with the weirdly busted-up face: As with The Weeknd's other appearances in support of his new album After Hours, the singer performed on SNL wearing makeup designed to make it look as if he'd just broken his nose. (The album chronicles a rough night out on the town, after all.) So, you know: red suit jacket, nice shoes, blood streaming down his cheek.

To liven up the actual performances, it's best to imagine a backstage scenario in which, say, Cecily Strong was like, "Hey, The Weeknd! Your 2016 song 'I Feel It Coming (feat. Daft Punk)," while catchy, is nakedly derivative of Michael Jackson! [*bomp*]"

We certainly wouldn't wish actual violence upon the singer, nor would anyone accuse Cecily Strong of such impudence. It's just that a little bit of fiction livens up the fact that this performance of "Scared to Live" was so, so, so boring. On the album, the song is a moody tone-setter; on the SNL stage, it was a bathroom break in song form. With the singer standing gamely alongside bright panels of mirrors, "Blinding Lights" put a bit more pep in its step, but The Weeknd still seemed to have expended most of his energy and dynamism in the makeup chair.

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17. Luke Combs, "Lovin' on You" and "Beer Never Broke My Heart"

It's unfair to Luke Combs to rank him on a scale that rewards onstage spectacle: The singer is one of the biggest stars in country music, at least in part because his most muscular, rowdily beer-forward songs are so straight-ahead and lyrically unadorned. It's not a putdown to say that Combs' SNL renditions of "Lovin' on You" and "Beer Never Broke My Heart" are indistinguishable from performances he and his band would give in a bar. (Not that they've played bars in years; Combs was selling out arenas pre-COVID.)

The issue here is that the songs themselves just aren't interesting. "Lovin' on You" is one of those here-is-a-list-of-things country songs that could have been written by an app, while "Beer Never Broke My Heart" sounds like... well, it could have been written by an app that makes beer commercials. With his bushy red beard and acrylic baseball cap, Combs is as approachable a superstar as you'll find. But on SNL, he stuck to his most boilerplate material, leaving softer stunners like "Even Though I'm Leaving" for another day.

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16. Niall Horan, "Nice to Meet Ya" and "Put a Little Love on Me"

In a truncated SNL season, fully one-ninth of the headlining musical guests were former members of One Direction: That'd be Harry Styles (see below) and Niall Horan, who put out a fine solo album back in March, just as the world was beginning to crumble around us. Horan previewed that record on SNL by performing a pair of its singles: the chugging "Nice to Meet Ya" and the tender piano ballad "Put a Little Love on Me."

Each song is sturdy enough — and catnip for Horan's zillions of fans — but both felt a little drab on the SNL stage. "Nice to Meet Ya" reverberated gamely with the reincarnated spirit of Rick Astley (who, it must be noted, is not dead), but little else about the performance would be remembered by morning. And while Horan gave "Put a Little Love on Me" his all vocally, the piano-bar arrangement generated scarcely enough energy to warm up a teacup full of skim milk.

Also, we got Harry Styles and Niall Horan, but no Zayn Malik? Bring us Zayn, you ghouls! #justiceforzayn #nozaynnopeace

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15. Camila Cabello, "Cry for Me" and "Easy"

Camila Cabello has spent years on the pop-star treadmill — first in Fifth Harmony and then as the chart-topping singer of songs like "Havana" and "Señorita" — without establishing a terribly distinct public persona. The Cuban-American's songs often evoke a sense of place to match their sultriness, but Cabello herself remains somewhat unknowable; no matter how thoughtfully she's opened up to the public, her candor rarely seems to seep into the songs she sings.

That didn't change with the skillful-but-bloodless singles she performed in her SNL debut, although "Cry for Me" at least got a grandly choreographed theatrical staging, complete with Marie Antoinette get-up and dancers twirling around in vintage attire. By comparison, "Easy" felt a bit stilted and pageant-y, as Cabello performed the song while standing in a white silk gown, her feet planted to the floor.

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14. Boyz II Men with Babyface, "A Song for Mama" (from Saturday Night Live at Home)

The final episode of Saturday Night Live at Home — and of the show's 45th season — happened to take place on the eve of Mother's Day. So the show opted for a brief, good-natured, low-key tribute courtesy of Babyface and Boyz II Men, whose members performed their 1997 chart-topper "A Song for Mama" from the confines of their respective domiciles. (SNL's home editions have provided peeks into many performers' home lives. In this case, we learned that Babyface and Boyz II Men live among many, many framed gold and platinum records.)

As for "A Song for Mama," the moment was sweet — and rendered that much more sentimental via the screening of archival photos of SNL cast members with their moms. But with each performer appearing remotely, the finished product felt a little... well, remote.

That said, now that Mother's Day is over, may we recommend a far livelier COVID performance by Boyz II Men, in which the singing sensations appear from their homes along with New Kids on the Block, Naughty by Nature, Big Freedia (!!!), Jordin Sparks and an assortment of bonkers cameos? Because it is ridiculous, and it is fun, and it's a reminder that staying home doesn't mean you can only listen to songs about what a low-key bummer it is to stay home.

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13. Justin Bieber, "Yummy" and "Intentions feat. Quavo"

The good news: Justin Bieber tore through two new songs from Changes with considerable energy, backed by starkly lit dancers, attention-grabbing sets and, late in "Intentions," a welcome appearance by Migos rapper Quavo.

The less-good news: Bieber's vocals were pretty wobbly and... yeah, "Yummy" is at least as insipid as its title suggests.

All of which is to say: This was the latest mixed bag in a career that's produced some A+ pop bangers, some forgettable trifles, a lavish assortment of embarrassing growing pains and one ugly-ass mustache.

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12. Halsey, "You Should Be Sad" and "Finally // Beautiful Stranger"

Halsey grew up in New Jersey, which places her not terribly far from 30 Rockefeller Plaza. So, while we're not suggesting that Halsey currently lives in a supply closet at 30 Rock so that she can be available to perform on SNL at a moment's notice, we're also not not suggesting that Halsey currently lives in a supply closet at 30 Rock so that she can be available to perform on SNL at a moment's notice. Halsey is on SNL a lot. From the beginning of 2018 through January of this year, the show featured women as headlining musical guests 16 out of a possible 44 times. Halsey has claimed three of those spots, and that's not even counting the time the singer popped up during Lil Wayne's set.

The latest iteration of Halsey on SNL felt oddly low-energy — which is kind of a feat when you consider that 1.) she performed the midtempo "You Should Be Sad" while glued into a Frederick's of Hollywood castoff; and 2.) she opened her set astride a mechanical bull and later got hoisted aloft by scantily clad dancers. "Finally // Beautiful Stranger" was less eventful (by design) and slower still: a vocal showcase that demonstrated both Halsey's range and her tendency to embellish her vocals with what can only be described as "simulated AutoTune."

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11. King Princess, "1950" and "Hit the Back"

King Princess (a.k.a. Mikaela Straus) has only released an album and an EP, but she's already working from a toolkit that encompasses and transcends multiple blended genres. For her SNL debut, the young shapeshifter showed off her affinity for two of them: the slick, wiry, slow-burning, guitar-wielding rock of "1950" and the coyly suggestive, alternately seething and propulsive dance-pop of "Hit the Back."

Taken as a whole, the performance felt more like an introduction than a coronation: King Princess waited to really cut loose until late in "Hit the Back," when a series of body-rolls gave way to full-blown thrashing. Norm-busting icons generally aren't made overnight, but she's well on her way; this relatively contained SNL stop felt like Step 1 on a long journey.

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10. Chris Martin, "Shelter From The Storm" (from Saturday Night Live at Home)

Once COVID-19 made it impossible to put together a traditional episode of Saturday Night Live — and forced the cancellation of a planned show with musical guest Dua Lipa — producers did what they could to assemble an episode cobbled together from material recorded at performers' homes. Casualties of this arrangement included the live audience, the live laughter, the live applause, the 30 Rock soundstage, much of the interpersonal chemistry, the musical guest's second song and an unwritten rule that prevents singers from headlining more than one episode in a single season.

Chris Martin's band Coldplay was the musical guest back in November — see below — but he returned in April to perform a cover of Bob Dylan's situationally appropriate 1975 classic "Shelter From the Storm." Shot in dusky, grayish black-and-white (presumably to pay tribute to the film Dont Look Back), the set-up felt bare-bones in a cable-access sort of way, as Martin wisely skipped embellishments that might have watered down the original. Hardly a Technicolor showstopper, but right for the moment at hand.

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9. Harry Styles, "Lights Up" and "Watermelon Sugar"

It's a wonder that Harry Styles found the time to put together grabby stage presentations of "Lights Up" and "Watermelon Sugar," given his to-do list for the night: The former One Direction star (and current Green Bay Packers fan) was also serving as SNL host, acting in a bunch of sketches and, at one point, appearing in a prerecorded video as the human embodiment of Aidy Bryant's dog. The live songs, performed in the run-up to Styles' recent album Fine Line, could've easily registered as an afterthought, and they thankfully didn't.

Opening with the more subdued "Lights Up," Styles appeared with a stately band and a solemn choir. As such, the performance felt a little uneventful — though it should be noted that Styles brought his wardrobe A-game in a way other men seriously ought to emulate. (That sparkly jumpsuit is killer.) "Watermelon Sugar" brings another great outfit and a nice jolt of fervent energy, as Styles danced and strutted about while surrounded by a crack band that included a four-piece horn section.

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8. Taylor Swift, "Lover" and "False God"

This was hardly Taylor Swift's first SNL rodeo, given that she's been a host, made a few cameos and served as a headlining musical guest more than once. And Swift has spent countless promotional cycles serving up lavish, uneven, often high-concept performances at awards shows and on late-night TV. So it was actually refreshing to see her so dialed-down and at-ease in these stripped-down performances of highlights from her latest album, Lover.

That record's wedding-ready title track got an especially raw treatment on SNL, as her solo-piano rendition highlighted the song's conversational emotionalism and a hook so subtle, you hardly notice it burrowing into your brain for eternity. Less emotionally rich but more visually eventful was "False God," in which Swift glided through the song amid soft, floating coils of light and the prominent saxophone solos of SNL bandleader (and former Tower of Power player) Lenny Pickett.

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7. Miley Cyrus, "Wish You Were Here" (from Saturday Night Live at Home)

The first week of Saturday Night Live at Home made a valiant attempt to re-create an episode of the show while juggling technological limitations, a dark national mood and the fact that virtually no one could be in the same room together. The second week ran far more smoothly: Funnier and slicker, it also benefited from the fact that its musical guest, Miley Cyrus, didn't look as if she was starring in a hostage video.

Bathed in red light while sitting aside a fire pit at night, Cyrus belted out Pink Floyd's 1975 lighter-waver "Wish You Were Here" with the socially distanced accompaniment of guitarist Andrew Watt. (The choice of Watt — a bestselling pop producer, guitarist and songwriter who's working with Cyrus on her next album — felt notable, in part because Watt has written publicly about his recent battle with COVID-19.)

For a simple set-up recorded under difficult circumstances, Cyrus' performance did a pretty ingenious job of turning back-porch busking into the stuff of late-night sound stages. It had visual drama: smoke, flames, distinct lighting, moody accompaniment, lavish fashion. But it also served up the umpteenth reminder that Miley Cyrus is a marvelous singer, with vocal — and emotional — range to spare.

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6. Coldplay, "Orphans" and "Everyday Life"

Bash Coldplay all you want, but this performance of "Orphans" showed exactly how to liven up a typical spot as a late-night musical guest: Chris Martin opened the song from a supply closet in the back of the room before making his way into the audience to perform with clusters of cast members, musicians and randos. He eventually ran to the stage, at which point he finished the song while backed by members of his band, a colorful animated video on a giant screen and an enormous throng of dancers. It was an immensely buoyant, memorable performance.

By comparison, "Everyday Life" couldn't help but fizzle earnestly, though the song's melancholy notes of tentatively uplifting empathy resonate more now than they did all the way back in November 2019. But let's not neglect the real takeaway here: Sure, Chris Martin's distressed tee probably cost $1,400 or something, but he looked like he just got done insulating his attic. Could you imagine Halsey getting to perform in that grubby rag? We will never achieve gender equality until male performers dress better (see: Harry Styles) or female performers dress worse — preferably both.

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5. DaBaby, "Bop" and "Suge"

DaBaby understands that you can perform a couple of songs on TV, or you can put on a show of your own. Backed by a few musicians, a giant throng of dancers and a woman who periodically twerked from a full handstand, DaBaby served as both rapper and ringmaster. Unafraid to dive into the choreography, he felt fully integrated into the mayhem — which featured not only the hip-hop dance crew Jabbawockeez, but also a whole bunch of stage fighting. (Why stage fighting? Hey, why did the other 17 entries on this list not include stage fighting? Lookin' your way, Niall Horan.)

Of course, all that ludicrous theatrical chaos wouldn't have mattered much without tight, hooky songs to back it up, and DaBaby came to work there, too. Performing with a showman's charisma, the young star seemed to be having a blast. That can be more than half the battle, right there.

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4. Billie Eilish, "bad guy" and "I Love You (feat. Finneas O'Connell)"

Billie Eilish was basically bulletproof in 2019: Her debut album spawned a string of huge hits, and "bad guy" was the only juggernaut omnipresent enough to knock "Old Town Road" off its perch at the top of the pop charts. She kicked off 2020 by sweeping every major category at the Grammys — the youngest artist ever to do so. And, along the path to domination, she provided one of the biggest "wow" moments in recent SNL history.

With a concept liberally borrowed from the 1951 film Royal Wedding — the one in which Fred Astaire climbs the walls before dancing on the ceiling — Eilish's pajama- and walking-boot-clad SNL performance of "bad guy" duplicated the gravity-defying effect to perfection, thanks to a boxy miniaturized set (and a camera) that rotated like a hamster wheel. Before viewers could finish Googling "How did Billie Eilish do that SNL," the show panned out to reveal the trick, which somehow made the whole thing seem even more impressive.

After so much razzle-dazzle, Eilish hardly needed to return for a second song. But she took a decent-sized swing anyway, showcasing her balladeering softer side — still a new look for her back in September — in a whispery take on "I Love You." Joined on guitar by her similarly Grammy-festooned brother Finneas O'Connell, Eilish more than held her own. But it was somewhat drowsy as a set-closer, especially after the sugar high she'd just pulled off.

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3. Chance The Rapper, "Zanies and Fools" and "Handsome (feat. Megan Thee Stallion)"

This was Chance the Rapper's second stint as a musical guest, his second stint as an enormously funny and good-natured SNL host, and his first time pulling double duty. Hell, he even introduced himself at the top of "Zanies and Fools," letting a clip of his adorable daughter fill the time between his introduction ("Ladies and gentlemen, Chance the Rapper") and the performance itself. The guy does it all, and does it extraordinarily well.

But Chance also knows how to share — and lavishly fill — a stage, and for "Zanies and Fools," the rapper found himself surrounded by a swirl of dancers, not to mention a small army of percussionists and string players. The choreography unfurled around him without really involving him, but he compensated by unleashing a rapid-fire vocal that kept the viewer's attention center stage.

In "Handsome," Chance's collaborators crowded into the background, which gave him the opportunity to move around a bit before ceding the spotlight to the most formidable presence imaginable: Megan Thee Stallion. Meg kept her intensity in second gear to match her stage partner — and found a way to give herself a network-television-friendly edit in real time — but her star power was beyond unmistakable. Next season, she'd be well suited to follow in Chance's footsteps and try her hand as a host.

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2. David Byrne, "Once in a Lifetime" and "Toe Jam"

Saturday Night Live usually makes room for a rock or pop legend here and there, including Paul Simon last year and U2 the year before. This year, the chosen veteran was David Byrne, to coincide with the Broadway staging of his American Utopia concerts. Crucially, he brought his robust, gray-suited cast to join him in filling the stage with movement, sound and all-around effervescence. Deploying between three and six percussionists at any given moment, these performances radiated good cheer and spiky humor, propelled by a Broadway production's mandate to thrill.

And, really, "thrilling" just about sums it up. Most SNL guests are promoting new material, so catalog hits aren't the norm. Here, we got Talking Heads' unimpeachable classic "Once in a Lifetime" and the terrific "Toe Jam," which Byrne co-wrote for the U.K. electro-pop band The Brighton Port Authority back in 2008. Byrne happened to appear on perhaps the season's most widely beloved SNL episode — the one hosted by the marvelous John Mulaney — but you couldn't have blamed the show had it just turned the whole thing over to Byrne & Co.

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1. Lizzo, "Truth Hurts" and "Good As Hell"

It took Lizzo years of hustle and grind to rise all the way to pop superstardom, so there was no way she'd make her SNL debut and not crush it. Marrying lavishly choreographed dance routines to undeniable musicianship and unfettered joy, she and her dancers twerked, spun and frolicked through Lizzo's two greatest hits to date: "Truth Hurts" (backed by an airtight band, populated exclusively by black women) and "Good As Hell" (performed on a Christmas-themed set in which dancers twirled on poles striped like candy canes).

Saturday Night Live's Studio 8H stage can be sterile and unforgiving: It's a nondescript space with an iffy sound mix, and the crowds are largely there to watch comedy. So it's a special kind of joy to watch Lizzo douse that canvas with vibrancy, color, movement and good cheer — not to mention transcendent vocal talent — in a set perfectly tailored to elevate the space, the show and the season.

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