Perhaps you know Ellen for its kooky celebrity interviews, or for Ellen DeGeneres’s need to extend kids’ 15 minutes of fame by exactly one minute. But I know Ellen for two other things: 1. a neverending bit in which Ellen frightens guests by having a costumed man jump out of a box (and in which the given celebrity acts absurdly shocked, despite being the 1,042nd person to fall for the gag); and, 2. the hilariously uncomfortable musical performances. You see, despite being remarkably diverse in age, Ellen’s in-studio audience is rather vanilla—crowd shots look like if you stapled pages from American Eagle and Eddie Bauer catalogs together. But Ellen has never been one to cater to her audience’s presumably uncontroversial preferences—she instead opts to shock the senses, using her show as a platform for rap, confusingly sexual pop, and sometimes mildly avant-garde performance art. “If you wanted safety and comfort you should’ve bought tickets to The Chew,” Ellen seems to say, as she welcomes Migos to the stage.
The uncanny mix of subject and setting creates quite an enjoyable viewing experience—so long as you’re the kind of person who’s impervious to cringing and finds joy in awkwardness. I am that kind of person, so I have compiled the best, most uncomfortable musical performances on Ellen in 2018.
9. Billie Eilish, “You Should See Me in a Crown”
October 10, 2018
Billie Eilish is a wunderkind/iconoclast/demon child/person who once said “I’ve worn pants on my arms.” Only 16 years old, her music has been streamed over a billion times, which is terrifying—both because it’s scary to have empirical data that proves the world is passing you by without you knowing it, and because Eilish looks and sounds like Lorde pre-exorcism. But that means she’s perfect for Ellen!
Playing “You Should See Me in a Crown”—the song of Billie’s that has the most detuned backing vocals—Billie wore pajamas with her name all over them and spent most of the performance in a glass box, while animated tarantulas flittered on a screen in the background. It’s deeply weird, especially considering that minutes earlier, Ellen and Melissa McCarthy were firing slime at people.
The only reason this performance isn’t higher on the list is because there are literally zero shots of the in-studio audience. Probably for the best, as I’m assuming any mother in the crowd with a teenage daughter had spontaneously combusted.
8. The Chainsmokers Feat. Kelsea Ballerini, “This Feeling”
September 26, 2018
It’s on here for one reason:
I rest my case.
7. Bazzi, “Beautiful”
October 17, 2018
I don’t know what a Bazzi is—forgive me if this upsets you. What I do know is that Ellen feels entirely responsible for his success. “Since making his debut on our show, our next guest’s music has been streamed 1 billion times,” Ellen says. “You’re welcome.” Maybe this was a joke, but Ellen does not say it like it’s a joke, she does not pause for a laugh, and as a result only a few people chuckle. It’s a pretty boss move, actually: This guy’s about to perform on national television and Ellen hits him with “What up, jabroni? I own you.”
The rest of the performance definitely keeps that same awkward energy, as Bazzi performs behind a gate for some reason? And also the lyrics to “Beautiful” are weirdly sexual? “The way that dress fall off you is amazing” and “Baby, come a little closer, let me taste it” are not exactly daytime talk show material.
6. Mason Ramsey, “White Christmas”
November 27, 2018
In Jackson Maine terms, Mason Ramsey—the miniature country crooner who is somehow still a thing after yodeling in a Walmart nine months ago—has fast-forwarded from the “happy and successful” stage straight to the “performing a tribute to Roy Orbison at the Grammys” stage. This little dude is going through the motions.
Mason Ramsey’s detachment is haunting, and quite difficult to watch. Let this kid go back to math class!
5. Travis Scott, “Sicko Mode”
November 12, 2018
Ellen is close with the Kardashians, and Travis Scott is the father of Kylie Jenner’s child—so there’s a reason he performed on Ellen … even if by every other metric it makes zero sense. Travis is a rapper who makes complex, industrial-leaning beats meant to fill stadiums—not the set of a talk show. And “Sicko Mode” is an especially weird fit, as it features two verses from Drake, who apparently could not make it to Ellen, meaning there are extended periods of time during this performance in which Travis is just stationary amid blinding strobe lights.
The cherry on top of this awkward sundae comes near the end, when they inset a shot of DJ tWitch, Ellen’s resident DJ, dancing:
As far I can tell, this was the only time in 2018 that the show used the DJ Cam. I guess they felt an urgent need to let the audience home know that someone was enjoying this?
“The name of the CD is Astroworld—you’re all going home with a copy!” Ellen proclaims at the end. She says this after every performance, but it’s extra funny to imagine Karen from Wisconsin listening to “NC-17.”
4. 21 Savage, “Bank Account”
March 13, 2018
The 21 Savage performance on Ellen being awkward is one of the most obvious outcomes of 2018. It’s amazing to see what happens when you put a guy with little stage presence on what is barely even a stage. It’s all good though, because the performance did give us this, one of the best images of the year:
I would pay someone to turn this into a classical painting.
3. Jason Mraz Feat. Meghan Trainor, “More Than Friends”
September 18, 2018
Seriously, what is happening here? Why is Jason Mraz dressed like a Charlie Brown character? Why is he making facial gestures and dancing like a doll who was just brought to life by a fairy godmother? And why didn’t he just go all the way and wear one of those hats with a spinner on top? Why isn’t Meghan Trainor matching the aesthetic of literally everyone else on stage? Why are these two even singing about hooking up?! They’re 17 years apart in age!
I can’t watch or think about this anymore, but just know that my guy Mraz was really on one here.
2. Panic! at the Disco, “Say Amen (Saturday Night)”
May 8, 2018
Ah, Panic! at the Disco, the true stunt queen of the mid-aughts emo-pop movement. On the one hand, you gotta respect them for thinking outside of the box with their Ellen appearance, as lead singer Brendon Urie snaked through the entire set of the show. On the other hand, such an idea requires a ton of audience interaction, which is pretty risky on a talk show like this. Everything could go well, or you could end up with way too much footage of a Phil Mickelson-esque dad rubbing his hands together like Birdman.
1. N.E.R.D, “Lemon”
January 25, 2018
Basically all of the imagery surrounding “Lemon” focused on dancer Mette Towley thrusting around very provocatively in a pair of baggy jeans, with underwear showing ever so slightly. That’s a tough one for moms. If there’s one thing I know about moms, it’s that they don’t want underwear to be visible. So when I saw that N.E.R.D was going to perform “Lemon” on Ellen, I knew immediately it was going to be awkward. And I was right, but not really because of the whole underwear business.
Mette Towley is part of N.E.R.D’s Ellen performance, but what’s way more awkward is that the group scattered a number of dancers throughout the crowd. As we learned when watching Panic! at the Disco, audience participation can lead to mixed results. Like for example, this can happen:
Would you like me to explain what’s happening? I’m sorry—I can’t. Whatever this is did keep going though, even after the camera had moved on:
Then, in conclusion, Pharrell yelled “Yo make some noise for Ellen!” just before he and all of the dancers threw up the black power sign. Just a perfect microcosm of all Ellen performances.
I can’t wait for 2019—maybe Ellen will get Grimes and Post Malone to do a duet.