NEW YORK — With just a few minutes of lip locking, hip wiggling and thigh stroking, Madonna, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera set the bar sky high for all of the performers at this year's MTV Video Music Awards.

Anyone who's ever questioned Britney or Madonna's acting abilities should reconsider. Not only did the ladies show off some blood-pressure-raising moves, their kisses were nothing like the infamous mouth mush between Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley and far more like something from late-night Cinemax. (Click here for photos of Madonna causing a scene with her pop protégés.)

Their opening number began with Spears emerging from an enormous white cake in a wedding dress and veil. After Britney sang several verses from "Like a Virgin," Aguilera came out and picked up the vocals for what was the pair's first performance together since the Mickey Mouse Club. But this was no kid's stuff. Within moments they were writhing on the ground with their legs spread.

Then Madonna descended from the cake, dressed in black and singing "Hollywood" Dancing provocatively with her two protégés, she planted a sexy smooch on Britney's mouth, then turned and delivered one to Christina. It was such a performance-defining moment, it's easy to forget that Missy Elliott came out and sang the chorus from "Work It" before it was all over. (Click for photos from the top moments from the show.)

The kissing theme continued during Good Charlotte, when halfway through "The Anthem," guitarist Benji Madden planted a smooch on bassist Paul's cheek. The goofy gag was representative of the rest of the performance, which was filled with spirited leaps, strained facial expressions and cartoon punk moves — not to mention 40 "dead" girls in cheerleader outfits.

There was no way Christina Aguilera's performance could be as racy as the show opener or the jokes by host Chris Rock, so she didn't even try. That said, the medley of "Dirrty" and "Fighter" was still red-hot. "Dirrty" started with Redman rapping and dancers emerging to boogie on a contraption that resembled a jungle gym. Aguilera then sauntered on in a black corset, fishnets and thigh-high black high-heeled boots. During "Fighter," Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro wailed on a white guitar, and a group of male dancers encircled Christina, throwing mock punches. The performance ended with a herd of dancers in zebra tops and a climactic pyro explosion.

A giant jewel-encrusted pimp cup rotated to reveal 50 Cent sitting next to two hot babes. Dressed in a white suit, black hat and plenty of gold and diamonds, 50 jumped from the goblet to rap "P.I.M.P." He swaggered across the stage, cupping his crotch, waving his arm in the air and encouraging the audience to do the same, but the crowd wasn't participating to his liking, and he let them know it. Just as everyone considered ducking for cover, the curtain raised to reveal Snoop Dogg on a throne, surrounded by his posse. Pimped out in a light-colored suit and matching purple hat and scarf, Snoop joined in, wandering the stage as 50 roamed the audience.

50 Cent grabbed his privates some more when he joined Mary J Blige for "Ooh!," part of a medley performed outdoors in front of the Rockefeller Center ice rink. The "All I Need" segment was delivered solo in a stirring and soulful voice, "Love at First Sight" featured Method Man, and "Family Affair" closed it out, with Mary welcoming some company in the form of backup singers and dancers.

Introduced by Justin Timberlake as the greatest band in the world, Coldplay captivated the crowd with the delicate chords and pained vocals of "The Scientist." Sitting at a piano carved with the words "Make trade fair," Martin sang, "Take me back to the start" before being joined by his bandmates. When he wasn't singing, Martin bobbed at the keys like a marionette, and near the end of the number said, "This one's for Johnny Cash."

While Coldplay revealed a lot with very little stage activity, Beyoncé revealed a lot with a skimpy outfit and a flashy stage show. She began "Baby Boy" by being lowered head-first from the ceiling onto a sofa, where she was surrounded by dancers who bowed to her as though she were an Egyptian goddess. A few minutes of bootie shaking, spinning and line dancing later, the music for "Crazy in Love" began to blast. A flasher opened his trench coat to Beyoncé and was pushed away, then two male dancers snuck up and removed her pants. Even hotter was Jay-Z's entrance. Wearing dark shades, a black jacket, a white shirt and gray slacks, Jay rapped up a storm as Beyoncé danced with a fur stole.

Metallica ended the show with an instrumental tribute to 20 years of music videos. The medley began with the bone-busting opening of Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way," shifted into Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," reached a peak with an extra-crispy version of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" and ended with a chunked-up take on Michael Jackson's "Beat It." The move capped an evening of collaborations and tributes and demonstrated the ever-evolving and adaptable nature of popular music.

After changing instruments, Metallica returned to play "Frantic," the latest single from St. Anger. Despite roaring, down-tuned guitars, blast-beat drumming and aggro vocals, the performance could do little to make people forget what had gone down in that same spot nearly three hours earlier.

Catch all the sizzlin', star-packed VMA action direct from Miami on August 28. MTV News' preshow kicks things off at 6:00 p.m. ET/PT, followed by the big show at 8 p.m.

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