The best Naya Rivera performances on Glee

Fans of Glee are remembering Naya Rivera, who was tragically presumed drowned after she went missing during a boating excursion on Lake Piru with her four-year-old son, Josey Hollis Dorsey, on July 8, 2020. The singer-actress is best known for her vivacious portrayal of queer, Latinx cheerleader Santana Lopez on the hit musical TV show, a role she originated in the 2009 pilot and continued to play until the series concluded its six-season run in 2015. In addition to earning Rivera a Screen Actors Guild Award (for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series in 2010) and a Grammy nomination (also shared with the rest of the Glee cast), the role of Santana brought her into the homes and hearts of millions of viewers, who couldn’t help but be enchanted by Rivera’s out-sized talent and powerful voice. 

“I love [her ups and downs],” Rivera said of portraying Santana in an interview with MTV News, discussing the character’s evolution since that first episode. “I feel like it could have been a very one-dimensional character and now the writers have given her so much to do. I love playing her.”

At the time of this writing, the search for the star has “shifted from a rescue to a recovery mission,” per TMZ. But while Rivera’s fans mourn potentially losing the star at a far-too-young age, her amazing portrayal of Santana lives on. Let’s revisit the best Naya Rivera performances on Glee

'Smooth Criminal'

One of Naya Rivera’s more memorable Glee performances took place in “Michael,” a special Season 3 episode featuring the music of the late Michael Jackson. In the scene, Santana shows up at Dalton Academy to confront Sebastian (Grant Gustin) after he hurled a slushie that inadvertently hit Blaine (Darren Criss) in the eye, forcing him to have surgery after his cornea was damaged (because, Santana would later discover, Sebastian had laced the beverage with rock salt).

“You may look like the villain out of a cheesy ’80s high school movie, but you should know that I am fully prepared to go all Danny LaRusso on your a**,” she declares, referencing Ralph Macchio’s character in The Karate Kid.

Their disagreement morphs into a duel-like duet on the King of Pop’s “Smooth Criminal,” with the two engaging in a choreographed game of cat-and-mouse in a room full of chairs, with 2Cellos serving as the track’s intense accompaniment. Wearing a short-skirted dark suit and matching fedora, Rivera’s performance is fierce and ferocious, hitting the “hoo! hoo!” high notes made famous by Jackson in the original song. After they chime in together on the final note, Santana leans in to tell Sebastian, “I was better.” Who are we to disagree? Especially when one Entertainment Weekly critic called the fan-favorite performance “fabulous.”

'Just the Way You Are'

Glee‘s Season 5 episode, “Movin’ Out,” was devoted to the songs of Billy Joel, affording Naya Rivera the chance to tackle one of the “Piano Man” singer’s most beloved hits. In the scene, roomies Santana, Rachel (Lea Michele), and Kurt (Chris Colfer) are having a discussion with guests Blaine (Darren Criss) and Sam (Chord Overstreet). Their talk becomes a disagreement when Sam refuses to eat (“I’m on this Mentos and flavored air diet,” he quips) as the aspiring model strives to shed 10 pounds.

“You know what I think?” says Blaine. “I think that this argument would be best made in a song.” With that, he heads over to the piano — until Santana stops him, explaining she doesn’t want to set a precedent in which every household squabble is “gonna end in a freakin’ singalong.” Blaine tells her she doesn’t have to sing. “But I dare you not to!” Kurt mischievously jokes as Blaine begins tinkling the ivories to play the familiar opening notes of Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”

Santana’s jaw drops, and she storms out. After the others sing a few verses, she re-emerges, taking over the lead vocals while singing into a hairbrush to cap off one of the series’ “campy and fun and self-aware” – and quite frankly, sweetest — scenes.

'La Isla Bonita'

Ricky Martin was the special guest star in a Season 3 episode of Glee dubbed, “The Spanish Teacher,” playing night-school Spanish instructor David Martinez. He enters the picture after a chance meeting with glee club instructor Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), who enlists David to teach the glee kids Spanish by singing Latin songs during their rehearsals. While the premise may have been a bit flimsy, it did wind up in delivering a muy caliente performance featuring Martin and Naya Rivera, with Santana and David taking to the stage to sing a sexy duet of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” Rolling Stone called it “the best number of the night.”

Working with Martin, Rivera told MTV News, was “a dream come true” for the singer-actress, who described the Latinx heartthrob as “awesome.” She and the rest of the cast, Rivera admitted, “Were all very, very excited for Ricky. I got to do a duet with him which was insane.” Not only did they sing together, Rivera and Martin also engaged in a sultry, salsa-styled dance number. “He’s a beautiful man,” Rivera gushed, “And I had my hands all over him.”

'Nutbush City Limits'

If there’s any one standout Glee episode that could be said to have provided a perfect showcase for Naya Rivera’s musical abilities, it’s the Season 4 episode entitled “Diva.” That episode, in fact, features not one, not two, but three distinctive performances from Rivera’s character, Santana Lopez. 

Rivera channeled her inner Tina Turner for an incendiary cover of the Ike & Tina classic, “Nutbush City Limits,” bursting into the glee club room flanked by several of her fellow cheerleaders from the University of Louisville. Meanwhile, that same episode also saw Rivera take the lead on Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire,” and then perform a duet with Chord Overstreet (who played Sam Evans) on “Make No Mistake (She’s Mine),” originally recorded by Barbra Streisand and Kim Carnes.

In an interview with After Ellen, Rivera was asked if she felt it was daunting to sing songs made famous by such iconic artists. She admitted, “I pretty much shut it off because it will just freak you out and you can’t perform at your peak if you’re worried about living up to what that person did and that’s always the double-edged sword of doing covers.”

'Valerie'

In Glee‘s Season 2 episode, “Special Education,” New Directions compete at sectionals. For their number, Santana takes the lead on “Valerie,” originally recorded by The Zutons and then covered by Mark Ronson with Amy Winehouse on vocals. The song proved to be an ideal showcase for Naya Rivera’s vocal prowess, completely nailing Winehouse’s jazzy inflections while putting her own signature spin on the song, with one critic calling the stand-out cover “awesome.”

Later in that season, Rivera sang another of Winehouse’s songs. In the episode titled “Funeral,” she performs “Back to Black,” the title track from the singer’s 2006 album. “I performed some of her songs on the show and she’s just the number one for me,” Rivera told TVNow. “There’ll never be another Amy Winehouse.”

When Winehouse passed away in 2011, Rivera paid tribute on social media. “Needless to say I am deeply saddened by the death of one of my favorite artists,” she wrote on Twitter. “RIP Amy Winehouse. You will be forever missed.”

'Landslide'

While Naya Rivera didn’t sing the lead part in the Season 2 Glee cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” (that honor went to guest star Gwyneth Paltrow), her emotional backing vocals and sweet harmonies with Heather Morris (who played Santana’s soon-to-be-girlfriend, Britanny S. Pierce) couldn’t help but take center stage.

During a Q&A at the Paley Center for Media, Rivera confirmed a report that Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks visited the set during filming of the “Landslide” performance. “She was so sweet,” said Rivera of Nicks. “It blew my mind, and I know Heather, as well, and Gwyneth — all three of us, we were just really honored to have her there and be performing that song in front of her. It was one of those moments in life that I know that I can remember forever and definitely tell my children about. And it was just very touching.” 

According to Rivera, Nicks gave “a beautiful speech” and shared her gratitude for being there on set, which Rivera admitted “blew [her] mind again,” saying, “Because I was like, ‘No, like I love you … Stop.'”

'If I Die Young'

If there’s a single Naya Rivera performance from Glee that will forever resonate, it’s her soulful, emotional take on The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young.” Watching the performance in hindsight doesn’t just bring melancholy, it’s downright heartbreaking to watch her sing the song’s opening refrain, “If I die young, bury me in satin / Lay me down on a bed of roses / Sink me in the river at dawn / Send me away with the words of a love song.”

Rivera’s performance appears in the Season 5 episode, “The Quarterback” — the show’s tribute to cast member Cory Monteith after he was found dead of an accidental overdose in a Vancouver hotel room in 2013. Monteith’s character, Finn Hudson, likewise passed away in the show, and Rivera’s Santana is joined in the song by members of New Directions, who assist on backing vocals.

As she attempts to finish the song, Santana breaks down in tears, covering her face as she begins full-on weeping. Music teacher Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) stands from his chair and walks over to comfort her, but Santana unexpectedly screams before running out of the room. The poignant scene is arguably one of Rivera’s most powerful dramatic moments in the entire series.

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