When Glee became one of the breakout TV hits of 2009, Naya Rivera was one of the breakout stars on the high school musical dramedy. As cheerleader Santana Lopez, Rivera was originally relegated to a slightly villainous background part, but thanks to her sardonic way with a one-liner and vocal depth, she was upped to series regular by season 2. Whether coming to terms with her sexuality (and attraction to bestie Brittany S. Pierce, played by Heather Morris) or dropping out of college and moving to New York, Santana became one of the show’s most fascinating, beloved characters.
On July 13, a days-long search for Rivera ended when her body was recovered from Lake Piru, Calif. She was just 33 and is survived by a four-year-old son.
As we mourn the heartbreaking loss, we’re also celebrating her musical talents by looking back on ten of her unforgettable Glee performances that helped make the series such a pop culture juggernaut.
“Science Fiction Double Feature”
Rivera’s first full-fledged solo song on the show arrived during season 2’s salute to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Singing the opening title “Science Fiction Double Feature,” Rivera didn’t get a lot of face time, however: in keeping with iconic opening to the 1975 film, all we saw were her lips as she sang the ode to bad b-movies. That visual choice helped place the focus on her (at the time) underrated vocals, which carried a subtly seductive tone and a barely-there rasp.
Santana’s confessional, pained performance of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours ballad “Songbird” served as a perfect vehicle for the character to let her feelings toward Brittany take flight. It was such an affecting vocal that the Glee cover of the Christine McVie-penned tune actually hit the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 68.
“Me Against the Music”
Anyone could have guessed that Brittany S. Pierce was going to sing a Britney Spears song in the Britney-themed Glee episode, but it was an unexpected delight to see Santana go full Madge and perform Madonna’s section of the duet “Me Against the Music.” Whether working that cane like a pole or writhing around in fallen leaves like in the video, Rivera brought the necessary self-assurance and dominance to a Madonna cover.
“I Kissed a Girl”
Turning Katy Perry’s queer-baiting breakthrough hit into a proud declaration of lesbian pride, Santana led the women of New Directions in a slamming run-through of this 2008 No. 1 after a homophobic jock told her she needed to get “straightened out” in the halls of McKinley High.
With killer classical backup by 2CELLOS, Santana and Sebastian (Grant Gustin) face off in season 3, strutting around a room while trading vocals on the Michael Jackson smash. During the last minute, while Gustin takes lead, we’re treated to some impressive ad-libs from Rivera – who not only owns the vocals but looks smoother than any criminal in that fedora.
“Rumour Has It/Someone Like You”
A standout from the brilliant “Mash Off” episode, Santana, Brittany and Mercedes (Amber Riley) take turns singing lead on this mash-up of two Adele classics. Rivera delivers one of her best Glee vocals here, selling wistful pain as Santana looks at Brittany and sings about lost romance.
“Survivor/I Will Survive”
Santana shone on another season 3 mash-up, this time melding Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” with Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” Whether doing the tango with Brittany or belting out the instantly recognizable opener of the disco standard, this is one of the most delightful visual performances we get from Santana/Rivera on the show.
It’s hard to out-emote Chris Martin, and with numerous characters trading lead vocals on this Coldplay ballad in season 4, it was a crowded field for this Glee cover. But as one of the first to take the spotlight on “The Scientist,” Santana stood out as one of the finest.
Much like “Songbird” at the start of the Brittana relationship, Taylor Swift’s “Mine” finds Santana and Brittany (almost) alone in the New Directions rehearsal room, with Santana singing the understated, gentle declaration of love as if every lyric were fully lived out by them.
One of a few Glee songs to appear not once but twice during the show. First, it pops up in season 2 at sectionals, with Santana taking lead and bringing her own distinct vocal timbre to the song while still capturing Amy Winehouse’s rousing, raucous spirit. Then, in season 5, Santana returns to high school to hijack glee club and redo it, pulling a group out students out of their doldrums and onto their feet for a joyous cover of a cover.