The Inside Story Of How The First MTV VMAs Created A Tradition Of Making Censors Sweat

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For almost 35 years, MTV has been in the business of selling relevance. For artists, it’s been a place to get in front of the coveted 18-to-34 demographic. For those 18- to 34-year-olds, it’s been a place to stay on top of the pop culture zeitgeist, so as to have enough ammo to be considered cool by peers. And business has been good – MTV is a fixture, and its crown jewel has been the Video Music Awards.

But what happens when the business selling relevance starts losing relevance itself? MTV is struggling to adapt as its target audience shifts away from television as a medium, and the VMAs have suffered as well. Last year’s show pulled in 8.3 million viewers, down 18 percent from the year before (to compare, the 2015 Grammys had 25.3 million viewers, while the 2015 Billboard Music Awards grabbed 11.1 million, though both of those telecasts had the advantage of reaching more people on network television than MTV’s cable flagship). The 2012 show’s 6.1 million viewers represented the lowest mark since 2006, and the fourth-lowest mark since MTV began subscribing to Nielsen’s ratings in 1994. Six of the broadcast’s 10 lowest-rated editions have come in the last decade.

But if you’re of a certain age, you remember the heyday of the Video Music Awards. They were mandatory viewing, every year, no matter what. Once the spectacle began to really catch on in the late ’80s, the VMAs turned into a juggernaut that embarked on a brilliant run of over 15 years. That was because, in a marketplace of staid award shows that took themselves too seriously, MTV valued spontaneity and attitude. And in a time when the country was beginning to re-liberate itself after the buttoned up ’80s, it gave a generation yearning for something radical exactly that.

It’s easy to overlook that fact now, when so many award show imitators have come along to borrow and advance MTV’s formula, but the VMAs used to be revolutionary, the kind of event in which anything could happen, and often did. You remember the moments: Lil Kim’s pastie dress (and Diana Ross copping a feel), Krist Novoselic’s airborne bass cracking him in the skull, Fiona Apple’s epic “bullsh*t” rant, Andrew Dice Clay getting himself banned, Madonna kissing Britney Spears, etc. The list goes on. If you missed those moments live, you were left out of the conversation the next day, whether it be at the water cooler or on the playground. And no one likes to be left out.

The impact of the first show set the standard for all. Something outrageous had to happen for the event to be worthwhile [from that point forward].

Now, of course, we have YouTube and Snapchat and Instagram and probably a bunch of other apps and technologies I’m too old and square to know about that allow us to never be left out. You don’t have to watch the VMAs, because if there’s a moment you have to see, it will be available for you to watch a million times in places that aren’t live television. But that’s only part of the equation. The other part is that, in an age when social media demands hashtag-worthy wow moments at breakneck speed, the VMAs have simply stopped providing them, as hard as they seemingly try to manufacture something. Other than Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke in 2013, can you name a truly significant cultural touchstone to come from the broadcast in the last 10 years?

Perhaps that’s why, after two years of going hostless, MTV tapped Cyrus to lead this year’s broadcast. Surely the network is hoping that, whether it’s scripted or not, something will come from pop’s current rebel that will restore the VMAs’ reputation. (At this point, they’d probably settle for just the possibility of something happening to be enough to draw in eyeballs for the live broadcast.)

It’s sad that MTV’s signature event has to seemingly chase moments to attempt to live up to its history. But it’s also inevitable: when you make it a point to push the envelope, eventually you are going to find yourself in a situation where the bar is just too high to reach anymore. And that bar was set pretty damn high from the jump at the very first VMAs, which took place on September 14, 1984 at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was there that the show, which included Madonna’s iconic “Like A Virgin” performance, set the tone for 30 years of making censors sweat, and it was all completely natural, fueled by a lot of hubris and even more booze.

“The impact of the first show set the standard for all,” Nina Blackwood, who was at MTV as one of the network’s first VJs from 1981 until 1986, told Uproxx. “Something outrageous had to happen for the event to be worthwhile [from that point forward]. I believe over the years people have tried too hard to outdo what has come before. Madonna’s performance was spontaneous; as time went on a lot of the antics seemed too pre-planned.”

But while Madonna was behind the most infamous development at the 1984 VMAs, the entire show was an exercise in spontaneity and organic spectacle. Here is the inside story on how the first VMAs came to be, crafting a legacy that would create a media empire, make and break stars and alter awards shows – really, all of television – forever.

The Moonman Has Landed

The convenient narrative is that MTV hit the airwaves in 1981 with The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and immediately took over the world. The truth is far less kind: the network was in constant danger of going under for three years, and only began to find solid ground around the time (and in part because) of the first Video Music Awards.

“MTV in the early days was not the phenomenon it is today,” John Sykes, who as one of MTV’s founders produced and helped create the VMAs, told Uproxx. “We were a struggling startup fighting every day to stay in business and to gain traction with the music industry, advertisers, and cable operators. We were clearly not out of the rough for the first few years, and it was about the time we did the VMAs that we began to get traction. I really think that award show, along with Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ were the two events that put MTV on the map. There were many times in the early days where we thought we were going out of business.”

In actuality, there was also a third event that helped the troubled young network – getting added by cable operators in New York. It took nearly three years from MTV’s launch before it could be watched in the nation’s largest market.

“It didn’t matter how many subscribers we had in Tulsa, Dallas, or Denver.” Sykes said. “If we weren’t where the advertisers or media lived, we really didn’t exist. That was a big hump to get on in New York.”

“We’d been going for three years in places like Des Moines and Tulsa. We just got picked up in New York, and it seemed like a good time to have a party. Then the idea became: have a party, but somehow do it so we legitimize the video music form,” MTV co-founder Tom Freston once said.

We tried to be the counterculture show because that’s what the network was, that’s what we were trying to be.

And while MTV didn’t have much in the way of notoriety, or exposure, or influence, or money, it did have a mission statement. As the idea for the VMAs began to crystallize, the network’s founders made sure the show stuck to it.

“We were at the point where MTV began to stand for something in pop culture. It was very different than your father’s music business,” Sykes said. “At that time the Grammys were very provincial and very out of touch – there’s the famous example of how Jethro Tull won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance over Metallica. So we saw an opening for a counterculture awards show that would not follow the rules of the traditional ceremonies people were used to seeing. … We tried to be the counterculture show because that’s what the network was, that’s what we were trying to be.”

So the network brought in Don Ohlmeyer, a legendary producer who dictated the coverage of Super Bowls, Monday Night Football games, and other major sporting events, to oversee the production of the first VMAs. The decision was very deliberate: tying to its radical intent, the network wanted the award broadcast to adopt the vibrant visuals and pacing of sports television over static presentation of typical awards shows. Under Ohlmeyer, production started coming together. The network struggled to recruit talent from outside of the music world to take part in the VMAs, but had little problem finding musicians willing to show up.

All that was left was figuring out the small matter of what the award would actually be. The major award statues are iconic, as recognizable as the award’s name itself. Close your eyes and picture an Oscar. No problem, right? That’s the one thing MTV did want to emulate from those legacy awards shows – a trophy that would visually be instantly recognizable. So they turned to the most common visual associated with MTV at the time: the moonman.

In its earliest days, MTV ran an interstitial that took real footage of the moon landing (“we had no money to pay expensive animators, so we decided to use NASA footage of man landing on the moon, which was free,” Sykes explained), and altered it to have the astronaut plant an MTV flag on the moon instead of an American one. The goal was to position the launch of MTV, tongue in cheek of course, alongside the nation’s most historic events. And that image quickly became synonymous with MTV itself, so it didn’t take much discussion to settle on that moonman as the visual inspiration for the VMA statuette. The actual design was handled by Manhattan Design, who created the original MTV logo.

With the moonman landing, all was ready for award night.

The Head-Scratching Mistake Of A Lifetime

Though his legacy as a whole is now incredibly complex, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, from an artistic standpoint, is completely unimpeachable. The general consensus is that it’s the best music video ever, a highly innovative work at the time that elevated the artform. More objectively, in 2009 it became the first music video ever selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and the visuals won a Grammy separate from the song itself. It has to be the only music video so popular and influential that a viral parody of it has its own Wikipedia page.

It also received six nominations at the first VMAs, taking home three trophies. But when it came to the biggest honor of the night, the Video Of The Year award, it was The Cars stepping up to the stage to accept the Moonman for their “You Might Think” clip. It was the only award Ric Ocasek and company won all night, despite being nominated six times.

To be fair, a lot of decisions on awards, rankings, etc. are made that look good – or at least justifiable – in the present, but age terribly in hindsight. It’s practically impossible to exercise the foresight to know what decisions will look good 20 years in the future. (Those of you who have an ex’s name tattooed on you are shaking your heads in solemn acknowledgment.) But that’s the thing: “Thriller” didn’t become “Thriller” over the years. “Thriller” was always “Thriller.” It wasn’t the Velvet Underground, who mostly toiled in anonymity while active, only to have their artistic significance recognized decades later. Everyone knew “Thriller” was revolutionary, and awesome, at the time. As a matter of fact, the album it came from, Thriller, had already been on the charts for almost a year by the time the video was released in December 1983. And by the time the VMAs came around in 1984, Thriller was closing in on its second year in a row as the nation’s best-selling album.

And, of course, there’s the less tangible factor, as Sykes said above: airing the “Thriller” video was one of the most significant moments in the network’s history.

“‘Thriller’ was not just a video, it was an event,” Blackwood said. “We promoted it like crazy and everyone was glued to the TV for the much-anticipated world premiere.”

So how did it not win? I mean, you can hear the sigh of anticlimax in Eddie Murphy’s voice when he reads the card announcing the winner. MTV had it all set up for them: a defining moment with a gigantic star that deserved to be honored. A network striving for iconic status, and a star that had already reached that height. Their first Video Of The Year award, and the best video of all time a nominee. It was all right there on a tee. And MTV whiffed.

Or, maybe, they didn’t? The original VMAs were determined by a panel made up of record company execs, video producers and directors, and other industry stalwarts. The network put that panel together, yes, but had no influence or say in who was nominated or won the awards.

“It truly was a jury of [the artists’] peers. It didn’t have a lot to do with what we thought, or the fans thought,” Sykes said. “We were as surprised as anyone else when we saw the results come in.”

Of course, neither Jackson nor The Cars were the big winners of the night. That honor went to Herbie Hancock, who took home five trophies that night for his “Rockit” video. That’s generally considered the first popular single to implement turntablist techniques, but if you’re looking to go counterculture, giving a jazz legend five trophies isn’t the best way to go.

All of this isn’t to besmirch The Cars or Hancock, both of whom have made a ton of great music, and music videos, over the years. But neither ever made a “Thriller.” Only one man did, and it’s hard not to argue that MTV failed to recognize him suitably.

The Moment That Could Have Ruined MTV, And Madonna

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At this point, Madonna has staked her claim as the ultimate bad girl in pop music history, leaving a string of controversial and envelope-pushing moments in her wake. In September 1984, she was still a relatively minor star whose self-titled debut had just begun gaining steam and whose breakout second album, Like A Virgin, was still a couple of months away. That album would go on to reach 10x platinum status in the U.S., and her performance of the title track at the 1984 VMAs is a big reason why that album sold so well and Madonna became the icon she is and will forever be remembered as.

At the time, it was considered a disaster.

While tame compared to Madge’s later standard, “Like A Virgin” was a pretty shocking piece of lyricism upon its release, especially compared to the more conventional subject matter of her debut. Then there’s the matter of her costume; after her first idea of singing with a full-grown Bengali tiger was rejected, the 26-year-old instead chose to emerge from a giant wedding cake wearing a wedding dress and bustier with a suggestive “BOY TOY” belt buckle. If everything had gone as planned, the performance still would have opened eyes and introduced the world to a more provocative Madonna. Alas, everything didn’t go as planned.

In case you watched that and wondered what was so controversial about it: 1) congratulations on being born after 1990; 2) it was the accidental unveiling of her underwear that had everyone so riled up. Again, pretty tame in today’s context now that we’ve all become intimately familiar with Janet Jackson’s nipple. But in Reagan’s America, this original wardrobe malfunction was A Big Deal.

“Here’s what happened,” Madonna recounted about the event decades later. “I was standing at the top of a wedding cake, as one does, and I walked down these steps, which were the tiers of a wedding cake. And I lost my shoe. I lost my white stiletto. And I thought, ‘Oh god, how am I gonna get that? It’s over there and I’m on TV. So I thought well, I’ll just pretend I meant to do this and I dove on to the floor and I rolled around and I reached for the shoe. And as I reached for the shoe, the dress went up. And the underpants were showing…. I didn’t mean to.”

“Madonna was just breaking at that point as a major star, but she knew how to steal a show. She was up against Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Tina Turner, ZZ Top, some big artists. With a genius like Madonna, you just get out of the way, because she’s gonna make you look good,” Sykes said.

That was the tipping point that took the career of Madonna to a whole new level. She got up there and completely stole the show. But that appearance also helped define MTV.

“Like everyone in the audience, we all had our mouths open just watching the spectacle,” Blackwood added. “Personally, I didn’t find it that shocking. I kind of expected her to do something memorable.”

The immediate reaction? That Madonna’s display of blatant sexuality not only killed her own career, but also could have killed MTV at a time when, after three years on air, it was finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“People came up to me and told me her career was over before it started,” Madonna’s publicist, Liz Rosenberg, would later say. Huey Lewis’ agent, in his apparent infinite wisdom, told Lewis, “This gal, Madonna – this is not going to happen.”

As for the network, “All I’m thinking is: ‘This is going live into homes. We might be getting dropped by a bunch of cable ops on Monday,'” then MTV sales VP John Reardon said.

Of course, everyone’s fears were misguided. Madonna cemented her status as a provocateur, and MTV began to develop its reputation as a cutting-edge home for artists and celebrities to express themselves without restriction, which allowed them to attract bigger star power to the network in general and the VMAs specifically. The next year MTV landed Eddie Murphy – then perhaps the biggest star in the world – to host the event.

“Press was abuzz the next day. It was the talk of the entire entertainment media,” Blackwood said.

And it could have been even worse.

“I remember the night before, she went to the rehearsal, and her top fell off. Everybody in the TV truck, their eyes lit up. Had YouTube been around at the time, there would have been 200 million views. … Of course, she coolly laughed, pulled it back up and continued to perform,” Sykes said.

In this case, the cliche that there’s no such thing as bad publicity rang true: MTV got the big moment it needed, putting it on the roadmap to household-name status.

“It’s 1984. MTV is three years old, we are still dealing with a conservative media business, and here’s a 26-year-old woman who comes out in a wedding dress and begins writhing on the floor, and completely takes the country by storm. That was the tipping point that took the career of Madonna to a whole new level. She got up there and completely stole the show,” Sykes said. “But that appearance also helped define MTV. It defined the VMAs as a place where artists would take chances and create never-before-seen moments. If you look ahead at Miley Cyrus twerking, or Madonna kissing Britney Spears, or David Letterman walking out with Beavis and Butthead, those great moments really started with Madonna’s performance.”

The Legacy Left Behind

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Madonna wasn’t the only one whose bad behavior helped put the VMAs on the map.

“Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart came out, they obviously knew each other from The Faces, and they’d been drinking heavily during the show. They were there to present a special award to Quincy Jones, and they walked out with an ironing board and a broomstick. They were so drunk, they couldn’t even read the teleprompter,” Sykes remembers. “… It just turned into a fiasco. Here one of the great legends of the music world is getting an award, and they could barely stand up. Again, that helped define what this night would be, because it wasn’t a night of pleasantries.”

In any other setting of “prestige,” that kind of behavior would be considered boorish and looked down upon. But alcohol was, in fact, a major, intentional part of MTV’s strategy to get the attitude it wanted from the talent at the VMAs. You can encourage artists and musicians – eccentric personalities by nature – to be daring, but the network knew keeping everyone properly sauced was the only way to guarantee lowered inhibitions, and it did its part. (For what it’s worth, Madonna had also allegedly had more than a few before her performance.)

The conservative cable operators in the crowd were taken aback, to put it lightly, by the spectacle (another underrated moment: ZZ Top performing amidst a gaggle of tight-dressed, big-haired ladies). It all could have backfired against the network; their decision to be counterculture upsetting and alienating the mainstream and leaving them out in the cold. But while many believe the ratings for the show weren’t great (again, MTV didn’t subscribe to Nielsen until 1994, so there’s no data available, but expectations for the event weren’t high on that front), the publicity the first VMAs received was. The next day, every major publication and media organization in the country was talking about it. And that buzz begat a domino effect that not only helped future iterations of the VMAs by making it a more attractive outlet for artists and non-musician celebrities, who eventually saw it as an opportunity to market their movies and TV shows, but also the day-to-day of the network. People were increasingly interested in MTV and, while morality may have been a consideration for those stuffy cable operators in attendance, only one thing truly counts in matters like these: the bottom line. Suddenly, MTV was a viable business.

Of course, while the formula for those first VMAs was refined and enhanced over the years, those basic ethos – putting on an awards show that not only honored rock n’ roll, but embodied its spirit – never changed. And its influence can be seen across the awards show landscape: newer shows like the iHeartRadio Music Awards (which, as iHeartMedia president, Sykes helps produce), BET Awards, Billboard Music Awards, People’s Choice Awards, Kid’s Choice Awards, etc. all have borrowed pages from the VMA’s irreverent handbook, learning not to take themselves too seriously and to mold themselves to appeal to younger generations. You can also find traces of the VMAs in the laid-back styling of the Golden Globes, and even the Grammys have tried loosening up a bit in response.

But at the time, MTV wasn’t focused on its impact on awards shows in general, or on its own legacy, or even what it would do for the second VMAs. The network was just focused on survival, on making sure its big splash didn’t blow up in its face, on simply being able to exist as a network.

“It’s like a lot of things. Looking back, it seems really big. But when you’re doing it doesn’t, you’re just praying that nothing’s gonna break,” Sykes said. “We had no idea it was going to be the awards show it is today, we were just trying to get it done. I’m glad I was there. I just wish I took some pictures.”

Chloe Schildhause assisted in the reporting for this story.