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.