MTV’s first moon people landed onstage at the Video Music Awards on Sept. 14, 1984. In a shocking turn of events, those two space travelers turned out to be hosts Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd, who welcomed New Yorkers to what would become an annual ceremony honoring the best in popular music.
Aykroyd, pretending to be a space traveler in the presence of aliens, stuck to character during the show’s first opening monologue, while Midler whipped off her helmet to joke with the audience.
“Here I am standing in front of the hippest crowd in the history of the world and I look exactly like a baked potato,” she said.
This year, the VMAs return on Monday night to where it all began: Radio City Music Hall, called the “greatest of all 20th Century entertainment halls” during the first-ever opening monologue.
More than three decades removed from the debut ceremony that was called “symbolic of MTV’s dominance of the music video industry” by Newsday, today’s VMAs boast a lineup of talent representative of the evolving scene.
Bronx-born Cardi B will open the hostless ceremony and possibly take home a total of 10 “moon person” awards; Jennifer Lopez will receive the highest Video Vanguard honor; the Backstreet Boys will perform atop the historic venue; and a special tribute will honor the late Aretha Franklin.
But can a modern-day VMAs really compare to a night that brought Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, the Police, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, David Bowie, Billy Joel and Lionel Richie together?
That first VMAs solidified MTV’s place in the NYC; since ’84, it’s returned to the city 16 times, gracing the stages of venues like Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center and the Metropolitan Opera House. “New York is quite frankly where we feel the most comfortable,” said Bruce Gillmer, executive producer of the VMAs, adding that the team looks for the chance to bring the event back to the city “as often as we can.”
That ceremony provided moments that still play vividly in any music or pop culture lover’s mind, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” performance being one of them.
The singer came out onto the stage — the same stage Cardi B, Travis Scott, J. Lo and others will grace Monday — atop a giant wedding cake prop wearing a revealing dress, a look completed with a “Boy Toy” belt. When her performance ended with her rolling and moaning around the stage, it created a stir that perhaps only Nicki Minaj (who has a surprise performance up her sleeve) could create today.
Michael Jackson took home three big awards — best overall performance, best choreography and the people’s choice — for “Thriller,” but he was outshined by Herbie Hancock who won five technical categories for “Rockit.” A sweep of sorts now expected by that of Cardi B, or The Carters.
Categories were packed with names that hold prominence still to this day, unlike recent nominee ballots with up and comers who fizzle out in the years after their “best new artist” win, like Avril Lavigne (2002 winner) and the Gym Class Heroes (2006).
The 1984 best group category included ZZ Top, the Police and Van Halen; best video was between the Cars, Hancock, Jackson, Lauper and the Police and best female video looked to honor Lauper, Midler, Summer and Pat Benatar.
Much has changed in the industry since the inception of the award ceremony — including the MTV shift away from airing actual music video content. The first ceremony hadn’t yet come up with a name for its “moon men,” changed to the gender-neutral “moon person,” awards.
“We’re not going to give it a name yet. We’re going to wait to see what other people call it,” John Sykes, MTV’s once-vice president of production and promotion, said in ’84.
The first winners were also picked by 1,500 members of the “video music awards community,” aka chosen professionals in the industry, over the course of two rounds of voting. Today, the winners are voted on by the fans and categories have evolved, from best female video and best male video to artist of the year.
One can only expect to see a continuous shift in the ceremony, as the year’s top artists and the fans’ interests change over time.
But no matter what changes, not much can ever compare to the likes of a debut VMAs that included music industry greats.