The VMAs are the wildest night in music. Over the last 32 years, the show has become an institution, the place to turn to to see pop stars wrangle snakes, the place to watch rappers start a fight, the place for Beyoncé birth announcements. But with all that we remember through the years, it’s easy to forget about the particulars of that very first show out of Radio City Music Hall in 1984. Everyone knows about Madonna’s infamous “Like a Virgin” performance, but what about the rest of that original two-hour broadcast? Who were the hosts? Who were the performers? What were the awards? What did people see on the night the VMAs were born? To find the answers to all these questions and more, I — a 1993 baby, armed only with my love of early Madonna videos and my copy of I Want My MTV — dove into the top secret MTV archives and live-blogged the very first VMAs.
0:00:14: The first VMAs begins with a shot of one of the original MTV VJs, Martha Quinn, auspiciously dialing for assistance from a crusty bar phone. She is in fact using a pay phone, confirming absolutely that yes, we are in 1984, and welcome to the show.
0:00:20: “ZZ Top” — *MARTHA GAWKS* — “is refusing to perform unless I get backstage and say hello, it’s pretty unbelievable, but that’s showbiz and the show must go on; the show won’t go on unless I hustle over right now!” I’ve decided that not only do I like Martha, but Martha would have been my favorite VJ. She is a friendly dork with a mushroom mullet who is down to ramble and humblebrag in front of millions. Get it, Martha.
0:00:42: LASERS! AH! (What was going on with lasers in the ’80s that had everyone so excited? Wikipedia is telling me lasers were invented in the ’60s. OLD.)
0:00:51: The lasers are bouncing off a CD. Wait, what? 1984 MTV is having a Compact Disc Giveaway. “Over $100,000 of equipment!” Literally what. Where is my merch, 2016 MTV? Where is my iTunes Store giveaway? Where are my compact discs?
0:01:00: God, it must have been so exhausting to edit together these video clips before digital editing software had been invented. I wince every time the camera cuts, but the ’80s special effects look so cool. (I wonder if someone had to clear the rights on the Star Wars blaster that is currently shooting lasers into the CDs MTV is hawking?)
0:01:21: Damn, they’re actually giving away so much stuff. A CD player, 100-plus CDs, massive speakers, amplifier, AM/FM radio, and a cassette player. I want my MTV merch!
0:02:00: A montage of famous people explain the VMAs to me! Who was famous in 1984, you ask? Tina Turner and Mick Jagger, duh, but also Rod Stewart! Herbie Hancock! Hall and Oates! This guy! Who is this guy? I love his shirt. He thinks MTV is pretty scary, don’t you? I don’t know, guy — stranger danger — but if we’re measuring fame solely by who is in this montage most, this is the most famous person at the VMAs.
0:02:26: Starting a segment for all the anons in this live-blog called We Could Be Friends. First nominees: these gals. (Are my new friends famous? Please write into the MTV Compact Disc Sale address if you know the answer.) (Update from later in the show: I am a plebe, duh they are famous, they are Belinda Carlisle and Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s.)
0:02:30: MADONNA. Madonna is over it, America.
0:02:47: Black and white! Classy!
0:03:22: This montage is wild. A flaming mannequin just dropped dozens of feet into a pool and then it cut to a bunch of hippies playing keytars and staring into the horizon.
0:03:27: So many 1984 famouses I don’t know! A woman from a clip I should maybe recognize shows up to say, “Arthur, I feel gone crazy.” Same, lady. (We Could Be Friends.)
0:04:30: LIVE! Moonmen! VMAs, we made it!
0:05:10: Meet your hosts for the first VMAs: Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd. The ’80s were a different time.
0:05:25: Dan Aykroyd stands in his moonsuit silently and waits for Bette to cede the spotlight, but Bette just took 15 seconds to fawn in front of the audience, to applause. Never change, Bette. (That said, my 2016 eyes can’t help but flash forward to Anne Hathaway and James Franco at the Oscars…beware, 1984. It’s all fun and games now, but you know not the darkness of the world you may inspire.)
0:05:51: The running theme of this opening patter is that Bette wants to show off her body more? Dan Aykroyd isn’t having it, booming, “Please! Have some dignity and decorum!” Ah, Reagan’s America.
0:07:00: Oh thank god, Dan Aykroyd is dropping his moonman voice and introducing the first artist, thus kicking off the illustrious tradition of VMA performances with….Rod Stewart?
0:08:30: Rod Stewart is still performing. I don’t know. I just feel like this is a hoax. Are we sure Rod Stewart is a real person?
0:12:00: ROD STEWART IS STILL PERFORMING????? This attempt to convince me of his material existence is excessive, and I believe in Rod Stewart even less than before.
0:12:37: This montage of people backstage is a good reminder that there were lots of pencil-headed famous people in 1984. It’s funny, because I have to remind myself that’s not someone doing a Billy Idol homage, it’s actually just Billy Idol. He really did dress like that.
0:12:41: This guy again. Hi, friend.
0:12:50: Cyndi Lauper sighting! Her makeup is AMAZING.
0:13:50: Oh my god, is that Lady Gaga??? She time-traveled from 2009 to 1984! Her best postmodern trick yet!
0:14:50: Mayor Ed Koch just called Radio City Music Hall “Video City Music Hall” in honor of the VMAs, and then amazingly the camera cut to this lady rolling her eyes at his terrible joke. We could be friends.
0:15:28: Koch just pulled out a glittered-up Michael Jackson glove. Does not mention AIDS or the gays in his pitch for the New York arts scene.
0:16:00: The subtext of all of Dan and Bette’s banter is that they hate each other yet would probably have to think it over before saying no to fucking, if only because they’re both famous. Dan just called Bette big-breasted in a weird accent and did an inexplicable twist in her direction. Bette laughed tightly and mimicked it back. The performative heterosexual mating call is complete.
0:16:41: “All the better to see your manly bulges, you big-butted Eastern refugee.” Bette hates Dan. It must have been so hard to be a woman in the ’80s.
0:17:13: You know who loves Dan Aykroyd? David Lee Roth, that’s who.
0:17:15: You know, Dan Aykroyd really did live his best life. This fucking voice he’s doing right now is so annoying and he looks so goddamn pleased with himself and no one in the audience seems bothered in the slightest.
0:17:30: Cyndi Lauper is so amazing. She’s doing a bit about reading rules — no idea what the rules are, this is 2016, TV has no rules — but anyway, Cyndi’s made up a fake ancient Babylonian language (presumably referencing Hammurabi? 1984!) and she keeps interjecting with random English words about money and ratings and corporate planning. We could be friends Cyndi, always.
0:19:30: Bette is about to have a heat stroke over this dude from The Who with frosted tips and a burgundy bow tie. Bette’s job as a host appears to be to confirm for the audience the desirability of every crag-faced man in attendance.
0:20:55: Messing with everything I ever thought I knew about award shows, the VMAs presents an award that sounds like the biggest award first: Best Overall Performance. Nominees include Bowie’s “China Girl,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” so 1984 isn’t doing too bad for itself.
0:22:50: Michael Jackson wins, because duh. Confetti falls from the ceiling, and Diana Ross gets up in this outfit to accept for him. For one moment in time in 1984, everything was perfect.
0:24:00: 1984 video montage. Old videos are cool.
0:26:57: Bette Midler keeps making jokes about rats. No idea why.
0:27:18: Jefferson Starship just showed up to talk about Best New Artists and what it takes to be in a music video. “You gotta sound good, look good, and sing good.” No clarification on the difference between sounding good and singing good. Grace Slick looks embarrassed to be reading jokes about visible panty lines that were obviously written by a man. Madonna made the cut with her first album, and Cyndi Lauper is nominated twice, but The Eurythmics win and I bounce to YouTube to watch what promises to be an insane video for “Sweet Dreams” from an orange-buzz-cut-sporting Annie Lennox.
0:28:50: In a precursor to VMA animals to come, a monkey just appeared with the envelope. American pop culture has never really reckoned with the period from the 1950s to the 1990s that we spent obsessed with chimps. We jumped straight to Harambe without processing Bonzo!
0:29:10: There’s a kind of crazy compressed air gun that keeps going off in the back whenever someone reads a winner, and the sound makes every presenter react like they’re preparing for the Soviet bomb to drop, which in fairness was still a possibility because it was only 1984 and we were still technically in the Cold War. History!
0:29:39: I have no idea who’s accepting Annie Lennox’s award because every rock star looks and talks and walks the same. They’re all 14 feet tall, with the posture of aged vultures, the floppy black manes of insouciant cocker spaniels, and accents culled from the remains of dying industrial towns. The fellow who accepts Annie Lennox’s award seems nice.
0:29:45: Wait, I recognize him maybe? Maybe he is a Ramone? Joey Ramone accepts for Annie Lennox, that’s rad.
0:31:39: Dan Aykroyd is doing another annoying voice. This time he’s being British. I think it might just be annoying because his voice is so loud? (I’m sorry, Dan Aykroyd; still love you in Coneheads.)
0:32:28: Ron Wood, of The Rolling Stones, is the resident red leather suit rat tail British rock clone. He’s shorter than Joey Ramone and of indeterminate age, and he’s presenting Best Stage Performance, which as far as I can tell is an award just for videos that take place on stage? Host Bette Midler is nominated alongside David Bowie, Duran Duran, The Pretenders, and Van Halen. The horrible snob in me that you should 100 percent ignore is so scared Van Halen is going to win this.
0:33:37: A cute lady mime just showed up to give the real envelope? To be honest, I would be friends with anyone who is a mime, regardless of cuteness or gender, but Ron Wood ruins the good mime vibes, attempting to flirt via command, “Can you say thank you in mime?” Ron Wood doesn’t know who any of these people are except the winner, and naturally, because I was rooting against it, Van Halen wins.
0:34:12: Van Halen’s David Lee Roth is having the time of his life, and it’s pretty endearing. Remember when rock stars were the rock stars of the day?
0:35:32: New Dan Aykroyd voice. He says he’s being Tom Snyder, and I’m gonna say based on this impression, Tom Snyder is, like, half pretentious dad and half sports announcer? Has Dan Aykroyd been wearing these coke bottle glasses all night? (Update: I just checked, and yes, he has.) He’s introducing “every biker’s dream guest rider” Madonna, which ruins my theory that Madonna showed up at the end of the first VMAs and changed the game definitively. It also ruins my hope that I’ll be saving the best VMA content for last, but that’s fine; I’m not mad at it.
0:36:00: 1984 Madonna was a fucking genius. Best production values of the night (which was apparently a behind-the scenes-battle) as Madonna enters atop a wedding cake, with a massive arc of white lights flashing behind her, singing what would have been her then-unreleased single “Like a Virgin”.
0:36:35: Watching “Like a Virgin” out of context in 2016, it feels like an artifact from an alien planet. For one, the editing is antithetical to our post-digital understanding of quick-cut excitement, and the half-lidded hardness of baby Madonna is jarring in contrast to our tough-but-approachable stars like Rihanna or Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj. But Madonna’s performance is somehow equally alien in the context of the 1984 VMA show, which has so far featured women making jokes about covering their panties, covering their breasts, smiling, and saying thank you. Enter Madonna, wild yet dead-eyed, a necrophiliac bride atop a cardboard cake, mocking virginity as she writhes in lingerie with “Boy Toy” blazoned on her belt. Much as this is the iconic moment of the broadcast, the moment that would be taken and carried and repackaged and reproduced for years to come, when it happened, it was a hostile performance given to a hostile room. Madonna finishes on the floor, and the applause is scattered, bewildered, stunned.
0:40:00: “Well. Now that the burning question of Madonna’s virginity has been answered, we are free to go on to more gaping questions.” Relieved whoops of approval from the crowd at Bette Midler’s coy denouncement. Real virgins only, this is 1984! “Making a video is like making love. It is fraught with danger.”
0:41:00: A montage about making videos. Billy Idol doesn’t understand the religious or the sexual references in his own video. All these sweet, dorky 1984 video directors are so excited to talk about their work, but I’m excited to find out there was once a human man who went by the name Lol Creme. Shoutout to you, Lol.
0:42:30: Cut to Carly Simon! Hi, Carly! Carly’s friend seems amazing.
0:42:42: Dan: “What can I do to get that kind of self-confidence?” Bette: “Increase your breast size.”
0:43:20: My sweet fellow Pennsylvania natives Hall and Oates show up to announce Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, and Best Editing. John Oates has such a nice speaking voice and such a fluffy mustache; he makes no weird women jokes; and he, in fact, does make my dreams come true. Herbie Hancock kills these categories with “Rockit” — a video that will give me nightmares forever — which is exactly the kind of 1984-only occurrence that sets my heart aflutter.
0:45:53: Dan Aykroyd claims the next presenter is one of the few white people alive who doesn’t dance like an “MIT brain-damaged physicist” and I’m going to need to see the receipts.
0:46:00: The dance wunderkind is someone named Peter Wolf, another black-haired rock clone. Pretty sure he dances, but the VMAs cleverly hide him in black-on-black clothing against a black backdrop. He’s presenting Best Choreography to “Thriller,” obviously, because the fabric of space and time didn’t spontaneously unravel into chaos in 1984, but before that he gives his ballerina partner a couple of kisses with a quick, “Kill yourself, Bette Midler.”
0:48:44: Bless, the return of Diana Ross to accept for MJ alongside Michael Peters, who choreographed “Thriller.” Michael Peters thanks every backup dancer by name individually, and thanks MTV for recognizing dance as an art form with the creation of this award. Michael Peters is lovely.
0:49:35: A parade of people I would be friends with follows, from the bleached-blonde woman who appears to be accidentally heiling Diana Ross, to the woman with the massive pearl necklace who looks like she’d be having the worst time of her life if she ever had a good time to begin with, and this gal, whose neutral face and subtle lean I recognize as the true signs of a vicious gossip.
0:50:13: Bette Midler has appeared as a Who from Whoville to present a special effects montage and she’s sporting a new bun that is somehow spinning without ripping all her hair out like in this video that still haunts my dreams.
0:51:00: This montage is every Snapchatter’s dream.
0:53:00: Missing Person’s lead singer Dale Bozzio is revealed to be the time-traveling Lady Gaga from earlier! I have to say, my hopes were high when Dale Bozzio walked on with her magenta hair and magenta mirrorball outfit…and Dale Bozzio delivered. She is off script and slurring in a plummy theater girl accent that would be INSANE even without the slurring. She’s thanking VJs and calling out second marriages. She’s claiming to have written her own experimental speech with experimental words, but it’s just a gesture? “I bet you said to yourselves, what was that all about? But you’re supposed to feel it. And if you did feel it…did you like it?” Dale Bozzio laughs alone at her own joke. Dale Bozzio is a fucking loose cannon. Dale Bozzio and I could be friends.
0:54:47: LOL. Dale Bozzio is still talking, but the production team cut her off. Dale!
0:56:28: Dale finally presents her award. “Oh, I’m so happy. It’s Herbie Hancock.”
0:57:00: Despite Dale Bozzio’s ringing endorsement of Herbie Hancock, Lol Creme talks over Herbie through their acceptance speech. Lol Creme kinda sucks.
0:59:00: Huey Lewis & The News performs “I Want a New Drug” — HUGE saxophone solo.
1:02:39: Bette Midler is wearing a glitter rose veil, presumably to mark the start of the shade portion of the program. She and Dan Aykroyd read fake categories that are apparently shading popular videos from 1984. “Video Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Bad Jeans Commercial” is harsh, “Most Obnoxious Use of Winos or Bag Ladies to Lend Urban Charm to a Low-Budget Video” is brutal, but “Least Entertaining Use of a Star’s Real Parent” is cold enough to make the compressed air horn go off. (This woman, cry-laughing at “Best Use of Hairdressing As a Cover-Up for Content” could be my friend.)
1:06:45: Another rock clone appears, and this time I’m pretty sure he’s just actually a video trick. Fellow clone Peter Wolf, stretched vertically in post. He presents Best Group Video to ZZ Top, another band I’m not sure actually exists, and they confirm my suspicions by not appearing to accept their award.
1:10:00: Armchair critic Mick Jagger appears on tape to talk about the start of music videos, shouting out Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway before he introduces the Video Vanguard Award, the by now time-honored VMA tradition that has awarded figures from Michael Jackson to Beyoncé, and which this year is going to Rihanna. There are three winners of the first Video Vanguard award. The non-Sting members of The Police present to The Beatles and their regular director Richard Lester, and Herbie Hancock presents the honors to David Bowie.
1:14:34: No idea why they’re doing a Q&A in the audience in the middle of the Vanguard Award presentation, but look at what a Ruffalo-esque cutie pie John Cougar Mellencamp was! I had no idea. He and his babely date have equally ’80s hair.
1:15:30: David Bowie streams in from London for a performance of his song “Blue Jean” — god, I miss David Bowie. “Blue Jean” isn’t my favorite David Bowie song, but 1984 is a great era for Bowie, with “Modern Love” and “China Girl” at the top of the charts. He’s relaxed in this performance, and it’s maybe unfair to compare his looseness and his calm to Rod Stewart or Huey Lewis & The News — who, after all, are performing in a setting much bigger than the Soho club where Bowie recorded — but his casual command of the stage and the camera is what makes his work timeless even 30 years later.
1:19:30: Dan Aykroyd introduces his friend and his director from movies like Ghostbusters and Trading Places, John Landis. Cyndi Lauper is apparently a huge fan.
1:19:38: John Landis was hot. He’s here to present Best Direction, and I’m assuming there’s a reason his own video “Thriller” is not eligible for this particular for a category? This whole ceremony is light on “Thriller,” to be honest. I understand that if the first VMAs were nothing but a two-hour ode to “Thriller,” we might not have VMAs today, but it would have been a righteous choice on behalf of video art.
1:22:42: Whoa, WILD camera, swooping up and over the crowd. LIVE avant-garde music television, baby! ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” wins. As we’ve established, ZZ Top is a made-up band, but the man they’ve brought on to accept for them is charmingly unprepared…and then the cameras cut to Diana Ross, Michael Jackson’s chosen replacement — sitting next to a woman who I think might be Cynthia Nixon? — and I’m reminded what real rock stars look like.
1:23:05: Dale Bozzio sighting.
1:23:22: The return of Rod Stewart! So much screaming! He knows rock clone Ron Wood, who has let down his ponytail. They do a bit hiding behind the podium and the audience actually cannot get enough. “I LOVE YOU!” from the audiences for Rod, but just polite applause for literal genius Quincy Jones. 1984, I see you. Quincy Jones dedicates his award to the late Count Basie.
1:29:56: The very ’80s named Fee Waybill appears and somewhat miraculously looks like someone named Fee Waybill. Fee Waybill is explaining the difference between ideas and concepts as a preamble to Best Concept Video, which is somehow a distinguishable category from my girl Dale Bozzio’s Best Experimental Video? MTV is all about those big ideas, damn. According to Fee, “A concept is an idea, and then some…Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley riding a motorcycle is an idea.” I see where this is going, Kanye and Kim riding a motorcycle are the concept, right? “Bound 2” is off the table, but Herbie Hancock wins, and I imagine Kanye (and I know Dale Bozzio) approve.
1:33:58: Costume change for Bette Midler! Her dress is made of creamsicle lace, shoulder pads that could stop a lineman; her hair is tied up in matching orange plastic wrap, and it requires no comment because this is 1984 and MTV is all about those high concepts, bb! Bette delivers an ode to “a woman who is everything she ever dreamed a performer could be” and the crowd goes WILD for Tina Turner, which is by far the biggest and best audience reaction of the night.
1:35:30: Tina Turner walks out from behind a massive MTV installation and RIPS into “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” — which, like, was that video eligible? I want a Tina Turner acceptance speech. But at least she gets the night’s only standing ovation, as is only appropriate.
1:39:27: In what seems like an unscripted moment, Bette Midler’s mic catches her saying “Oh, lighten up, will you?” before a scripted patter between her and Dan Aykroyd. The silent battle rages on.
1:40:17: I learn from this montage about new music that all of Bette Midler’s rat jokes have been about a band named Ratt. What is rock and roll, America?
1:40:38: AH, SHEILA E SIGHTING!!! Did Sheila E have new music in 1984? According to the montage, apparently she was last year’s new artist? Also, where is Prince? 1984 is the year of Purple Rain! Does that not count, since it came out as a movie?
1:41:21: Dan Aykroyd jokes, “I couldn’t take my eyes off Ratt,” to screams of approval from the audience. Bette Midler, hilariously, does not approve.
1:41:37: Dan Aykroyd is Canadian. It all makes sense now. Dan asks how he’d look in leather, and god bless her, it’s been a long night for Bette. She just does not have the strength to answer that question, passing along to leather queen Billy Idol. “I think you would look good in leatherm Dan. I think everyone looks good in leather.” You tell them, Billy Idol.
1:43:03: Close up on Billy Idol, and Billy Idol is the first rocker in the room who I understand having groupies. That is some fire makeup, Billy. Billy is presenting the Voter’s Choice Award — “the only real choice in any election you actually get” — which naturally Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” wins. Diana Ross is back, which can only be a good thing.
1:45:56: John Landis’s “Thriller” acceptance speech includes the most relevant-to-me news of the night, which is that he just made a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer, and she adores Billy Idol. Oh, Michelle, such good taste.
1:46:07: Nina Blackwood entering late into the race to be my favorite VJ. Amazing hair, girl. The camera pans to reveal Carly Simon, who is apparently an Amazon? (That Carly Simon’s hair is amazing should go without saying.) Carly shouts out her kids Sally and Ben, which is very cute. I love that Nina Blackwood is kind of camera shy; it’s so real, and that realness is one of the best things about this early VMAs broadcast. Everyone is still trying to figure out how to do the whole video thing, and so there’s a kind of off-the-cuff roughness to everyone’s transitions on and off camera. Cute!
1:47:16: Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd share a doggie snack backstage, no doubt inspiring Crystal Connors and Nomi Malones everywhere. Just another example of the iconic influence of the VMAs.
1:47:30: Duran Duran presents Best Female Video in their best glam gear, including amazing frosted pink lipstick, and they very welcomingly nudge at the logic of the category they’re presenting. “Does anyone know the difference between male and female videos?” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” wins, which is great because it means we get another Cyndi speech.
1:50:16: “Boy, am I glad I won, otherwise this tiara would have looked awfully stupid!” Cyndi, opening her speech with some unintentional Lily Tomlin shade. Cyndi shouts out Michael Peters and thanks all her dancers and then becomes the only person all night to thank her mom, who is in the audience, adorably.
1:51:55: ZZ Top has a live performance! They are real humans! Their beards are basically floor length! I would be more excited about this if they weren’t coming at the end of the show! One of the models they bring on stage loses her shoe, which doesn’t seem 100 percent intentional, but it is definitely 100 percent delightful.
1:55:35: Aw, cute! The whole audience has been given fake beards to wear during the ZZ Top performance. Maybe this year everyone can get snakes in honor of the return of Britney Spears.
1:55:38: Lol. I like this one bearded lady, who is not paying attention to the performance at all. We could be friends.
1:55:49: Herbie Hancock is such a good sport. Madonna might be the MVP of the first VMAs, but Herbie Hancock is definitely Mr. Congeniality.
1:56:38: LOL WAIT. CHER HAS BEEN IN THE AUDIENCE THE ENTIRE SHOW AND WE ARE JUST SEEING HER NOW.
1:57:00: The Go-Go’s Belinda Carlisle and Kathy Valentine are presenting the last award of the night — truly bringing it home, considering they were the first people I decided I would be friends with in 1984. Knowing who they are now, I retain my original assessment. They’re presenting Best Male Video, which goes to David Bowie’s “China Girl.” Proving that even two full hours into an award show, you can still learn from TV, Iggy Pop comes onstage to accept for Bowie, reminding the world and informing me that Bowie’s single was a cover.
1:59:00: Tragically, my copy of the VMA broadcast cuts before Best Video of the Year was somewhat inexplicably awarded to The Cars for their video “You Might Think,” but in the year that we lost David Bowie, it’s maybe nicer anyway to leave with the impression he crowned the start of MTV’s biggest night. That the man who fell to Earth would bring with him the start of a new era in music feels appropriate. Sayonara, David — until the next life.