Hollywood Flashback: Madonna Rolled Around Onstage, The Cars Topped Michael Jackson at First VMAs

VMAs 1984 Madonna - Photofest - H 2018
Courtesy of Photofest

The Beatles, David Bowie and Richard Lester were honored with the first Video Vanguard Award at the inaugural Video Music Awards in 1984, when Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd served as hosts.

Before Kanye West shocked Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus and the foam finger shocked the world, there were the first showstoppers of the Video Music Awards: Generation X.

“Here I am standing in front of the hippest crowd in the history of the world,” Hocus Pocus and First Wives Club actress Bette Midler told the audience as she co-hosted the first-ever MTV VMAs.

It's hard to go far into a conversation of VMA history without mentioning Lil’ Kim and her seashell pastie from 1999 or Fifth Harmony’s first performance after the departure of Camila Cabello last year.

But in the early years of the VMAs, MTV was still trying to figure out how to reach the largest audience possible. That meant getting two of the biggest Hollywood stars at the time. Dan Aykroyd had just come off his performance in Ghostbusters. MTV caught Midler, a decorated singer and lively personality in her own right, just before a string of fan favorite roles like 1986’s Ruthless People and 1988's Beaches which featured the No.1 Billboard hit sung by Midler, "Wind Beneath My Wings."

“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,” John Sykes, MTV co-founder and an original VMAs producer, told UPROXX in 2014.

The 1984 VMAs came three years after the launch of the music TV network. Much like with MTV’s first broadcast, Midler and Aykroyd touched down on stage in space suits announcing the arrival of the new awards show at Radio City Music Hall. It was a space where sex jokes, smoking onstage and spontaneity were encouraged. This was not your mother's awards show. It was at this inaugural show that Madonna famously rolled around onstage in a revealing wedding dress during her performance of “Like a Virgin.”

“I think we all know she had a few drinks, because she had to get up the nerve to crawl around like she did," Les Garland, former executive vp programming at MTV, later would say. "She stole the show."

The night featured guests like Eddie Murphy, Cyndi Lauper and Eddie Van Halen, with rock band The Cars going home with video of the year for "You Might Think." The very first honorees for the Video Vanguard Award were the trio of The Beatles, David Bowie and Richard Lester. Legendary producer Quincy Jones was also honored with the now-defunct Special Recognition Award.

But possibly the biggest winner of the night wasn’t even at the show.

“Michael’s not here. He’s on tour but he sends his love. Thank you for all the wonderful support,” Diana Ross said, accepting a Moon Man trophy (which was redubbed as Moon Person last year) on behalf of Michael Jackson. The latter won his first VMA for “Thriller,” the first of many. The Video Vanguard award would later be named after the iconic pop star.

The award wins for Jackson also pointed to what would be a gradual change of the guard in the music and film industry, where pop rooted in hip-hop would later dominate while rock 'n' roll slowly faded into the rearview mirror. At the 2018 VMAs, the nominees for the video of the year award comprise artists from the hip-hop world: Drake, Bruno Mars, Cardi B, Childish Gambino and The Carters, among others. This will be the second straight year the category does not have a white artist represented among the group, a change from years like 1986-88, when every nominee for video of the year was white.

And of course, the inaugural VMA show wasn’t without an inaugural afterparty. The celebration took place in the nearby Hard Rock Cafe, with young Hollywood out in full force. In fact, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, David Lee Roth and Sonia Braga were all seen rolling in together with vibrant blazers and big smiles.