Did Modern Media Kill the VMAs? A Look Back at the 1984 vs. 2019 Video Music Awards

Though it is somewhere on the cusp of earth-toned tracksuits and neon spandex, some might argue that the 80s truly kicked off at 12:01 A.M. Eastern Time on August 1st, 1981.

Friday night had just given way to Saturday morning, and Music Television, better known as MTV, hit the airwaves for the first time with the voice of John Lack layered over video of the countdown to the launch of the Columbia space shuttle:

“Ladies and gentlemen, rock-and-roll”.

The first music video ever played by MTV was, appropriately, “Video Killed The Radio Star” by the Buggles, and a new era had begun: one where music came alive on-screen, and 50% of the channel’s audience between the ages of twelve and twenty-four watched for an average of thirty minutes to two hours a day.

It wasn’t until 1984 when what is almost certainly the modern-day MTV’s biggest attraction, the MTV Video Music Awards, or the VMAs, was born. Now, on the day of the show’s 36th broadcast, we are looking back at the MTV VMA’s first show—big hair, grainy footage and all—as it compares to the upcoming 2019 installment.

1984 MTV Video Music Awards

Aired live on September 14, 1984, the very first MTV Video Music Awards were broadcast out of New York City’s iconic Radio City Music Hall, awarding the best music videos of the year with “Moonmen” statues in honor of the channel’s earliest representation.

At the start of telecast, before introducing hosts Dan Aykroyd (Saturday Night Live) and actress and singer Bette Midler, New York City mayor Ed Koch proclaimed that Radio City Music Hall would be renamed “Video City Music Hall” for the night.

Herbie Hancock

Swapping jokes as they commandeered the show, Aykroyd and Midler handed out statues to the year’s biggest achievers in music. That evening, Jazz legend Herbie Hancock took home the most Moonmen, racking up five awards for his composition “Rockit”.

Other big winners included Michael Jackson, who nabbed three Moonmen for “Thriller,” and The Cars, who won Video of the Year for their rock hit “You Might Think.” Along with Hancock’s “Rockit,” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” was the most nominated video of the year, with eight nominations each.

The most nominated artist of 1984 was Cyndi Lauper, who aside from winning Best Female Video, received nine nominations for her videos: six for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and three for “Time After Time.”

During Madonna‘s seductive performance of “Like A Virgin,” which in 2014 entertainment journalist Christina Garibaldi dubbed “one of the most important and most unforgettable VMA performances ever, if not one of the most iconic pop performances of all time,” Madonna famously emerged from a 17-foot wedding cake donning a wedding dress, later accidentally kicking off one of her white heels and rolling across the stage to cover the mistake.

David Bowie lit up the stage with “Blue Jean,” Rod Stewart sported a purple suit for a performance of “Infatuation,” and Ray Parker, Jr. kept the Ghostbusters craze going with a performance the film’s theme.

It would be a few years still before the VMAs began to catch on as an annual required viewing, but as the night of the very first show came to a close, the foundation was laid for what would become an 80s tradition—and by 2001, a coveted honor in music.

2019 MTV Video Music Awards

Sebastian Maniscalco

Thirty-six years later, YouTube has overthrown MTV as the go-to destination for music videos, and MTV is better known among the new generation as the home of reality shows from Catfish to Teen Mom.

Though the annual awards show still garners considerable viewership and boasts appearances by the industry’s best, this year’s ceremony comes off the heels of the show’s lowest performing broadcast in the last 25 years. The 2018 VMAs was only viewed by 2.25 million—more than a million fewer than an episode of Dateline NBC received earlier that week—and more than ten million fewer than the show’s 2011 ceremony.

Depending on your perspective, the recently low ratings are either paradoxical or make perfect sense. Audience involvement is greater than ever: fans have been able to vote for their favorite videos in all general categories since 2006 on MTV’s website, and social media means sharing support for a favorite artist can be accomplished in a five-second tweet. On the other hand, the novelty of television has almost entirely worn off, with endless videos of each artist available 24/7 on the internet, and access to every step of their days broadcast on official Snapchat and Instagram Stories. Much to the detriment of the ceremony and others like it, the modern-day teen or twenty-something doesn’t need TV to stay up-to-date on music, or even learn the results of awards shows.

Prudential Center
Credit: goelizabethnj.com

But the show must go on—broadcast for the first time in history from New Jersey, the 2019 MTV VMAs will take place at Newark’s Prudential Center tonight, August 26th. The show will be hosted by comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, and pop superstars Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift lead the nominations with twelve each.

Taylor Swift Ariana Grande VMAs 2019

The performance lineup includes Swift, who is currently dominating the charts with her new album Lover, and Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, who will hit the stage together for a duet of their Latin hit “Señorita.”

Also racking up handfuls of nominations is 17-year-old Billie Eilish, whose song and video “Bad Guy” made her the first and, to date, only artist born in the 2000s to record a #1 single in the United States.

Billie Eilish

Boy bands are back like it’s the 90s—with 5 Seconds of Summer, the Jonas Brothers, BTS and yes, the Backstreet Boys—in the running for Best Group.

But unlike those days, don’t expect a single artist or group to go home with a Moonman tonight—as of 2017, the name of the prize has been changed by MTV President Chris McCarthy—winners will now receive a “Moon Person.”

The 2019 MTV VMAs airs 8 P.M. EDT.

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