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“Coronation Ceremonies for the Goon Generation”: Here’s How Critics Reviewed the First MTV Video Music Awards

Madonna performs "Like a Virgin" on the very first MTV Video Music Awards.
“… a dismaying exhibition of amateurism, egomania, and Neanderthal incoherence.”
MTV

There’s no better way to measure the ephemerality of power than by picking a hallowed institution—any institution, really—and taking a look at the way it was received when it was shiny and new. So as pop stars take the stage at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards to rapturous and attentive coverage, it’s refreshing to look back at the first VMAs, when nobody cared. In 1984, the show was just another viewing option—“Make Rock History—Live! On Cable TV!” one ad promised—offbeat cable counterprogramming to the grim network offerings that Friday night: a one-off Sid & Marty Krofft variety show, The Cracker Brothers, on NBC; the series premiere of ABC’s short-lived cop drama Hawaiian Heat; and, on CBS, a TV movie called Threesome. Even against that competition, the first VMAs were not well received. MTV’s chaotic highlight reel gives some clues as to why :

Well, they never made the audience wear fake ZZ Top beards at the Grammys! Here are some excerpts from the awards show’s nearly universally vitriolic coverage from the fall of 1984, which document a very different critical establishment responding to a very different MTV Video Music Awards.

David Bianculli raved that it was “an orchestrated, calculated, meaningless event!”

Last weekend’s First Annual MTV Video Music Awards show, presented live on cable TV’s Music Television (MTV) network Friday and repeated on broadcast stations including Channel 10 the following night, was a painful exercise in restrained, yet wretched, excess.

The restraint came from the fact that MTV had wrangled a syndication deal in advance, selling replay rights to local TV stations. In exchange, cable television’s much-heralded freedom from censorship was thwarted in advance, surrendered without a fight as part of a classic sellout.

Add the fact that the show’s executive producer, Don Ohlmeyer, is formerly associated with NBC Sports and Games People Play, and the true slant of MTV’s self-promotional orgy is complete: an orchestrated, calculated, meaningless event.

–David Bianculli, “Scripted Awards Telecast Restrained, But Wretched,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 17, 1984.

Cliff Radel compared it favorably to “your average yawn!”

MTV gave itself a great big pat on the back Friday night at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. It was so big it was a wonder the 24-hour music video channel didn’t break its arm in the process. … This incestuous affair, whereby MTV hands out awards for the best videos shown on, of all places, MTV, lasted 18 categories and two hours-plus.

The show ignored the rock, jazz, soul, country, middle-of-the-road and classical videos shown elsewhere on over 200 cable and non-cable TV outlets across the country. That made the MTV award show about as valid as if CBS had televised the Emmys and only gave the awards to CBS shows. Other than that, “The 1st Annual MTV Video Awards” was a momentous occasion, ranking right up there with your average yawn.

–Cliff Radel, “MTV Honored Best Music Videos In Its First Awards Presentation,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 17, 1984.

Jon Bream coined a new name for the new awards show: the Emptys!

The Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and Tonys are familiar show-business awards to many of us. And now it’s time for the Emptys.

The Emptys?

That’s what pundits are calling the first annual MTV Video Music Awards, handed out Friday night in New York City. … [Some see the show] not so much as a video-music awards (there is another video-music awards program that has been syndicated out of Los Angeles for the past two years) but as a celebration of MTV as the pioneer and now the Establishment in the rock-video industry. To put it more bluntly, the ceremony was little more than splashy self-aggrandizement for MTV.

After all, the only videos eligible were those that had played on MTV between May 2, 1983 and May 2, 1984. 

Jon Bream, “ ‘The Emptys’: MTV Celebrates Itself With a Fulsome Answer to the Grammys,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sept. 17, 1984.

Richard Harrington focused on MTV’s problems with racist bullshit and literal horseshit:

…inside and out, it was like an old-fashioned Hollywood extravaganza, though mounted New York City police proved once again that laws made for man and dog do not apply to horses. As a result, an awful lot of what was deposited outside made its way inside on the bottoms of Guccis.

If there is something odd and irritating about MTV putting together, promoting, and benefiting from its self-designated awards show (only videos shown on MTV were eligible and the awards are about as meaningful to the general public as the advertising industry’s Clios are), that’s nothing new for the network that has brought self-promotion to a new level. And while no one can deny the profound influence MTV has had—on music, fashion, and film—it’s equally hard to defend MTV’s bullying tactics and virtual exclusion of black entertainers. Diana Ross accepted two awards for Michael Jackson; it’s just about the only way she’s been able to get on MTV.

Richard Harrington, “Hype, Hype, Hooray!” Washington Post, Sept. 17, 1984.

For Steven X. Rea, New York City Mayor Ed Koch set the tone for the night:

At the First Annual MTV Video Music Awards, the Honorable Edward I. Koch, sporting a Hamptons tan and one gleaming platinum glove, renamed the opulent landmark “Video City Music Hall” in honor of the festivities therein.

The mayor’s official decree was the first of many grand and vacuous gestures to transpire over the next three hours, as 5,882 video and music industry bigwigs sat, dressed to the nines, patting themselves on the back for saving the music biz, for creating a gold mine division of Warner Communications, for resurrecting some floundering careers and creating some new ones.

–Steven X. Rea, “Rockers Glitter at MTV Awards,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 17, 1984.

And for Tom Shales, who really went above and beyond, the awards were a symbol of everything that was wrong with young people, except for the times Bette Midler was onscreen.

“The First Annual MTV Video Music Awards” of a few weeks back played like coronation ceremonies for the goon generation, a dismaying exhibition of amateurism, egomania, and Neanderthal incoherence. A word like sleaze is probably overused these days, but here were two hours of television for which no other single term seems appropriate.

To the MTV generation, these incomprehensible monosyllabs are heroes. The MTV generation lacks for political heroes, lacks for mythic heroes, lacks for fantasy heroes. But it does have rock stars whose greatest fame comes from their alleged and much flaunted primitivism. They are the standard-setters and standard-bearers of an emerging slob culture, one so sub-literate it makes the thugs of “Clockwork Orange” look cute.

Boorish behavior was the order of the night. Even MTV’s behavior was obnoxious; viewers were beaten over the head with promotional materials for MTV, and the MTV logo was in almost every single shot. At one point the audience was given a peek at the video rock stars of tomorrow: a gang called Ratt, another called Twisted Sister and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a group already infamous for having starred in a video so dirty that MTV wouldn’t even play it. Yech.   

Tom Shales, “Bette Midler Saves MTV Show,” Nashville Tennessean, Sept. 20, 1984.

A dismaying lack of poptimism all around! There are two ways to look at this dramatic change in critical consensus, and only one of them is depressing. The positive angle is that conventional wisdom and cultural power both change with the wind, which is heartening to anyone who feels alienated by the present moment, even if “1980s television criticism” doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. The darker lesson: Given enough time and money, any institution, no matter how inherently scuzzy and corrupt—industry awards shows, television networks, Electoral Colleges, world religions—can buy respectability. Maybe we shouldn’t sell it.