For MTV's Video Music Awards, it's really been downhill ever since the very first telecast in 1984. That was the awards show that basically presided over Madonna's shotgun marriage to pop culture, thanks to a performance that eliminated any long-standing associations between "white" and "purity" and forever made the phrases "wedding dress" and "writhing" seem perfectly appropriate together in the same sentence.
After that '84 unveiling (ahem) of "Like A Virgin," nothing the VMAs have done since could really compare—not Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley making out, not Pee Wee Herman's post-scandal comeback...not even Madonna reprising the moment years later at a sapphic mock-wedding with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
But much about that shocking performance was inadvertent or last-minute, and if Madonna had gotten things her way, she might not be the superstar she quickly became.
Years later, MTV's VP of programming recalled the run-up to the first VMAs. "We're getting closer to the show, we're building sets, and Madonna had no idea what she wanted to do," Bob Garland said in the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story Of The Music Video Revolution. He called her demanding an answer. "She called me the next day and says, 'I've got it. I want to sing "Like A Virgin" to a Bengal tiger.'… And I go, 'You mean like a baby one?' 'No, no, full grown.'… I go, 'You want a white, full grown Bengal tiger onstage at Radio City Music Hall? If it gets loose and kills [then Sony head] Walter Yetnikoff, I've got a [expletive] problem.'" He told her to find another idea, and she did, "so we had a 17-foot cake built."
Madonna was already pushing her luck by pushing that particular song through.As MTV exec Chip Rachlin explained to authors Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum: "We booked Madonna for the first VMAs. You'd think that at this early stage of her career she'd have been head over heels to be part of it, but that wasn't the case. She was a bit difficult from the word go. She didn't want to perform one of her hits. She wanted to sing a new song—'Like A Virgin.'" In September 1984, Madonna's sophomore album, Like A Virgin, and its title-song single (which would become her first No. 1) were both still two months away from release.
It was difficult keeping her contained. As ex-VJ Alan Hunter told the New York Post last year, "At the rehearsal, I'm sitting about 10 rows back, watching her roll around in that dress, and her boob fell out. And we all went, did you see what I saw?" For his part, MTV's Garland recalled standing under the wedding cake's platform in rehearsals and realizing that the Material Girl's underwear was, shall we say, immaterial.
She did find some knickers by showtime. But whether everyone knew that Madonna would become quite so intimate with the stage floor as she did, in or out of a purity-connoting gown, is still an open question. The way she explained it 28 years later, all that writhing was an accident, or at least a case of making lemonade out of lemons.
"I was standing on top of a wedding cake—as one does," she told Jay Leno earlier this year, dryly. "And I walked down these steps which were the tiers of a wedding cake, and I lost...my white stiletto. I thought, 'Oh my God; how am I going to get that? It's over there and I'm on TV.' So I thought, 'Well, I'll pretend I meant to do this,' and I dove onto the floor. And I rolled around and I reached for the shoe, and as I reached for the shoe, the dress went up, and then the underpants were showing. And I didn't mean to."
"But it became the greatest night in television history," Leno quipped.
Perhaps it is time, as they say in the sports world, to go to the tape. Was Madonna's Cinderella moment really just the accidental result of losing a shoe at a crucial moment in the big ball? Look at the video that has been passed down through the ages and make up your own mind. When she first takes to the ground upon getting to the bottom of the giant wedding cake, it does look like there may be a slip involved, although the editing doesn't render the sequence of events completely clear. But later on in the performance, she lays her train down on the ground and then appears to get really, really excited about it, with some suggestive motions that hardly seem to suggest a stubbed toe.
Recalling the story for Leno, Madonna continued to wax innocent. "[Manager] Freddy [DeMann] did say to me afterward in the dressing room—he was white with anger, he was so upset— he said, 'That's it, you've ruined your career'... I didn't even know that my butt was showing. I couldn't compute everything that had happened. And since I didn't really have a career yet, I didn't feel that I had lost anything."
There was so much gain to go around, as it turned out—for both MTV and Madonna. The performance was a great teaser trailer for the imagery in her soon-to-be-released "Like A Virgin" video and album cover, which had both been shot a couple of months earlier.
Madonna's principle fashion collaborator at that time, Marisol, is largely credited with the bridal look that captivated a nation. At the Like A Virgin album sleeve shoot, Marisol said in a recent interview, "There was an art director [who] wanted everything to be Madonna in black—a heavy rock 'Black Sabbath Madonna.' And I didn't think that it fit... I said, 'Why don't we bring out the aura of the "Like A Virgin" song; we can play with that. And it was rebellious, since who was going to believe she was still a virgin! She agreed and we got along very well."
Marisol was also behind the scenes at the VMAs that September: "The idea of that performance came from a kind of a vision I had. We used the exact dress she is wearing on the album cover... It was incredible because nobody expected it to be so raunchy. Cyndi Lauper was there and was going to be star of the night and then Madonna came out. During the performance...I remember Freddy DeMann saying: 'Never again will I let her be shot live.' But that did it. I remember all the photographers running to the press conference right after she went off."
Fred Schneider of the B-52s said in I Want My MTV, "Madonna comes up and says, 'Do you think that was too shocking?' It didn't seem shocking to me. Having lived in Athens, Georgia, you see a lot of crazier stuff." But not everyone was so blasé. Huey Lewis was also at the ceremony and told Marks and Tannenbaum, "She was fantastic. After the show, she got a hard time from the press about being so sexual. I said, 'Hey, wait a second. I'll tell you why Madonna is here. She makes great records.' Which was true." Almost three decades later, that's a debate we're still having.
In 2003, there was another "wedding" involving Madonna at the Video Music Awards. Her daughter, Lourdes, came out as one of a couple of young flower girls, and then Britney and Christina emerged in full wedding regalia, singing "Like A Virgin." Then Madonna herself made an entrance, but she's not the kind of gal who likes to repeat herself for nostalgia's sake. So she was doing something different both in costume—wearing black, arguably male formalwear—and in song, singing "Hollywood" instead of "Virgin." Of course, everyone's memory of who was singing what was pretty much wiped clean by the girl-on-girl kisses that eventually came down the pike.
Last year, the VMAs paid homage to Madonna's indelible 1984 performance once again.. by commissioning a teaser commercial that had a cat in a wedding dress writhing around to "Like A Virgin." Good luck finding that video today, though; pretty much every copy has been pulled down off MTV's website and everywhere else on the web. You can still find a separate parody that had three cats imitating the 2003 Britney/Xtina/Madonna moment, but the clip that satirizes the 1984 solo performance is gone, everywhere, mysteriously. Perhaps Madonna finally got a good look at the cat parodying her signature moment and had a reaction that was other than "LOL."