As visionary as he may have been, George Orwell strangely did not write at all about the 26th Annual GRAMMY Awards in his classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. For better or worse, this GRAMMY show occurred not during utter domination by a totalitarian state, but rather during a year significantly dominated by the continuing rise of MTV and the record-breaking commercial impact of Michael Jackson.
John Denver — hosting his fifth show — wasted no time on a monologue, promising “a show so hot it’s going to pop if we don’t get right into it.” Stressing that it had been an amazing year for women in music, he got right to the first performance of the night — Donna Summer singing “She Works Hard For The Money.” Like so much of the rest of the telecast, Summer’s opening performance — presented as a video-like production number — reflected the look and feel of music’s new video age. In fact, throughout the evening nominees were announced with the help of extended video clips, as if audiences couldn’t get enough of the videos that were now beginning to drive so much of the music business, commercially and artistically.
Denver then took the stage to explain that the big words of the past year had been “videos, Boy George and Michael…” leaving the audience to loudly scream out “Jackson” with Jackson himself seated in the front row where he would spend the night between his date Brooke Shields and diminutive “Webster” star Emmanuel Lewis, with producer Quincy Jones sitting nearby. This proved convenient, since Jackson and Jones would end up taking quite a few trips to the stage to accept GRAMMYs during the next few hours.
The first award of the evening — Song Of The Year, presented by esteemed authorities Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan — did not go to Jackson for “Billy Jean” or “Beat It,” but rather to Police chief Sting for “Every Breath You Take.” The Police were on tour, but in their absence, Dylan announced, “We’ll take it.” The song would also win the Police a GRAMMY this night for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal, and “Synchronicity” would win Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal — leaving co-presenters Alice Cooper and Grace Jones to accept for them.
Joan Rivers and Culture Club were also not in the house, but appeared live from London via satellite along with a Margaret Thatcher impersonator to read the GRAMMY rules. Rivers wryly explained the reason for reviewing the rules: “Every one of the nominees out there should know why they lost out to Michael Jackson.” Rivers also informed Culture Club’s gender-bending frontman Boy George that he looked like “Brooke Shields on steroids.” For his part, Boy George came off as a perfect, cross-dressing gentleman.
Explicitly paying tribute to music’s new video age, John Denver noted that while music videos were non-existent just a couple of years ago, it had “forged ahead to revitalize and totally reawaken the music industry.” That said, an absent Duran Duran were awarded the first-ever GRAMMY for Best Video Album (Duran Duran), having already won the Best Video, Short Form, for “Girls On Film/Hungry Like A Wolf” earlier in the evening.
One outstanding performance put the spotlight on a founding rock father from well before the birth of video — Chuck Berry, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award, along with the late Arturo Toscanini and the late Charlie Parker. Since Berry was not late, but rather very much alive, he not only accepted the award, but also rocked the house with some of his past classics aided by guitar slinging help from Stevie Ray Vaughan and George Thorogood.
Other notable performances, however, reflected the videogenic nature of ’80s music, including Irene Cara’s “Flashdance — What A Feeling,” which took home the GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, as the title song from the smash film that itself demonstrated Hollywood’s reaction to MTV-like editing. Best New Artist nominees Eurythmics also made a vivid impression by performing “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” with Annie Lennox dressed as Elvis Presley, yet another moment in a night of exceptional cross-dressing. As Boy George memorably noted in his acceptance speech when Culture Club were named Best New Artist, “Thank you America, you’ve got taste, style and you know a good drag queen when you see one.”
Another notable piece of history was acknowledged by then Academy President Michael Melvoin who, after holding up a vinyl record, produced a smaller, shinier object and announced excitedly to the world, “This is the new compact disc.” The soon-to-be widespread CD had been introduced to consumers in the early ’80s and was still dwarfed in sales by LPs and cassettes.
Ultimately, though, this night proved the beginning of the King of Pop’s reign, so much so that Michael Jackson began inviting other people up from the audience to share the GRAMMY stage with him as he accepted awards — first his label boss Walter Yetnikoff, and later his three sisters Rebbie, La Toya and future GRAMMY winner Janet. “When something like this happens, you want those who are very dear to you up here with you,” Jackson said. He also explained, having won his seventh award of the night — which he noted was a new record — he would now actually take his glasses off at the personal request of his friend Katharine Hepburn.
Appropriately, the night ended with Jackson winning his eighth and final GRAMMY of the night when “Beat It” was named Record Of The Year. “I love all the girls in the balcony,” Jackson declared to all the cheers from on high.