July 28 – Linda Win A National Award…That Was The Day

We wonder if she ever thought to herself, “maybe the president will call me and give me an award. Yeah, ‘That’ll Be the Day!’”. Because on this day in 2014, Linda Ronstadt joined some prestigious company – and hosts. That’s when she was awarded the National Arts Medal by President Obama. As such, she was arguably only the third female musician from the Pop Music field to be so honored, after Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand.

The National Arts Medal was created by the U.S. Congress in 1984, “honoring artists and patrons of the arts.” Winners are picked by the sitting president, based on the recommendations of the National Endowment for the Arts committee. The government says the award, including a bronze medal, is given for “outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts.”

The first ones were given out by President Reagan in 1985, and included a number of artists like Georgia O’Keefe, arts patrons Paul Mellon and Hallmark (the card company) and two musical types – composer Elliott Carter Jr., and opera singer Leontyne Price. This set the tone to some degree for the awards through much of the time since, with it favoring classical or opera musicians, with a few exceptions such as Ella Fitzgerald in ’88, B.B. King in ’90, Ray Charles in ’93, Dave Brubeck in ’94 and Aretha in ’99. The 2000s saw a little bit of a turn towards more mainstream music with recipients including Dolly Parton in 2005, James Taylor in ’10, Bob Dylan in ’09 and guitarist/inventor Les Paul in 2007.

Ronstadt, picked in 2013, was among the recipients invited to the White House for the ceremony eight years ago. Barack Obama noted of the winners “the moments you help create, moments of understanding, or awe, or joy, or sorrow – they add textures to our lives. They are not incidental to the American experience, they are central to it.” Ronstadt was lauded for her “one of a kind voice, decades of artful music drawing from a broad range of influences …(and) defied expectations.” A valid description of her career which spanned over 20+ years and resulted in a dozen platinum albums, including a Spanish-language one of traditional Mexican music as well as ones which created pop, rock and country music hits.

After the ceremony, Ronstadt and the other winners were invited to stick around the White House for a reception with the President and his family.

The awards were not given out for 2016-18 but after a deluge of complaints about it, Donald Trump reinstated them in 2019, with Alison Krauss being one of four recipients.

May 25 – Were They MTV Faves? A-ha!

A-ha! It was a good night in 1986 for Norway’s most popular band. A-ha cleaned up at the MTV Video Awards, winning eight of the astronaut-shaped trophies in the third edition of the awards. Only Peter Gabriel the following year would win more in a year. While “The Sun Always Shines on TV” took a couple (for editing and cinematography) it was their creative and unique (for the time) “Take on Me” that drew the most attention and hardware, winning six including “Viewer’s Choice,” “Best Special Effects” and “Best Concept Video.” It did lose out to Dire Straits and their “Money For Nothing” however for the then-coveted “Video of the Year” as well as the “Best Group Video.” Curiously, neither group performed at the Awards show, unlike a list that included Van Halen, INXS, Genesis and Robert Palmer. All of them had probably noticed how much a performance on them could boost a career, as Madonna showed two years earlier. The show was a big deal at that time. 

The video with its mix of drawn comics and live action certainly helped the band gain notice over here – the song was the only #1 hit ever in the U.S. by a Norwegian act and helped the Hunting High and Low album sell upwards of 10 million copies worldwide. Most of us in North America heard little more from the photogenic Scandinavians, but they’ve remained immensely popular at home and some other lands. They’ve had eight #1 singles in Norway and earned a reputed $50 million in 2010 from sales of a greatest hits album and a tour in Europe. Meanwhile, they played a concert for almost 200 000 in Brazil in 2015 and even in Britain they’ve scored three gold or platinum albums and 14 top 20 singles, most recently in 2006 with “Analogue.

February 23 – Monster Albums Made For Ratings Hit Show

Last week we took a look at the Brit Awards and noted that it’s getting to be “awards season.” The time of the year when it seems every field of entertainment is giving out the hardware for the previous year’s accomplishments. It also seems like every year there are more shows, and of late, less interest in them. But that wasn’t always the case, and today we look back to this day in 1978 when the Grammys were given out for the 1977 year in music.

Back then, a Grammy was a major statement in music, and the show, a major event for the public. So much so that the awards show from L.A., broadcast on CBS, was on over 26% of all TVs in the U.S. (and approximately 45% of all the ones which were actually being watched), the third-best ratings ever for it. Only the 1974 show (in which Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack were big winners) and the 1984 (at the height of Michael Jackson’s popularity) were more watched. And why not? Consider that in the previous year, between December, 1976 and November ’77, three of what would turn out to be the biggest records ever came out – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which sold ten million in its first month and currently sits at 40 million-plus worldwide; the Eagles Hotel California, which has moved over 26 million in the States alone, and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which like Rumours has sold over 40 million and was the biggest-selling soundtrack ever for over a decade. Not to mention multi-platinum classics from the likes of Meat Loaf and Jackson Browne. And of course, on the big screen, a little sci-fi flick called Star Wars had shown, and it’s theme was pretty popular. Grease was a few months away, but Olivia Newton John gave a sneak preview by performing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” live.

The show was hosted by John Denver, looking uncharacteristically formal in a sparkly-lapeled tuxedo. Like we said, back then, it was an event. And fans weren’t disappointed. Even the comparatively minor categories seemed to be given to records that would live on to seem significant. For instance, Kenny Rogers “Lucille” took one for Best Country Male performance; Crystal Gayle won the female equivalent with the crossover hit “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”…and gave one of the most admirably short acceptance speeches ever! Even the comedy award went to a star for the ages, Steve Martin. Star Wars, and its musical creator John Williams, won trophies for Best Original Score and Best Pop Instrumental. Although the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack came out a few days too late to be included (it was eligible in 1979 and won Album of the Year), the Bee Gees still got a Grammy for Best Pop Group Performance for “How Deep Is Your Love”, the lead-off single from the soundtrack. The Eagles won awards for the two big singles off Hotel California; the title track winning the prestigious Record of the Year and “New Kid In Town” winning one for Best Vocal Arrangements. Rumours took home the Best Album.

Among the other notable awards were Steely Dan taking the Best Engineered Record for Aja, Thelma Houston and Lou Rawls winning ones for R&B and Barbra Streisand, who had already won five before this night, getting ones for Best Pop Female Performance and Best Song for “Evergreen.” Actually, the Best Song was a tie, an unusual occurrence, with it being shared by Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” Curiously, Streisand had also tied for an Oscar before, sharing Best Actress with Katherine Hepburn a decade earlier…just in case you’re ever in need of a trivia question sure to win you a drink at the bar! Speaking of Debby Boone, the Grammys proved once again that they didn’t have a crystal ball for the future. They awarded her the Best New Artist, beating out Foreigner and Andy Gibb among others (not to mention acts like The Clash and Tom Petty who appeared on the scene but didn’t get nominated. And while Gibson undeniably had a massive hit record that put her on the map, she’d turn out to be a one hit wonder…which was not unusual for winners of that award! The previous year they’d given the nod to the Starland Vocal Band, (ahead of Boston and the Brothers Johnson), and the following year, it would be a Taste of Honey winning, not the Cars, Elvis Costello or Toto.

This year’s Grammys will take place April 3.

February 18 – Queen’s Last Speech From The Throne

We looked at the Brit Awards earlier this week. The 1990 ones, held on this day in London, were not especially noteworthy in most respects. Fine Young Cannibals took home the Best Album for their The Raw and the Cooked, Phil Collins won the Best Single for “Just Another Day in Paradise.” But the ’90 awards have since gone on to gain historical poignancy. Terry Ellis, co-founder of Chrysalis Records and producer of several bands such as Jethro Tull hosted the night. The highlight, as it often is, was the presentation of the award for lifetime achievement, known as Outstanding Contribution To Music. On this night, the fitting recipient was Queen.

Of course, in retrospect, Queen seem like one of the best, biggest and most important Brit acts of all-time. It was coming up to the 20th anniversary of their first show. However, although popular, at the time they weren’t universally revered nor were they on a winning streak so to speak. They’d only won one Brit Award before, for single of the year with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And although they’d put out their sixth album of the ’80s a few months earlier (The Miracle), their triumphant set at Live Aid seemed almost a lifetime back. Although The Miracle did become their sixth #1 album at home, it was close to a flop in North America, where it peaked at #24 in the U.S. and their last really big hit had been a decade earlier with songs from The Game. Even in Britain, their sales were going downhill and, surprisingly to most, the band known for their exuberant and excellent live shows hadn’t toured at all for the album. Rumors abounded.

All that should have been put aside for the night as their excellence was honored. A short video mixed clips of the band at Live Aid with messages of congratulations from the likes of Phil Collins, Elton John, Bob Geldof and Roger Daltrey (who said if he had any advice at all for them, it’d be “don’t break up!”). But the actual acceptance was rather a denouement.

The band, dressed neatly, came up to the podium. Brian May spoke on behalf of the band, thanking the awards and especially those “outside the industry” for letting them do what they do and “go out on a bit of a musical limb.” A decidedly somber-looking and thinner than expected Freddie Mercury, in a tasteful light-colored suit but lacking his trademark moustache, stood to the side, just quietly saying “Good night, thank you” as they sped off the stage barely three minutes in.

As we now know, it was the last time we’d see Mercury in public. He’d been diagnosed with AIDS some three years earlier and was in poor health, which the band knew but the public was kept in the dark about despite ongoing tabloid stories based on innuendo and second-hand reports. Freddie passed away in 1991.

Good night, and thank you, Freddie.

February 16 – Annie, Queen Of The Brits?

It’s getting to Awards season again, and not only in Hollywood or New York. It seems most major entertainment awards start being given out around this time each year, perhaps because it gives just enough time to look back over the previous year’s achievements in retrospect, or perhaps just because there’s little else exciting to watch or happening in the world of movies, TV or music. It’s the same across the ocean, hence February is the Brit Awards month. For example the 13th Brits took place this day in 1993.

The Brits, as the name suggests, honor British music, although apparently the name is an acronym for the British Radio Industry Trust. Fittingly, instead of a Grammy or Oscar, they give out a trophy called the Britannia. Unlike other major awards, while the overall shape of the trophy – a tall, statuesque female – stays the same, it’s been modified at times and given out in different colors, including the Union Jack stripes.  Much like how Canada’s Junos award Canadian artists with a smattering of international categories, the Brits do the same for Great Britain, which in case you’re a bit rusty on geography, includes England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (but not “southern” Ireland, land of the Cranberries and U2.)

The first Brits were in 1977 as a one-off celebration of British music to coincide with the Queen’s silver anniversary and the accompanying wave of national pride. It gave the Beatles a lifetime achievement award and also the nod for Best Album, with Sgt. Pepper. Queen and Procol Harum tied for the Best Single award with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Whiter Shade of Pale” each taking home trophies. They began as an annual event in 1982.

The ’93 edition was the first one held in the Alexandra Palace, “Ally Pally” to the locals, a mixed-use sports and entertainment facility in London, hosting upto about 10 000 people. As usual at the time, it was televised on ITV, the BBC’s upstart rival. Unlike some of the American awards, the Brits had a relatively little-known host, author Richard O’Brien, who wrote Rocky Horror Show. Perhaps he was too obscure as the next year they decided to up the pizzazz factor a little having Elton John and RuPaul host!

As with any music awards show worth its salt, it featured a number of live performances. One of this night’s more memorable was Rod Stewart doing a cover of “Ruby Tuesday.” Rod the Mod was there to pick up his lifetime Outstanding Contribution to Music award, joining the likes of Elton, both Freddie Mercury and Queen, George Martin and the Beatles, who’d been given it twice for good measure. Other show-stoppers included Peter Gabriel (who oddly took home the Best Producer award but none for his songs) doing “Steam” and Andy Bell of Erasure dueting with (Canadian) k.d. lang on “No More Tears.”

Of the big awards, it was a very good night for Mick Hucknall and Annie Lennox. Hucknall managed to win both Best Male Solo Artist and his group, Simply Red, won the Best Group. Lennox won the Best Female Solo Artist, for a record fifth time; she also got the award for Best Album for her Diva. She’d go on to win the Female accolade one more afterwards. Shakespears Sister were hot, and won the Best Video for “Stay” which was nominated for Best Song, but lost out there to boy band Take That’s version of the old Barry Manilow nugget “Could This Be Magic?”. That was little suprise perhaps as three of the five nominees for that category were by Take That. What was surprising therefore was that the group lost the Best Group category nonetheless. For those in North America not too familiar with Take That, it was the band that launched the career of Robbie Williams…who isn’t all that familiar here either! But you can bet Williams has this day circled on his calendar. The Brits took place on Feb. 16th twice since ’93. In 1995, when Williams won the Best Single award and again in 2010, when they gave him the lifetime award. With 13 Brits under his own name and five more as Take That, Williams has won more than anybody… a fact that would elicit a “well duh!” in London but win any trivia game in any American bar. Rounding out the big Brits that year for homegrown music was Tasmin Archer, winning the Breakthrough award, for most promising new artist. Tasmin might have been ruing that accolade, as the previous two were Beverly Craven and Betty Boo.

They did give a tip of the derby to foreign greats too. U2 were named the Most Successful Live Artist, while Prince was named Best International Solo Artist, becoming the first to win it twice, and R.E.M. took home the Best International Group for a second year running.

The 2022 Brits were given out last week, with Adele taking both the Best Album and the Best Single.

January 31 – AMA-zing Answer To Awards Snub As Easy As ABC

Music Awards seemed like a bit of a bigger deal in years gone by. The Grammys, for instance, were not only a major music industry marker but a huge entertainment event back in the ’70s and ’80s. So what’s a poor TV network going to do when their competitor outbids them for that bonanza? Well, if you were ABC and it was the 1970s, you just start your own! Thus was born the American Music Awards. They were given out this night in both 1976 and ’77, the third and fourth AMAs.

ABC had shown the Grammys in 1971 and ’72. Although Nielsen didn’t publish exact ratings numbers for those years, a little later in the decade, the Grammys typically drew over 30 million viewers in the U.S., or about 40% of all those watching the telly on the particular night. So losing it was a bit of a blow to both the prestige and ad revenue for them. Thus they had the idea “if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em!” They had Dick Clark develop an alternate music awards show instead.

The first AMAs were in early 1974. Back then it was a two-hour broadcast with a relatively simple set of categories. They broke music down into “Pop/Rock”, “Soul/R&B” and “Country”, and gave out trophies for Best Male Artist, Best Female Artist, Best Group, Best Album and Best Song in each. As well, they rewarded one great with a “Merit Award”, essentially a lifetime achievement one. Although they don’t disclose the precise method used to pick winners through the first three decades (recently fans have been allowed to vote), it was picked by industry insiders largely influenced by sales totals. In recent years, they’ve expanded the awards greatly to include categories like “hip hop,” “inspirational” and “electronic/dance.”

By the third set of awards, this night 46 years back, they had the process down pat and were holding the awards in a glitzy affair in Santa Monica. Since it was TV-driven, they smartly had a popular musician who was comfortable in front of cameras host it – Glen Campbell both years. He actually would host for four-straight years, then again in 1982, making him the most-utilized host in the Awards history. In ’76 he was helped by Olivia Newton John and Aretha Franklin; in ’77 by Helen Reddy and Lou Rawls.

Now, it could easily be argued that by basing awards primarily on sales, artistic merit would be overlooked. That’s undoubtedly true, at least some of the time, but there is a sort of “give the people what they want” type of honesty to it also. That noted, the winners in the Bicentennial Year weren’t bad and were fairly representative of what people were listening to. It also showed the brief mid-’70s convergence between pop and country radio. To whit, John Denver was named both Country Male performer and Pop Male performer of the year, and Olivia Newton John snagged the Female trophy in both categories. Happily the winner of the Song of the Year award in both country and pop didn’t have to travel all that far to accept – it was the host, Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” And co-host Olivia picked up a third award, for Pop Album of the Year with Have You Never Been Mellow? which beat out Elton John’s Greatest Hits and the Eagles’ One of These Nights. A little surprisingly, Tony Orlando & Dawn were the Group of the year. While Barry White and Aretha took the R&B male and female trophies, KC and the Sunshine Band took the song “”Get Down Tonight”) and band in that category. Perhaps the most interesting award of the night was classic songwriter Irving Berlin being given the lifetime Merit one.

The 1977 awards were of a similar nature, with Olivia Newton John taking the Best Female in pop once again. She was probably exceedingly happy she’d made the move across the Pacific from Australia to California by then! Elton John won the male in that category and Best Pop Song for “Don’t Go breaking My Heart” with Kiki Dee while the Eagles took the album award for their Greatest Hits. Curiously, Willie Nelson won best Country song for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. The song had been nominated the previous year but lost out to Glen. The Man in Black, Johnny Cash was given the Merit Award that year.

While it appears the AMAs never matched the Grammys in terms of TV ratings (last year’s drew four million viewers, but the Grammys themselves dropped to under nine million) they have done OK for ABC and become a reasonably respected part of the Music Biz and a flashy red carpet event for the paparazzi. By the way, if you’re counting, Taylor Swift has won the most of them – 34. As for the merit award, after giving them out to a variety of people including Berry Gordy (founder of Motown), promoter Bill Graham, and artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Billy Joel to Frank Sinatra, they seem to have run out of inspiration, last awarding one in 2016 to Sting.

November 16 – Sir Paul Racked Up Another First

On this day in 2009, Paul McCartney found he was going to be playing a concert in a small venue soon. The star who’d helped the Beatles sell out Shea Stadium in the 1960s and had performed in football stadiums and cavernous arenas around the world since the band broke up had a date arranged for an intimate setting in Washington, DC. The White House. Because, 12 years ago, he was named as the third winner of the Library of Congress Gershwin Award.

The Gershwin Award is a national honor given to “a composer or performer for lifetime contributions to popular music.” Obviously, McC checked both those boxes well! The award was named after some would say The McCartney/Lennon of the ’20s, George and Ira Gershwin, creators of any number of old standards like “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

Although proposed in 2003 as a companion award to the Library’s Mark Twain Prize for Humor, it wasn’t given out until 2007, when Paul Simon was the first recipient. Stevie Wonder was awarded it in 2008, with McCartney next. Significantly, he was the first non-American to be awarded this prize by a branch of the U.S. Government; no other foreign-born artists would receive it until 2019 when Gloria and Emilio Estefan did. At the time, the Library’s James Billington noted it would be “hard to find a performer who has had more of an indelible and transformative effect on popular song.”

While the first award was given in a theatre in Washington, President Obama decided to host winners at the White House for the ceremony; in ’09 Wonder (for the 2008 award) and in summer of 2010, McCartney. At the ceremony and concert, Barack Obama praised McCartney and other winners for demonstrating “part of what gets us through tough times is music. The arts. That part of us that sings even when times are tough.” The ex-Beatle seemed pleased and added that not only was it great to be given the honor, “after the last eight years, it’s great to have a president who knows what a library is.” After the speeches, a full-blown concert kicked off, with a stand-up routine by Jerry Seinfeld (which Entertainment Weekly declared “fell flat”) and performances from other stars who were fans of Paul’s including Dave Grohl (who “wore the night’s biggest grin as he tore through ‘Band on the Run’, again according to EW) , Elvis Costello and even the Jonas Brothers for younger fans, one presumes. McCartney himself then did a seven-song set, starting with “Got To Get You Into My Life”, then “Ebony and Ivory”, with the previous Gershwin winner, Stevie Wonder, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Michelle” which he dedicated to Mrs. Obama, “Let it Be”, “Hey Jude”, with the others singing the “na na na” part and “Yesterday.” Much of it is now on Youtube and it was broadcast on PBS at the time.

Subsequent winners have included Billy Joel, Smokey Robinson and most recently, Garth Brooks.

October 28 – Tree Turned Into Diamonds For U2

Many have said that Nirvana turned the music world on its ear and made “alternative rock” mainstream with their Nevermind. There’s some truth to that as it certainly signified a sea change in what hit radio and FM rock stations were choosing to play in the early-’90s. But perhaps the change came earlier than that…in Canada at least. Because on this day in 1987, U2 were awarded with a Diamond record for The Joshua Tree, making it the first alt rock album to achieve that level of success in North America. Maybe anywhere for that matter.

A diamond award represents sales of 10X platinum, or 20X gold if you like. The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever was the first one to do so there, in 1978. The Joshua Tree was only the 17th album to go diamond in Canada, sandwiched between Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and the Eagles Hotel California. Not only that, but being just seven months after its release date, it was also the fastest album to hit that mark in the Great White North, a few days faster than Supertramp’s Breakfast in America had in 1979.

It was only mildly surprising. By this point, it had already spent 12 weeks at #1 on the Canadian charts, longest of any album, produced a massive #1 song (“With or Without You”) and another top 10 (“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”) which together managed to dominate the country’s rock and pop stations most all of the summer and fall, and it came on the tail of back-to-back triple platinum successes for the Irish lads, in War and The Unforgettable Fire. U2 was hot and omnipresent enough to not be in any way “alternative”, popularity wise at least.

Of course, it was far from an exclusively Canuck phenomenon. The Joshua Tree had spent nine weeks on top in the U.S., and eventually went diamond there too, although not until 1995. By now it’s topped 14 million copies in the States, or 14X platinum. Nor was it a mere fad. U2 obviously have carried on as big as ever, and in 2000 a second album of theirs, Achtung Baby hit the diamond mark in Canada, making them only the sixth artist to have a pair of albums that popular.

By the way, if you’re a big fan of The Joshua Tree, and like traveling, there’s good news and bad. The good news is there is a national park in California named Joshua Tree, and true to its name, there are many of the odd, gnarly desert trees growing there. The bad, according to travel journalist Conor Knighton, is that the cover photo for the record wasn’t taken there, but about 200 miles away, and the actual tree in the back cover photo is no longer there.

October 25 – Cliff Rebel Rock’s First Knight, Sir

It’s often been mentioned, while some (Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Duran Duran etc) British acts translate very well across the ocean, others just don’t seem more a local taste there and don’t hit it very big in North America despite being huge at home (T Rex, Slade etc). Perhaps there’s no better example of that than Cliff Richard…who had a big day in 1995. In fact, it was a significant day in British history, as Cliff became “Sir Cliff”, becoming the first pop or rock musician to be honored with official knighthood in the UK.

Richard was sometimes referred to as the “British Elvis”, and with good reason. His career started around the same time as Presley’s and like “The King”, his early persona was something of a rebel. Like Presley, he had a bit of a career in film as well during the early-’60s. And like Presley, he was massively popular in his homeland. By 1970, he’d racked up three dozen top 10 hits in the UK, seven of them #1s (some with his early bands the Drifters and the Shadows); he’d go on to add 29 more to that including five #1s and a total of 30 gold or platinum albums. His first big hit, “Move It” was in 1958; his last “Thank You For a Lifetime”, a #3 hit in 2008. Over here however, he only scored occasionally in the ’70s and beginning of the ’80s, with just three top 10 hits, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”, “Dreamin’” and his first and biggest, “Devil Woman”, his only gold single on this side of the Atlantic.

However, for all his popularity on the radio, his knighthood was based on his charitable work, not his music. The crown cited his “contributions to charity” for the reason they bestowed the honor on him. Early on in his career, Richard had decided to “tithe” or give away at least a tenth of his income to charity. He says he’s guided by the principle “to be a good and responsible steward of what has been entrusted to us.” He set up his own charitable foundation, has been a big supporter of Alzheimer’s research and of an organization called Tearfund, which helps alleviate poverty in the Third World. And, as a tennis buff, he also set up a charity to build courts and teach British kids the sport.

So with his three sisters there to witness it, Queen Elizabeth made Cliff “Sir Cliff.” It started a trend. While he was the first rocker to get the official title (earlier she had given an honorary title to Bob Geldof for his Live Aid work, but as an Irish person, he wasn’t eligible for official knighthood) since then she’s similarly decorated a number of other rock stars for their charitable work. They include Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Tom Jones and Elton John. In 2011 she made Annie Lennox a member of the order as well, which makes her “Dame Annie.” George Martin was awarded knighthood, but unlike the others, his was for his musical work and “contribution to popular culture.”

Of course, there always has to be a renegade. She wanted to award David Bowie with knighthood in 2000, but he turned her down. “I seriously don’t know what it’s for,” he told the press. “It’s not what I spent my life working for.”

September 6 – Back When People Wanted Their MTV

Recently we looked at MuchMusic’s arrival in Canada and how that helped shape the musical tastes of the nation through much of the ’80s, just as MTV did in the U.S. Video was huge and influential back then, so it was to be expected that soon the format would have its own awards. MTV obliged, with the MTV Video Awards, beginning in 1984 (with The Cars winning the Best Video trophy that year, in case you’d forgotten.)

Recently Huffington Post astutely noted the “stature of the ceremony has declined” with declining attendance in person and the lowest ratings on record, three years running. Indeed, in 2020, Nielsen reported only 1.3 million people tuned in for them, down nearly 90% from the over 12 million who watched as recently as 2011. It failed to even make the Top 10 for specialty cable programs the week it aired. But it hasn’t always been that way. For awhile, the MTV Video Awards and their little “spaceman” trophy were a big deal to both the public and the industry. And they usually took place right around back to school time. Case in point, in both 1989 and 1990 they were held on this day at the Universal Ampitheater in L.A. to great fanfare and millions of eager eyes and ears. Arsenio Hall hosted both years. And in case you’re wondering, yes, that’s no misprint. The Awards were held on the same date, despite falling on different days of the week.

The ’89 awards in particular reflected the changing state of music, giving out trophies for best Heavy Metal video and best Rap video for the first time. Guns’n’Roses took home the former for “Sweet Child of Mine” while future movie star Will Smith took home the best Rap one under his Fresh Prince moniker for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Paula Abdul and Madonna – two of the hottest ladies on the scene at the time, commercially at least – each took home four awards, but for relatively minor categories like choreography or production. The big winner of the night was ol’ Neil…Young’s video “This Note’s For You” was the Video of the Year, although quite oddly it didn’t win the video for Best Video by a Male Artist. Elvis Costello took that home for “Veronica.” R.E.M. who would clean up two years later for “Losing My Religion” were given a nod for “Orange Crush” , the Best Post-modern Video. Rap-metal fusion band Living Colour won the Best Group Video and Best New Artist one for their “Cult of Personality.” And a cult of personality it was that night there. Mick Jagger presented an award, then had the Rolling Stones perform live. Madonna, who really made a name for herself and the Awards five years earlier with her stage performance of “Like a Virgin” was back, doingg “Express Yourself” slightly less controversially; Cher performed, Bon Jovi too and Axl Rose joined Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to run through “Heartbreak Hotel.” Nielsen didn’t yet keep track of MTV’s viewers in the ’80s, so we have no definitive tally of how many people tuned in, but judging from the buzz and the uptick in sales of many of the artists right afterwards, it’s safe to bet “far more than 2019’s 1.3 million!”.

The ’90 Awards were more of the same. Once again it was a bit of a ladies’ night, with Madonna and Sinead O’Connor both winning three, though for Madonna it was her second-straight year of being nominated for Best Video unsuccessfully. Sinead grabbed that and the Best Female Video for “Nothing Compares 2U” while Don Henley took the male equivalent for the “End of the Innocence”. The B52s and their “Love Shack” were named the Best Group Video and they switched to MTV’s Australia affiliate to give Midnight Oil a Best Video there for “Blue Sky Mine.” And in the type of choice that doesn’t seem great decades down the road – the type of blooper most Awards shows in any entertainment field seem to have – Michael Penn got the nod for Best New Artist, over the Black Crowes and Lenny Kravitz to name just a pair. And once again, the stars came out for the show. Kim Basinger and Oliver Stone were among the non-musicians who trotted out to hand out trophies, while Janet Jackson (getting a “Vanguard Award” essentially for lifetime achievement at age 24), Phil Collins, INXS, Sinead and Faith No More were among the live performers.

It catapulted Dire Straits and Peter Gabriel to the level of sales and recognition they’d probably long-deserved, it also made a star out of Lita Ford and acted as a double-edged sword for the likes of Culture Club, vaulting them to superstardom but at the same time likely keeping them from getting the serious respect they deserved for the actual music they made. Like it or not, music videos shaped the soundtrack of the ’80s and around 30 years back, this week was their equivalent of Christmas morning.