Sunday night's 2009 MTV Video Music Awards got off to a glittering start thanks to the first family of the VMAs: the Jacksons. Janet Jackson helped lead a tribute to brother Michael, who died in June at the age of 50. And while the tribute to Jackson was previously announced, it opened with a huge surprise: a moving, nearly eight-minute speech by Madonna, who fondly recalled her first private meeting with Michael.
Walking onto the darkened stage wearing a conservative black jacket and skirt, a solemn Madonna told the crowd, "Michael Jackson was born in August 1958. So was I. Michael Jackson grew up in the suburbs of the Midwest. So did I. Michael Jackson had eight brothers and sisters. So do I. When Michael Jackson was 6, he became a superstar and was perhaps the world's most beloved child. When I was 6, my mother died. I think he got the shorter end of the stick.
"I never had a mother, but he never had a childhood," she went on. "And when you never get to have something, you become obsessed by it. I spent my childhood searching for my mother figures. Sometimes I was successful. But how do you re-create your childhood when you are under the magnifying glass of the world for your entire life? There is no question that Michael Jackson was one of the greatest talents the world has ever known."
The room roared in applause as Madonna went on to describe how she decided to call MJ one day in 1991 and go out to dinner with him and how she regretted that they'd grown apart in the ensuing years.
"When I first heard that Michael had died, I was in London, days away from the opening of my tour. Michael was going to perform in the same venue as me a week later. All I could think about in that moment was I had abandoned him. That we had abandoned him. That we had allowed this magnificent creature that once set the world on fire to somehow slip through the cracks. While he was trying to build a family and rebuild his career, we were all busy passing judgment. Most of us had turned our backs on him. ... In a desperate attempt to hold on to his memory, I went on the Internet to watch old clips of him dancing and singing on TV and onstage, and I thought, 'My God, he was so unique, so original, so rare.' And there will never be anyone like him again. He was a king."
And then the lights dimmed, and after the classic MTV intro to the premiere of "Thriller" played on the big screen, a group of dancers in a variety of MJ looks did a perfectly choreographed zombie dance along with the footage from the clip. That segued into a run through "Bad" and then "Smooth Criminal," with the stage aglow in glittering military jackets, white spats and crystal-studded white gloves.
The dancers included renowned choreographers Dave Scott, Cris Judd, Brian Friedman, Wade Robson, Tyce Diorio, Travis Payne, Jeri Slaughter, Laurie Ann Gibson, Mia Michaels and Tina Landon, who collectively have worked with Janet, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, 'NSYNC, Celine Dion, Prince and MJ himself.
As the future-shock intro to "Scream" hit the screen, and plumes of white fog sprouted up amid a space-age set made up of white honeycombs, Janet kicked through a mirror and emerged to screams from fans and celebs alike, as Alicia Keys, Beyoncé and Pink hooted their excitement.
Wearing a black-and-white, skintight leather dress with matching pants, Janet busted some of hers and Michael's signature moves, flawlessly re-creating her late brother's steps as they were projected on the screen behind her. The virtual duet provided a stunning end to the tribute, as Janet looked heavenward with hands clasped in front of her face and bowed her head.
The 2009 MTV Video Music Awards are live now! Stay tuned for the night's big winners, red-carpet coverage, behind-the-scenes updates and more.