When the MTV Video Music Awards began back in 1984, David Bowie was in a weird spot. He dressed in big jackets and kept his hair blondish and thin, which actually made him look comparatively normal — and for Bowie, normal was weird.
He was also making pretty normal-sounding music, at least for the ’80s. The first-ever VMAs aired on Sept. 14, 1984, two weeks after the release of Bowie’s 16th album, Tonight, and featured a pre-recorded performance of Bowie’s single, “Blue Jean.” And as the clip below demonstrates, it’s everything you knew he always was: dripping with charisma, grinning, acting equal parts matador and cocktail-club singer.
First of all, it’s not just me who think the sheer normality of this clip makes it infinitely weird, right? Like, it’s Bowie, but he’s so…together. This is all through the lens of 1984, of course, when “normal” actually did mean dudes in sport coats and sunglasses wailing on saxophones in the middle of pop-rock songs.
Even host Dan Aykroyd highlighted the video’s weirdness as he introduced it at the show: “In a departure from his usual work in conceptual video, here in a performance especially shot for tonight’s show, direct from London, England — you all know this man: David Bowie!”
There are wonderfully cheesy, wonderfully ’80s moments in this video, and you seriously have to watch it twice to take them all in. My favorite is Bowie’s understated jacket removal a minute and a half in, which most fully underscores his subversiveness. In an age where rockstars were wearing glam makeup and clamoring for your attention (which by then was totally passé for Bowie), he made you pay attention to his subtleties.
That’s Bowie’s charm. It’s part of his legacy.