The Academy Awards has a slim gold “Oscar” figure. The Emmys has a winged woman hoisting an atom. The Golden Globes has a... well... golden globe. And the MTV Video Music Awards has its Moonman.
Since the inaugural VMA bash in 1984, the Moonman has been one of the most coveted trophies an artist can receive: a symbol of their impact, popularity, and achievements. But where did the whole “man on the moon” concept originate, and what does it mean? To find out, we first need to rewind all the way back to 1981.
On August 1 of that year, MTV launched with footage of a literal launch. The video in question showed the Apollo 11 space shuttle firing off the ground, then segued into an astronaut planting a flag emblazoned with the MTV logo on the moon’s surface. A voiceover proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” And thus, MTV was born.
That now-iconic introduction was conceived by Manhattan Design, a small NYC-based graphic design collection headed by Pat Gorman, Frank Olinsky, and Patti Rogoff. The group designed both the MTV logo as well as the moon landing-themed “top of the hour” animation, which, as Gorman recently told MTV News, was inspired by “claiming unchartered territory.”
“We thought, ‘We’re like the guys landing on the moon and claiming it. We claim this land for music,’” Gorman said. “The thing about music is, there’s always something happening that’s the next thing. There’s always something new. MTV was claiming that. The Moonman claims all of that: what has happened and what will become in music.”
That clip (which — fun fact! — uses real footage acquired from NASA) replayed on MTV at the top of every hour for the next five years. “So by that time, people were really sick of it,” Gorman laughs. But it also meant viewers had an unshakeable image associated with MTV, which proved essential when the network decided to found its own award show three years later.
Again, Gorman and her team were commissioned to design a piece of MTV history: the VMA trophy. They submitted three ideas: a sneaker, a container of popcorn (which was later used as the MTV Movie Award statue), and a Moonman. The latter concept, Gorman says, was the natural choice in her mind.
“I thought, well, the one thing that everybody knows right now from ‘top of the hour’ is the Moonman, so why don’t we do that? Something that everybody recognized? So that, however many years this goes for, everybody will know that it has something to do with claiming this land for music,” Gorman said.
The network higher-ups agreed, and Gorman commissioned the company responsible for casting the Oscar statues to work on the VMA Moonman. With just under two weeks until the show, the clock was ticking... and getting the Moonman just right was trickier than expected. The first design, Gorman says, was “horrible” and featured an astronaut wearing bell bottoms. The second design wasn’t right either: both the Moonman’s feet were planted firmly on the ground, something Gorman vehemently opposed.
“The whole idea was, the statue had to be balancing on one leg, like anti-gravity and floating,” Gorman said. “Otherwise, it didn’t have any magic to it.”
She was also intent on having a footprint on the base of the trophy underneath the astronaut's floating foot, which Gorman said was an homage to Neil Armstrong's famous quote, “One giant step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“I think we used that quote in the program and changed it to, 'This is one small step for man, but a giant step for all music,'” she explained.
Frustrated and frantic, Gorman ended up sculpting the statue herself, but there was only time for five finished trophies to be made. The showrunners settled on a risky idea: They’d present five awards, cut to commercial, collect all the trophies back, then repeat the whole process. During the night of the 1984 VMAs, their plan was working smoothly... until Diana Ross got in their way. Ross was seated in the front row and was collecting all of Michael Jackson’s awards on his behalf that night. He ended up winning three awards (all for “Thriller”), and Ross kept bringing the trophies right back to her seat. When a crew member tried to take them away from her, she refused.
“Somehow they didn’t communicate with the cameramen, so when we came back from commercial, Diana Ross and this backstage guy were involved in a tug of war over the statues,” Gorman, who was in the audience that night, recalled. “We turned around and we waved at the cameraman frantically to say, ‘Stop, stop, go to commercial!’ So they went to commercial almost immediately, and somebody explained it to [Ross], and even then she really didn’t want to give them up. It was somewhere between really terrible and really hilarious; it was just so insane. I thought, ‘This is the award show where anything happens, and it’ll always be that way.’”
Gorman’s right: the VMAs are famously unpredictable, but one thing viewers can always expect to see is the iconic Moonman statue. It’s gone through a couple transformations over the years: Brooklyn artist KAWS redesigned the statue in 2013, and designer Jeremy Scott gave it a '90s-esque makeover last year. But the VMAs is a show that takes its roots seriously, and nothing represents that ideal more than the Moonman.
“I think the Moonman and the VMAs connect to the roots of where MTV started, which is with music and videos and entertainment,” Gorman said. “So in a way, the Moonman and MTV — starting at those roots and growing into what’s relevant now — represent change. And that’s what we wanted. Everything’s built on the past but it’s got to move into the future. You have to have a vehicle to do that, and that’s what the VMA statue is. Something that comes from the past and moves into the future.”
Tune in to the 2016 VMAs, live from New York on Sunday, August 28, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.