A VHS Journey to the 1985 Grammy Awards

Preston Burt
Feb 11, 2015 · 6 min read

While millions of people were tuned into the 2015 Grammy Awards Sunday evening, I too was sitting in an easy chair watching the annual music awards show. However, my viewing experience was rather unique. Two years ago I surreptitiously stumbled upon a VHS tape in a thrift store with hand-written text scrawled on the plastic dinosaur. Just below the neat handwriting for “Rocky I,” were the magnetic words “1985 Grammy Awards.”

I’m a huge fan of 80’s nostalgia, and I still have a bunch of my old VHS tapes from my childhood when my sister and I recorded cheesy Disney movies like Flight of the Navigator and Mr. Boogedy right off of the local television station — replete with commercials and all. In fact, I just indoctrinated my 9-year old daughter with her first-ever viewing of Ghostbusters using one of those relics. So finding a recorded VHS with a potential for a retro flashback was just too good to pass up for the low price of $1.

I’ve been sitting on this tape for the past few years, just waiting on the right time to share it’s cheesiness with the world. What better night than the broadcast of the 2015 Grammys to dive back into the past with a sacred viewing and “live” tweeting of the 30-year old production captured on magnetic tape? I knew I would enjoy the content, but I had no idea just how much. Beyond the now-classic music, and the now-dated fashion, I was surprised to see just how much had changed since 1985, but more so, how much things have stayed exactly the same.

The most noticeable difference between the 2015 and 1985 iterations of the Grammys is instantly recognizable: production value. If you watched Sunday’s broadcast, then you know AC/DC blew the roof off the venue with their performance of “Highway to Hell,” flames and all. In 1985, things started more simply with dead air and an almost “is this thing on?” feel before Huey Lewis and the News launch into an acapella rendition of “It’s All Right.” The cold open would set the scene for a much more subdued industry event compared to the multimillion dollar production spectacle of today.

After taking in the simplicity of the ’85 opening of the 27th annual awards show, the host takes the podium to welcome the audience. I can’t say that John Denver is a name that comes up in conversation very often since his untimely passing in a plane crash in 1997, but seeing him again brought a smile to my face. His hosting style was in contrast to the current master of ceremonies, LL Cool J. Denver brought with him a relaxed, yet professional presentation style and an earnestness that makes you want to be his friend. On multiple occasions he would sing portions of the songs for which he would introduce, seemingly genuinely enjoying the moment. Though both Denver and Mr. Cool J have roots in music, the choice of the ’85 Grammy Awards producers to anchor their ship with the subdued folk musician versus the genre-hopping mass demographic-saturating choice of LL speaks to the type of show the Grammys were at the time. Still, despite some noted differences early on, many key elements of the Grammys have endured.

Random Celebrity Sightings

Cyndi Lauper accepts the “Best New Aritst” award with Hulk Hogan despite no Captain Lou in sight

This is a music awards show, but that doesn't mean everyone featured on stage or in the audience is in the music business. That much, at least, has stayed the same. With the opening “Best New Artist” award presented to cute-as-a-button Cyndi Lauper, Hulk Hogan was brought on stage to support her(?) in accepting her honor. His absurdist presence would open the door to the fact that despite an overabundance of bowties, the night could have some surprises yet. John Travolta? Sure. Loni Anderson? You bet.

Boring Parts that Nobody Cares About

Every award show is bogged down at some point by slow spots. The 1985 edition was halted to a crawl by a prolonged Leonard Bernstein lifetime achievement award presentation. Also, apparently people still cared about opera in the 80’s because there was a really long segment about that. I used the 10-minute Gospel section to make myself a sandwich. Lastly, the ’85 edition was rife with industry windbags patting themselves on the back. Though, I did appreciate the fact that the Academy president was able to get a plug in for his daughter being a member of The Revolution.

Fashion Statements

2015's Sia has competition from 1985's Chaka Khan

Bruce Springsteen wearing a bolo tie? Yes! Jermaine Jackson looking like Mozart? Why not? And although the 2015 Grammys saw Sia wearing a gigantic white wig on the red carpet, just know that Chaka Khan owned that same look thirty years ago.

Weird Al is Still Relevant

I’m fairly certain that viewers of 1985’s ceremony never expected Weird Al, who won in a pre show segment for Best Comedy Recording for Eat It, never expected him to remain relevant in 2015’s cultural landscape. Yankovic’s 2015 win for Mandatory Fun would prove his naysayers wrong and would serve as a perfect bookend to his career should he decide to hand over the reigns as Geek Supreme.


Hello? Is it me you’re looking for? If you were an Academy voter, then YES!

Kanye West forced the conversation of the “worthiness” of Beck being crowned king as 2015’s Album of the Year recipient. Three decades prior, Lionel Richie cleaned up the award show with multiple wins including the coveted Album of the Year slot. Can’t Slow Down featured a bevy of pop hits including Penny Lover, All Night Long (All Night), and Hello, and its win could be argued based on it’s commercial success. However, looking back, his competitors were arguably more worthy: Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain were strong contenders along with David Bowie, Tina Turner, and Cyndi Lauper — all artists at the top of their game and with much more memorable lasting legacies.

Avant Garde Performances

Performances for any award show are key, and the ’85 Grammys did not disappoint. We may not have had Maddie Ziggler and Kristin Wiig dancing in front of a rear-facing Sia performing Chandelier, but we did have Prince. And Prince never disappoints. With The Revolution backing him up, we were treated to everything from Prince tearing off his shirt to what looked like a dancing b-boy little person taking the stage. If the multitudes performing on stage weren't enough, Prince proceeded to bring up nearly half the audience before bolting down the aisle trailed by someone who looked like a tossed-aside WWF wrestler disappointed he wasn't Lauper’s first choice before producers quickly cut to commercial. Prince’s performance was a definite highlight, but if you wanted to bottle 1985 in a time capsule, nothing better encompasses that idea than the epic synthesizer showdown between Stevie Wonder, Thomas Dolby, Herbie Hancock, and Howard Jones.

Everything Changes Yet Stays the Same

Though some differences between the two Grammy Award shows were obvious, most could be chalked up to the passage of time. Accounting for the cultural shifts, one expect there to be new musical categories, different presenters, new mediums of production and so on. However, when it comes down to it, the Grammys are snapshot of the musical landscape and popular culture of the time. I expect that in another thirty years, for the 87th annual event, we’ll still see a semblance of the familiar awards show perhaps with a still flawless-looking Prince presenting yet another award to Weird Al.

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