For a good part of the 20th century, television awards ceremonies were the ultimate in predictability and decorum. Despite the occasional spontaneous moment—like the streaker who ambled behind David Niven during the 1974 Oscars broadcast—the passing out of trophies for cultural or societal achievement was not considered to be rife with the potential for scandal.

Madonna changed all that.

On September 14, 1984, during the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards ceremony, the newly-popular singer performed her hit “Like a Virgin.” Already controversial due its subject matter, the song would provide a path for the Material Girl, MTV, and pop culture to demolish sexual taboos on television. And while Madonna deserves credit for being a daring and progressive artist, the outrage she caused happened mostly by accident.

The Birth of an Icon

Madonna performs a scandalous number during the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards.Frank Micelotta Archive/Getty Images

It’s hard to divorce the ascension of MTV from Madonna herself. The music cable channel premiered on August 1, 1981, with an eye on popularizing the short-form music video, which up until that time had been little more than a novelty. Though record companies were slow to catch on, viewers got the visual jukebox concept immediately. The channel’s first video, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, proved prophetic: Americans wanted their MTV.

When MTV debuted, Madonna Ciccone was about to turn 23 years old. Born in Bay City, Michigan, she was sandwiched between a love for dancing as a form of creative expression and a staunchly Catholic upbringing—a contradiction that would play out throughout her career.

After moving to New York City, Madonna tried organizing bands before settling on being a solo act. Her first big single, “Everybody,” hit number one on the dance charts in 1982. That was followed by her debut album, Madonna, in 1983, and more hits like “Lucky Star” and “Holiday.” In November 1984, she released her second album, Like a Virgin.

In between, there was an opportunity to pop up on MTV’s first-ever Video Music Awards. At the time, the channel was still figuring out its identity. Instead of hip hosts, the network opted for Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler to lead the inaugural VMA proceedings; ZZ Top were among the headliners. Cyndi Lauper, Eddie Van Halen, and others appeared but didn’t perform. And instead of looking to push the envelope, the network actually signed a syndication deal to air the show on local television stations on the premise it would be a relatively harmless affair.

The Original Wardrobe Malfunction

Madonna was booked to open the show, which was to be held at Manhattan's famed Radio City Music Hall in New York. She insisted on singing “Like a Virgin” from her forthcoming album, which MTV agreed to. She also wanted to serenade a giant Bengal tiger, which they didn’t.

Instead, Madonna satirized the virginal white traditions of Western wedding ceremonies, emerging on stage from a towering wedding cake and draped in a gown, stilettos, and a bustier. (The costume was designed by her personal stylist, Maripol, who was in attendance.)

As she began to sing while descending the multi-layered cake, one of her stiletto shoes got loose; she kicked off the other. By the time she made it to the stage floor, she needed a way to recover her shoes in front of the 5882 people in attendance.

“So I thought, ‘Well, I'll just pretend I meant to do this,’ and I dove on the floor and I rolled around,” Madonna later told talk show host Jay Leno in 2012.

The problem with trying to grab the shoe was that the act of flopping to the floor caused her formal wedding dress to hike itself up, exposing her undergarments to the television cameras.

According to Maripol, MTV’s production crew seized the opportunity. Rather than treat it like a wardrobe malfunction and cut away, they zoomed in.

Seizing the Moment

The infamous dress on display at a Hard Rock Cafe in 2011.Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Instead of recommitting to her routine, Madonna embraced the potential to create a moment. She began gyrating on the floor in a way that left little doubt what she was intending to mimic. She got back on her feet but soon returned to the floor before finishing the song while laying on her back. Nobody would be confusing her for ZZ Top.

The show cut back to Midler, who had a pointed reaction. “Well, now that the burning question of Madonna’s virginity has been answered …” she said, before trailing off.

Today, that sort of provocation would hardly go noticed. In 1984, it was enough for music industry veterans to speculate that Madonna’s career was over. At the show, her publicist, Liz Rosenberg, fielded random people coming up and telling her that her client had made a huge mistake.

Even Madonna's then-manager, Freddy DeMann, was furious with her. “He was white with anger, he was so upset,” Madonna said. “He said, ‘That's it, you've ruined your career’ ... I didn't even know that my butt was showing. I couldn't compute everything that had happened. And since I didn't really have a career yet, I didn't feel that I had lost anything.”

Obviously, the hysterical reactions were wildly off target. Journalists began crowing about Madonna and her show-stealing performance; Like a Virgin was a hit, reaching number 1 on the Billboard chart and becoming the first-ever album recorded by a woman to sell more than 5 million copies. At one point, 17 of the singer's songs hit the top 10 consecutively.

Madonna’s ability to stir controversy became a trademark, not a liability. When Pope John Paul II admonished her for the sexually-charged video for “Like a Prayer” in 1989, she only got more publicity. The MTV VMAs got a reputation for being hip and unpredictable. Viewers and producers no longer dreaded a scene like the one Madonna created—they hoped for it.

Madonna made her latest appearance at the 2021 VMAs in an ensemble that revealed her posterior, which set off another stir. There may have been more skin on display, but it would be hard for even Madonna to top that initial zeitgeist moment of being a daring new artist exploring an uncharted medium.