What was billed as a special tribute to Michael Jackson starring his sister, Janet, turned into an even more epic performance: Madonna took the stage at tonight's MTV Video Music Awards to honor an artist she has called "one of the greats."
In a long, heartfelt speech about her personal relationship to Jackson, Madonna called the King of Pop "a hero," and reflected on how his early stardom led him to forever search for his childhood. Recalling the moment she learned that he had died, Madonna said, "All I could think about in that moment was I had abandoned him. That we had abandoned him. That we had let this magnificent creature who had once set the world on fire slip through the cracks. Most of us had turned our backs on him. ... There will never be anyone like him again. He was a king."
Madonna added, "There's a whole lot of crotch-grabbing and Moonwalking going on in my house," revealing her two songs are huge MJ fans. She ended with a statement that roused the crowd into a standing ovation: "Long live the King!" (Read Madonna's full speech here.)
Though she didn't dance tonight, Madonna has always been at home in the VMAs' spotlight. She set the bar high at the show's inaugural event in 1984, writhing around in a sexified wedding gown to "Like a Virgin" in a performance that had the crowd literally gasping in shock, her longtime publicist Liz Rosenberg recalled to Rolling Stone. "Madonna took it so much further than anyone knew she was capable of," Rosenberg said. "Some people thought she was the greatest thing ever, and other people thought she was disgusting."
Her second most-talked-about performance came in 2003, when she broke out "Virgin" once again with pop princesses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, famously kissing them both before Missy Elliott took the stage and joined the trio for "Hollywood."
In 1998, she performed a "Shanti/Ray of Light" medley that featured a Lenny Kravitz guitar solo and won Video of the Year for the song's clip (she took home six Moonmen that year, for "Ray of Light" and "Frozen"). Six years earlier, she opened the show with "Bye Bye Baby" and nabbed two trophies for "Rain." In 1990, she did "Vogue" in full Marie Antoniette regalia (powered wig, giant fan, huge corsets) and in 1989 she did her share of crotch grabbing during "Express Yourself." In 1987, the year she scored a win for "Papa Don't Preach," she performed "Causing a Commotion" live via satellite.
Madonna's connection to Jackson runs deep. Both artists were quick to recognize the power of music videos and produced some of the most thought-provoking, tightly choreographed clips of all time. When Madonna performed at London's O2 arena the week following Jackson's death, one of her dancers dressed like the King of Pop and performed his signature dance moves to a medley of "Billie Jean" and "Wanna Be Startin' Something." "Let's give it up to one of the greatest artists the world has ever known," Madonna told the crowd. "Michael Jackson. Long Live the King!"