It may have been the biggest upset for video of the year in the history of the VMAs. At the sixth annual VMAs on Sept. 6, 1989, Neil Young‘s “This Note’s For You” beat out a starry field of nominees which also included Madonna, Michael Jackson, Steve Winwood and Fine Young Cannibals.
Young’s video, which was directed by Julien Temple, skewered artists who sold their songs and/or their personas to Madison Avenue. Many artists did that at the time, including Jackson and Madonna, who had lucrative deals with Pepsi, and Winwood, who had a deal with Michelob.
Young’s video included images of a Jackson lookalike whose hair catches fire, a spoof of a real-life incident in 1984 in which Jackson’s hair caught fire on the set of a Pepsi commercial. It also included a Whitney Houston lookalike, made to seem vapid, whose wig is yanked off.
The video was patterned after a series of Michelob ads of the era that featured contemporary rock artists such as Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Genesis. The title, “This Note’s For You,” was a take-off on Budweiser’s “This Bud’s For You” ad campaign.
MTV refused to play the video at first. “I must admit I feel awkward defending our decision because I happen to think it’s a fantastic video,” MTV/VH1 General Manager Lee Masters told the Los Angeles Times. MTV said its reason for not airing the video was fear of exposure to trademark infringement charges, as well as a corporate policy against airing videos with lyrics that mention brand names, but many thought the network was also afraid of alienating top stars. The ban made MTV, which fancied itself as being edgy and defiant, seem cowardly and calculating. MTV eventually reversed its decision.
Young’s song never reached the Billboard Hot 100. It’s one of only two times in VMA history that the video of the year winner was not the video representation of a Hot 100 single. Jamiroquai‘s “Virtual Insanity,” the 1997 winner, was likewise not linked to a Hot 100 single.
Young’s video of the year competitors achieved far greater success. Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Winwood’s “Roll With It” and Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” were all No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone,” a bonus track from the CD edition of his smash album, Bad, was never released as single in the U.S.
Young was on tour at the time of the VMAs, but he accepted the award live via satellite. The audio dropped out midway through his acceptance speech. The network insisted it was a technical snafu, but given all the controversy that had led to that moment, some were skeptical of that claim.
Madonna went on to win the VMA for video of the year nine years later for “Ray of Light,” but the other 1989 nominees never won the top prize. Jackson was a three-time runner-up in the category. Winwood lost twice. This was the only video of the year nom for Fine Young Cannibals.
Arsenio Hall hosted the sixth annual VMAs, which were held at the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A.