The One Video Music Award Worth Caring About

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 22 2014 9:02 AM

The One Video Music Award Worth Caring About

177960356-justin-timberlake-poses-with-his-awards-at-the-2013-mtv
Justin Timberlake poses with his awards at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, including the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.

Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for MTV

It’s probably safe to say that no one cares about the awards that are actually handed out at the VMAs as much as Kanye West does—and certainly few of us outside the pop music industry care at all. Like the BET Awards, the VMAs are an excuse to corral the biggest pop stars of the moment inside one room and watch them provide career-defining performances and crazy, unexpected moments. The awards themselves are an afterthought. Do you remember who won the purported biggest award of the night, Video of the Year, 20 years ago? Do you care? (Aerosmith, for “Cryin’,” if you’re curious.)

But on Sunday, Beyoncé will join an exclusive club that includes David Byrne, Madonna, and Guns N’ Roses when she’s awarded the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award—the one VMA worth caring about. Sure, it’s not an EGOT, but it is kind of a big deal, and something that the entertainer should genuinely be proud of. In a ceremony full of forgettable, highly dubious awards, the Video Vanguard Award (sometimes referred to as the Lifetime Achievement Award) is the one VMA honor that MTV usually gets right—and that feels, even years later, at least a little bit momentous.

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The award is meant to celebrate “forerunners in the music video sphere,” and MTV is legitimately the definitive arbiter on such matters. And their track record with the Vanguard has reinforced their authority: The first recipients of the award, in 1984, were the Beatles and Richard Lester, for the trailblazing A Hard Day’s Night, and David Bowie, for his groundbreaking films from the late ’60s and ’70s. In the years that followed, a range of pop culture icons have received the award, among them Polish filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczyński, Janet Jackson, Peter Gabriel, and the Beastie Boys. (It helps that MTV is selective about handing out the honor: Five Vanguard-less years went by between 2006 and 2011.)

The Video Vanguard Award stands out among other career-based awards—like, say, the Academy Honorary Award—because it honors its recipients long before the end of their lives, while their work is still vital. Madonna and Michael Jackson won in 1986 and 1988, respectively, and while they had already become genuine innovators in the genre, some of their best and most iconic work was yet to come. The same can likely be said of Beyoncé: Even with 15 years of solid stardom behind her, she’s as culturally relevant as ever and shows no signs of slowing down.

Does MTV present the award just so otherwise-hard-to-get superstars will show up and perform? That’s probably a factor—last year’s ’N Sync reunion, for instance, might have hinged on MTV deciding to give Timberlake the honor. But that doesn’t really matter. MTV has still been judicious with their choices. And who doesn’t want to see yet another iconic VMA performance from Beyoncé? I’m sure Kanye West is interested. So am I.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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