Until Missy Elliott Wins the Video Vanguard Award, the VMAs Mean Nothing

The longer that Missy Elliott’s award shelf is not topped off by the Video Vanguard, the farther the award slips from its original meaning.

Patrick McMullan Archives
Patrick McMullan

There should be no need to write an impassioned call to arms explaining that there are few artists more deserving of MTV’s Video Vanguard Award than Missy Elliott. I know it. You know it. The American people know it. This overly meme’d GIF of Hillary Clinton furiously explaining basic truths more than certainly knows it. Elliott’s contributions to the art of the pop music video are simply collectively known and known deeply.

Known apparently to everyone but MTV and the producers of its yearly Video Music Awards as they have never seen fit to honor Missy with the show’s centerpiece award. Just today they announced that the recording artist Pink will be this year’s recipient, following in the footsteps of recent winners like Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Britney Spears and once again snubbing Elliott. Meant as no attack on Pink’s worthiness of the award (and, frankly, it’s been far too long since we’ve seen here dangling on ropes hung from an awards venue ceiling), but it seems more and more perplexing as each year goes by that Elliott has yet to get the shine she deserves.

Frankly, it’s starting to get to the point where unless Elliott receives the honor, the award and the rest of the ceremony threatens to become meaningless (even, yes we know, by cable awards show standards) .

Introduced in the Video Music Awards’ first year, the Vanguard award was meant to single out those who had recorded in that first year of 1984—David Bowie, The Beatles and their longtime director/collaborator Richard Lester were honored for pioneering music videos before they were industry standard. For the next three decades they were awarded semi-regularly to both artist and directors whose contributions were unimpeachable. In 1986, Madonna won alongside Polish director Zbigniew Rybczyński. In 1991, the award was renamed the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award in honor of the artist who almost single handily legitimized MTV as a network. It carried on this way through 2006, when Kanye West presented it to hip hop video director Hype Williams, and then the award disappeared for about half a decade only to be revived in 2011 for Britney Spears.

Since then it’s been awarded solely to performers, many of whom (Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake included) have given centerpiece performances during the broadcast. That’s often made for good television and you can make a case that all those performers deserve it, but it’s starting to seem like the award is becoming little more than a bargaining chip to guarantee big names show up and perform (especially if you believe that tea that Kanye West has spilled).

Elliott, then, represents someone who is not only more than deserving but who can restore legitimacy to that golden Moon Person.

Not only can everyone of a certain age instantly call to mind about ten distinct shots from Elliott videos at will, but those who remember the TRL era remember that any day a new Elliott video debuted the talk on the school bus the next day would put aside the eternal Backstreet Boys vs. KoRn wars and instead became discussions on each and every way Elliott’s video trickery had blown our minds. There’s no reason to go through, video by video, to prove her genius. As noted, it’s a known fact.

There is also the deeper matter that Elliott deserves the award for using the music video to blow into a mainstream that might otherwise have kept her in the background as a songwriter and producer. The music industry has never been kind to female rappers, and it always has a preference for that “girl next door” type and all the privileges that phrase calls to mind in any genre. Those same biases encourage those performers the industry deems marketable to put out videos that often rely on tired clichés.

That’s fine for Elliott who has never had much use for tired tropes anyway. While many artists have historically used music videos to refine the market tested personas they wished to broadcast to the public, Elliott used hers to reinforce that she’s an artist through-and-through, one you shouldn’t take your eye off for an instant, and was all the more compelling for it.

Especially at a time when MTV is calling attention to its signature award show’s new found “wokeness,” does it not make sense, now more than ever, to highlight Elliott and her achievements?

In any event, sure, let Pink do somersaults from the rafters this year. Just remember, MTV, the longer that Missy Elliott’s award shelf is not topped off by the Video Vanguard, the farther the award slips from its original meaning.

Related: FYF Fest 2017: Missy Elliott Had the Best Weekend Ever, Making Friends with Björk and Dancing with Beyoncé