At the 1990 Video Music Awards ceremony, MTV awarded Janet Jackson a Video Vanguard Award—the network's highest honor. While the Vanguard is, for the most part, a recognition of career distinction in the production of music videos (duh), it occasionally doubles as MTV's "lifetime achievement" award. Mind you, in 1990, Janet Jackson's career highlights were Control in 1986 and then Rhythm Nation 1814 in 1989. At that point, she had yet to release her mid-career streak of janet., The Velvet Rope, and All for You—three of the most important albums of her career, which spawned many of the most important music videos of her career. So here's a singer who would go on to sell more than 14 million album units, on the strength of seven huge singles, between 1993 and 2004; yet MTV preempted Jackson's glorious '90s and early '00s by awarding her a Vanguard Award at a point in her career when, in fact, Janet Jackson was just getting started.
This year, MTV will award its Video Vanguard honor to Kanye West. As a musical auteur with almost 50 music videos and 12 years of solo releases to his credit, West is a relatively sensible honoree for an award that, otherwise, is historically inconsistent in its application and uncertain in its purpose. A week ago, SPIN published a deeply confused, self-sabotaging essay in which one of its writers argued that Kanye West, specifically, hasn't earned his Video Vanguard Award. Leaving the merits of that particular argument aside, I'm here to note that, upon closer inspection, the Vanguard Award is bullshit.
The mission statement of the Vanguard Award seems to change with every decade. In the YouTube clip above, which contains footage of 1990 VMAs, host Arsenio Hall says, "Every year, MTV singles out one artist whose outstanding contributions have earned him, or her, a lasting place in the history of video music [sic]," a description somewhat at odds with four of the six preceding years of Vanguard Award history, in which MTV honored several artists per ceremony.
At the first annual VMAs in 1984, MTV awarded its earliest Vanguards to three honorees: the Beatles and U.S. film director Richard Lester, for their collaborative pioneering of music videos as an artform; and David Bowie, for his acclaimed music video innovations of the 1970s. In the first couple years of Vanguard Awards history, MTV was memorializing the contributions of musicians and directors who'd left their full, definitive mark on their respective genres, and on pop culture in general.
MTV's track record of Vanguard honorees took a turn for the contemporary in 1989. At that year's ceremony, MTV awarded the Vanguard to George Michael just two years, and one album, into his solo career. In 1994, to further confuse matters, MTV awarded Vanguards to the Rolling Stones, as a lifetime achievement honor, and to Tom Petty, as a contemporary music video honor. At this point, the logic and qualifications of the Video Vanguard Award had completely unraveled.
For comparison's sake, let's examine the Grammys' track record of honorees for its Lifetime Achievement honor, which the Recording Academy has awarded since 1962. (After two decades of sporadic inclusion in the Grammys' program, the Lifetime Achievement Award became an annual honor in 1989; the Recording Academy honored nine performers that year.) In 1962, the Grammy's inaugural lifetime achievement honoree was Bing Crosby, whose singing career peaked in the 1940s. In 1990, when MTV honored Janet Jackson, the Grammys' equivalent honorees included Miles Davis, Paul McCartney, and Nat King Cole. And in 2015, the same year that MTV will host Kanye West as its Lifetime Achievement honoree, the Grammys honored the Bee Gees and George Harrison, and BET honored Smokey Robinson.
MTV's Vanguard Award isn't so much a bona fide lifetime achievement award as it is, at this point, a bargaining chip for a floundering network.
It seems that Kanye West is MTV's guest of honor not because his legacy is complete, but rather because the VMAs, ever keen to retain their youth and relevance, can't be outchea hosting KRS-One and Salt-N-Pepa as their keynote performers. Beyoncé, who won a Vanguard last year, and Kanye are huge, lucrative, exclusive artists, and they're unlikely to attend the VMAs unless the network gives them a reason and their own unique fanfare. MTV's Vanguard Award isn't so much a bona fide lifetime achievement award as it is, at this point, a bargaining chip for a floundering network.
Granted, the last five Vanguard Award-winners—Hype Williams, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, and Mr. West—do indeed have many masterful music videos to their credit. Never mind the prominent irony that MTV, of all networks, doesn't even replay these masterpieces anymore; it's nonetheless disappointing to see even the Grammys, of all ceremonies, offering a more coherent and agreeable assessment of musical innovation than MTV. The O.G. music video network ought to know better. Alternatively, the network could just admit that, at this point, the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award is MTV's prize for the year's most expensive hype.