Return of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award
On August 28, 2011, at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, the words Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award were once again heard at MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMA’s) show. Awarded to Britney Spears in recognition of her long and at times distressed tenure in the music industry, in her acceptance speech Britney immediately said that the award meant so much to her because it was, “the night before Michael Jackson’s birthday.” It was a short but sweet speech.
At the time of posting this, a Google search for ‘MTV Announces Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award‘ did not produce any results about MTV specifically explaining their reasons for the re-dedication of the award. It would appear MTV didn’t announce it in advance but let Lady Gaga announce it in real time. What a Google search does bring up is nearly 5,000 articles (containing in various combinations) the words “Britney Spears is presented with Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.”That’s huge, for a number of reasons.
While there have been years of tension between Jackson fans and MTV – heightened by the ‘Artist of the Millennium’ debacle in 2002 – regarding the lack of awards being given out as MJVVAs and the fact that it was allowed to fall into disuse; the decision by MTV to present Spears with the now restored award is an important and welcome one.
MTV has, of course, known for a while about the fan campaign for restoration, and it’s possible Spear’s award was a response by MTV to that campaign. However, as yet, MTV have not said anything officially about the reinstatement. It is likely music industry insiders knew this was coming and most certainly Gaga’s handlers did, but clearly MTV wanted this decision to come across as a spontaneous and generous one. There have been suggestions that MTV had already planned to restore and re-dedicate the Video Vanguard Award back to Michael Jackson in the wake of his death in 2009 and were simply waiting for the right artist to give it to. But that of course only underlines the fact that it needed restoring in the first place.
This article is a look at what some of the reasons for this reinstatement are and why the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award was so effectively ‘phased out’ to begin with. These questions are perhaps better understood if we accept that in relation to the music industry (and others) the whole concept of award shows, competitions, Hall of Fames’ and accolades, are used to generate media and promote an organization’s profile, which in turn attracts advertizers and sponsors. To all intents and purposes then, award shows are media. Looking at the relationship between MTV and MJ from this perspective, it is likely that the reasons for the decline of the MJVVA and its de facto ‘taking away’ – reflects aspects of the media treatment directed at Michael Jackson as a whole.
MTV, as well as the entire music industry, could not have failed to notice the massive resurgence in sales, nostalgia and worldwide remembrance of Michael that followed news of his death in 2009. The fortunes of the Estate reported in detail whenever it releases an interim statement reflect the fact that in death – as far as the commercial world is concerned – the brand ‘Michael Jackson’ is a highly lucrative one. MTV are undoubtedly aware of this, and a conscious desire to be part of that reflected ‘shine’ is more than likely a very big part of their decision to re-hitch their name and brand to Michael Jackson’s. Even without an accompanying official explanation MTV’s decision is very much a public statement, and no multi-corporation makes a public statement without thinking very carefully about the PR effect and benefits they think it will have.
The VMA’s are the video component to parent organization MTV, the huge cable channel once dedicated to the rotation of music television — latterly home of reality shows. Three years after MTV’s first broadcast on August 1, 1981, at 12:01 am, announcing its birth with the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” over footage of the first Space Shuttle launch countdown – MTV proceeded to do just that. Playing virtually back to back rock and roll and over 98% White artists, until Michael Jackson came along and changed everything.
MTV launched the VMA’s in September 1984 from New York City’s Radio Music Hall. Madonna’s highly sexualized routine performing ‘Like A Virgin’ at the 1984 ceremony kicked off the reputation VMA would earn for itself as the badly behaved, younger brother to the music industrys’ touchstone and serious awards show – the Grammys.
Fast forward to 1989 when comedian Andrew Dice Clay was banned for life after reciting obscene nursery rhymes during a skit, the media lost its mind simply because Michael Jackson kissed his, then wife Lisa Marie Presley in 1994; Lil’ Kim’s 1999 precursor to Janet’s Superbowl nightmare; Eminem’s violent incident with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog in 2002; Britney, Madonna and Christina’s Aguilera’s lip lock in 2003; and of course Kayne West’s stage invasion in 2009 – and the general consensus is that if you were to ask a typical kid which music award show they were most likely to watch out of any; it would be the VMAs.
And it is for this reason why this return to prominence for the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award is so stunning. The positive re-framing of the name Michael Jackson in mainstream media, culture and the emerging generation, is a crucial part of the journey to America and the world finally understanding who Michael Jackson was – and what he wasn’t. The truism ‘perception is everything,’ reflects the reality that what we as human beings and a collective culture are told and shown are images for success and affirmation, we will accept as such. In our image-dominated western culture, the role that validators like awards, titles, competition wins and peer accolades can, and do, play in changing perceptions – particularly negative ones – cannot be underestimated.
The effects of agenda’d media and the powerful ability it had – and has, on influencing and reinforcing opinions and conclusions about not only Michael, but also his art, finances, children, family, and fans – are self-evident. Likewise, the beneficial effects generated by congratulatory, feel-good media are just as persuasive. One only has to look at the value Jackson placed on visual art to know how vital a part of his creativity he considered it, in enabling him to connect with his existing fans and new ones.
Whether we’re talking 1984 Pepsi campaigns, MJ’s short films, DVDs or epic concert tours; inaugurations or the New York Times coverage of the Iraq War; TV ads for political candidates and camel lights sponsorship of a new Bollywood movie; Twilight spoilers or the Kardashians reality show – the results are the same. A powerful enough visual presence in mainstream media directly translates into recognition, brand loyalty or rejection (depending on the desired effect), profile raising and power. Here’s an example:
From 1967 to today, there has been a marked and mostly steady upward climb in the costs of advert slots at the Superbowl event in the US. In 1995, during ABC’s broadcast of SuperBowl XX1V, advertisers were willing to pay more than roughly $1 million to secure three 30 second slots. This rose to $2 million in 2000, before shooting up to $3 million in 2010. While some of this is inflationary the main reason for these, frankly, astonishing prices is the draw of the audience. Corporations part with these kind of sums because they understand the power of what visual imagery –especially big, showy imagery – can do. They know the power it has to impact the minds and behaviors of consumers in such a way that benefits and enriches them.
From this point on, whatever else is happening, every August/September an audience of billions and that all important next generation will hear Michael Jackson’s name just before someone famous walks up to a stage and beams ecstatically at them through a TV or iphone screen. That audience will subconsciously understand that to mean one associative thing: Michael Jackson = happiness.
Could it really be that simple? Does it really mean that much? Isn’t this all just a huge over-simplification? Well, yes and no. Of course for the die-hards who don’t like Michael Jackson and/or those who just don’t care about the VMA’s or MTV, the return of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award into popular usage won’t mean much. But to the media –even if the big story was Gaga’s near-kiss with Britney and Beyonce’s bump – this ‘wind change’ for Michael will not have gone unnoticed. Because to ordinary people, the millions of us who do pay attention to to contemporary culture events; Michael Jackson was also a winner at this year’s VMAs.
For days after the VMAs, media outlets were bestowing glowing adjectives on Britney’s rejuvenated welcome back by her peers, in comparison to her awkward appearance at the 2007 VMAs when she performed a less than buoyant rendition of ‘Gimme More‘ to a clearly embarrassed audience. But what is also true is this: nearly every press article or TV report also had to mention Michael Jackson in a positive, non-snarky way, simply because of the undeniable ‘success association’ the event and the award carried. Though for the purposes of Michael’s vindication in the context of mainstream culture, the importance of the return of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award isn’t about Britney; the fact that the name Michael Jackson is growing in momentum as an generally accepted positive and the ultimate in peer and industry recognition for an artist, is a tremendous step forward in the reclaiming of his name from negative attachments. As a globally reported event, the reinstatement of this award is a massive symbolic acknowledgment of what MJ did for MTV – and beyond that, America and the world.
MTV owes a great deal to Michael Jackson. Upon its launch, MTV had to sell the idea of itself as a benefit to record sales to record companies, many of whom including Polygram, RCA, MCA weren’t convinced that MTV could help them promote their artists. Famously, Joan Bullard, Vice President for Press and Artist Development said, “We’re just not convinced video sells records.” Executives at the New York HQ of MTV – 75 Rockefeller Plaza, lobbied hard with record company executives and the media to present themselves as the answer to a general slump in record sales. In the early days MTV regularly placed self-promotional ads about itself in industry publications. One such ad in the September 11, 1982, issue of Billboard contained a sampling of quotes from retailers:
“These innovative groups are up 15% to 20% because of MTV”
“Our business is up for the summer by about 20% over last year”
“it seems to spur sales of obscure groups and it helps because radio won’t play new artists.”
Parent company of MTV – Warner Amex Cable Communication Operation was experiencing severe problems with its financial backers at the beginning of the 80s and subscriber figures to MTV were fickle. Record companies complained about the low rates MTV were willing to pay to air videos and resisted MTVs’ efforts to paint itself as the bright, new future for the recording industry. The first year’s revenue for MTV was $ 515,000, operating losses were at $ 10.8 million. By 1982, the company was in the red, it needed to entice not only subscribers and cable operators but advertisers just to stay afloat.
Back in the ‘80s music videos were not considered an art form in themselves, more an afterthought to the record. Budgets for these were largely what was left over after radio promotion ‘plugging’ and tour budgets were subtracted. Today’s $ million plus budgets and the view that videos are an imaginative, visual extension of the song, that can ‘break’ that song more effectively than radio can – were still at least a decade away. Some record companies didn’t even have video departments. Radio was king.
Early playlists included virtually no Black artists. Instead MTV focused on mainstream rock acts such as Dire Staits, U2, The Rolling Stones, Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Pat Benatar, David Bowie, The Who, Adam Ant, ZZ Top, Men At Work, The Beatles, Culture Club, Van Halen, Journey, John Mellencamp, The Police, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, super group, David Lee Roth, Eurythmics and Robert Plant – among others. The few Black artists that were included were Eddy Grant, Tina Turner and Donna Summer, Joan Arma-Trading, Musical Youth and Jon Butcher Axis and LA Black rockers, The Bus Boys. Motown’s big name acts like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Rick James weren’t getting a look-in at MTV and people were starting to notice.
Bob Pittman, executive at MTV at the time, in response to growing questions as to why MTV wasn’t playing a proportionate amount of Black artists said: “It’s not a color barrier – it’s a music barrier.”
In 1983, Rick James and MTV went head to head when the network refused to play his hit “Super Freak.” Furious, James went public. Calling for MTV to start adding Black artists to its rotation lists, James declared MTV’s decision not play his record or the feature Black artists to any sizeable degree, “blatant racism.”
At the time, James said. “A lot of Black asses are going to come together and explode on MTV. There are no Blacks on MTV’s program list except for Tina Turner, and she stopped being Black about 10 years ago. MTV puts on little white punk groups who don’t even have record deals. Blacks are missing exposure and sales.”
Responding to the row, Les Garland, co-founder and originator of MTV, VH1 and The Box said: “There was a shortage of Black videos by urban artists. The success of this AOR (album oriented rock) format in radio certainly had its influence on MTV. But, there were no music videos. They weren’t being made. We had nothing to pick from.”
Garland insisted the reason “Super Freak” wasn’t played was because, “It’s contents [were] a little over the top, and our standard and practices wouldn’t go for it because of the content of the visuals. It had nothing to do with the song. It had nothing to do with him [James]. It was a little over the top for us … then he went on that tirade.”
Buzz Brindle, MTV’s then director of music programming, said of the James issue and accusations of a color barrier: “The point I always made was that MTV was originally designed to be a rock music channel. It was difficult for MTV to find African-American artists whose music fit the channel’s format that leaned towards rock at the outset.”
Many disagreed with these statements by MTV. Among them, Ed Lover, former co-host of ‘Yo! MTV Raps,’ the first nationally broadcast hip-hop show commissioned by MTV in 1988, told Jet Magazine “The name of your station music television not rock music station. If you [MTV] had come out with a station called RMTV … then you could make that claim. But if you’re saying music, music is music, show all music videos.”
David Bowie also spoke up. In 1983, when interviewed by MTV in a program about his work, Bowie asked, ” Why are there practically no Black artists on the network?” Mark Goodman, the VJ interviewing Bowie was left struggling over dead air for words.
Rick James wasn’t the only Black artist who struggled with MTV. Michael Jackson was also encountering resistance. Thriller, however, was about to change that. From the very first week of its highly anticipated release on November 30, 1982, sales averaged at around 1 million copies per week. This was unprecedented. The quality of the record and the public demand for it, together with the highly vocal pressure mounted by Walter Yetnikoff – the, then, head of CBS/Epic records – and Quincy Jones, proved too mighty for MTV. The Rick James row was also a factor.
It’s likely MTV didn’t want to be drawn into another public battle with race as the issue. Forced into a position it couldn’t justify to its shareholders, subscribers or advertisers, MTV gave in. Turning down the videos of an album that was selling the way Thriller was made no sense. The walls of MTV had finally been breached by a Black artist playing music not specifically designed for one racial demographic. In the process, Michael Jackson revolutionized programming at MTV, sending a powerful defiant message to the silent segregation that operated throughout the entire industry
The first release from Thriller was ‘The girl is mine,’ a duet co-written with Paul McCartney. The second release in January 3, 1983 was “Bille Jean.’ When CBS/Epic Records submitted “Bille Jean” for play on MTV they refused to play it. Yetnikoff, in his autobiography “Howling at the Moon” wrote, “I screamed bloody murder when MTV refused to air his videos. They argued that their format, white rock, excluded Michael’s music. I argued that they were racist jerks — and I’d trumpet it to the world if they didn’t relent … with added pressure from Quincy Jones, they caved in, and in so doing the color line came crashing down.” Yetnikoff is also said to have threatened to pull the videos of other artists at CBS if MTV refused to play “Billie Jean.”
None of this is the way MTV executives at the time remember it. Les Garland, the MTV executive who finally made the decision to air “Billie Jean” said years later, “There was never any hesitation. No fret. I called Bob [Pittman] to tell him, ‘I just saw the greatest video I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s off the dial it’s so good.’ We added it that day. How (the myth) turned into a story literally blew our minds.”
MTV started heavy rotation of “Billie Jean” in March 1983. While it was still top of the American charts, “Beat It” – the short film Jackson paid for himself – was released as single on February 14, 1983. MTV picked up the video enjoying increased traffic almost immediately. The long relationship with MTV was born. Things got even more epic when the following year, January 23, 1984, Thriller was released as single. Of course, by now there was no hesitation from MTV to air the 14 minute short film. Michael Jackson was now a global star with Thriller exceeding all expectations. The first short film of that length ever made, MTV announced its premiere with built anticipation and pomp then watched ratings blow its roof off. MTV would continue this style of announcing MJ’s short films from that point on.
“For the first time in the history of MTV, we spotted big time rating spikes,” Garland said, “we were averaging back in those days like a 24 hour rating of 1.2, but every time we would play Thriller, we’d jump up to an 8 or 10. We learned a lot about programming.”
Davey D, host of San Francisco’s KPFA 94.1 Hard Knock Radio and hip hop/political columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, said at the time. “The music industry was suffering, [Michael] came along and pretty much saved it and took the level of video production to a whole other height and changed the game. So MTV owes a lot to Black artists and the type of attention that they drew to the channel.”
Michael’s short films were not just technical videos. He conceived and considered them part of his art, part of a vision. Employing directors he admired; everything from the set design, make-up, production crew, editing, costume and choreography – was planned and executed with masterful precision and attention. MJ turned what was previously thought of as just a business device – into an event . He brought art to the making of videos insisting his were called short films, a reflection of the time and energy he put into them.
From 1983 onwards, the goalposts shifted irrevocably at MTV. And in 1984, after Thriller’s release the context at the time was across-the-board industry validation of Jackson’s ascendancy. Having already won a multitude of awards for Off The Wall, Thriller’s dominance of the market unleashed the full force of Michaelmania in America. Across the entire range of award shows in 1984 Michael Jackson was winning big, notably at the prestigious American Music Awards, Billboard Awards and, of course, at the Grammy’s on February 28, 1984.
But it was in1984 that Michael received his first MTV Video Award for his short films. Receiving three MTV Video awards in September 1984 for Best Overall Performance, Best Choreography and the Viewer’s Choice award, one in 1989, and three MTV Video awards in 1995 – all for Scream. It was in 1988 Michael received the MTV Video Vanguard Award. At the time presented as the MTV Video Vanguard Award of the Decade, Michael also won the MTV Video Vanguard Award in 1989 for Thriller, although at the time the name was changed to “The Greatest Video in the History of the World.”
The media attacks that had been gnawing at Michael with increasing maliciousness gathered pace after Thriller. The PR backlash from the media, rival promoters and some ticket buyers over the Victory Tour began to bite in earnest from 1984 onwards. As can be seen in the 1984 interview with Ebony’s Robert Johnson, the media’s determination to portray MJ as a crazy, vain, race-denying oddity – was in full swing. The media, doing what they do best, were accelerating the process of turning their ‘boy wonder’ into an object of barely concealed derision.
The American public, however, were still captivated by MJ. And to the music industry, Michael Jackson was a highly bankable star, pushing out great albums and still reflecting ‘star power’ on any award show that he attended and was connected with. By the time the ’90s rolled around, MTV, then a massively influential network continued to showed its support as it geared up to promote the 1991 Dangerous album on heavy rotation. Behind-the scenes industry buzz about Jackson ‘billion dollar’ new record deal with Epic – in fact closer to $ 65,000,000 – and imminent album release meant the timing of the re-naming of the MTV Video Vanguard Award couldn’t be better for MTV to muscle in and claim a piece of the Michael Jackson magic for themselves.
Up until 1991, the now newly restored Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award was known as either the MTV Video Vanguard Award or its other name, Lifetime Achievement Award. The award is given to musicians at the VMA’s that MTV considers to have had a profound effect on music video in terms of influence, invention, concept-defining style and a whole range of other criteria. It was a PR move for MTV and a demonstration of the mutually beneficial relationship between them and MJ. It was good business and it worked. The renaming generated media and Jackson’s honoring brought hype and ratings for MTV. Everybody wins.
In 1991, the renaming of the MTV vanguards to Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award – an award stands apart from the other categories – was an unequivocal reflection of the position Michael Jackson occupied in the industry. The 1993 Grammy Legend Award was still 2 years away, so in effect, MTV, by changing the name of the highest award they could give, intuitively picked up the mood of the industry faster than the more sedate Grammy’s.
In 1992 when Guns and Roses were given the Vanguard, it was presented as the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. See here also. This is where a curious and very clear discrepancy reveals itself. MTV claim the first time the MJVVA was awarded was in 2001 to U2. But it wasn’t. And a visit to the Guns and Roses page on Wikipedia and on the Wikipedia page for the MTV Video Vanguard Awards themselves, the entry for Guns and Roses is NOT referred to as the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award:
|1992||Guns N’ Roses||Video Vanguard Award||
This rather obvious revisionism by MTV cannot simply be dismissed as a typo or oversight on Wikipedia’s part because MTV themselves claim the first time the MJVVA was given out was in 2001. While the reliability of some Wikipedia pages can certainly be questioned, those that relate to artists and topics that are visited often and updated by the companies/ corporations/educational bodies/PR agencies etc, that do that updating, tend to very accurate.
So this discrepancy is revealing. It shows that at some point in time, even though they didn’t declare it, MTV did make a decision to intentionally phase out the usage of Michael Jackson’s name in relation to the Vanguard award and used the same techniques media has been using to rewrite history and facts about Jackson for over two decades. Simply put: They changed the event by changing the words. By erasing what actually happened in the visible records online and in articles, and by staying silent about when they made these changes – MTV effectively changed reality.
An illustration of how keenly MTV (or Wikipedia adding the information MTV send to them) monitors their MTV Vanguard Awards page at Wikipedia; is that less than 24 hours after the VMA’s aired it was updated with Spear’s win alongside a mention of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. It no longer does that. However, a new heading at the top of the page stating that the MTV Vanguards are now known as the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award or Lifetime Achievement Award has now been added.
No vanguards were given out at the VMA’s in 1993. The year Michael was falsely accused, Pepsi very publicly withdrew their sponsorship and the full force of the media that had been escalating in viciousness towards MJ since the late 70’s/early 80s would now peak (pre 2003/5) in inflated sensationalism. MTV, like everyone else in America, watching to see how the scandal played out, decided to hedge their bets and see whether Michael made it through the firestorm unscathed. To MTV, by not presenting a Vanguard award at all meant they didn’t have to publicly endorse a now ‘tainted’ star. But likewise they didn’t want to burn their bridges and publicly de-honor MJ either. After all, business is business.
In 1994 as the dust settled on a horrific year for Michael, his movie plans in tatters and a significant proportion of the public now readily believing the still continuing barrage of openly suspicious media coverage that followed the settlement and his marriage in May 1994 to Lisa-Marie Presley. Post 1993, the context Michael was now forced to exist in was a very different one. The album HIStory still in the production/writing stage, Michael didn’t win any major awards that year, although he did win the MTV Best Song in a Movie Award at the 1994 MTV Movie Awards for “Will You Be There.” MTV were more than happy however to exploit the ratings draw an appearance by the newly-weds and that famous kiss brought to that year’s VMAs. As can be seen here, MTV haven’t yet got around to erasing the horrendous reference to that kiss in the article displayed at that link. The Vanguard that year was given to The Rolling Stones as the Lifetime Achievement Award and called that at the time. Was this a recognition that The Rolling Stones as a long standing, decades old band deserved to be presented with an award that wasn’t dedicated to another artist – or did it reflect MTV awareness of the new climate that surrounded the name Michael Jackson? Possibly – and possibly not.
When Taj Jackson,son of Tito Jackson tweeted this message:
“It’s hard to watch the VMAs because every time I watch it, I think about 3T being there. No one rocked the VMA’s like my uncle Michael did. I am still upset at them for not mentioning his name on the Video Vanguard awards anymore. The lifetime award, they removed his name”
“I was there when MTV was on the phone begging my uncle Michael to make an appearance cause their ratings were down. Funny how easy they forget.”
“They didn’t mention his name the last 2x they gave it out. My comments were about MTV America. I think the MTVs overseas are way better, are they?”
to MTV (around September the 12th or 13th, 2010), MTV’s immediate response on twitter was:
“Hey MJ fans, we hear you loud & clear. I’m hearing we don’t do it every year, just when ppl deserve the recognition. Will look into it.”
MTV’s tweeted answer, while being careful not to directly refer to the true question expressed in Taj’s tweets, was implicitly suggesting the whole manner of how the Vanguards were given was a somehow loose and discretionary one, with only a hint that MTV acknowledged Michael Jackson’s vanguard dedication had been silently revoked since 1993. In short, ‘media speak.’
I should say at this point that the intention of this post is not to diminish the effect of the restoration. The value and power of the reinstatement of Michael’s name to the Vanguards is irrefutably positive and a real acknowledgment by MTV. But since this site is concerned with exposing and keeping an accurate record of the falsity of the accusations, media distortions and legal manipulations Thomas Sneddon (and others) engaged in; I feel it’s important to see how those distortions and manipulations ‘played out’ in the way Michael was treated by MTV and how that treatment was directly indexed to the media context and timeline of the legal challenges Michael faced.
In 1995 MJ won 3 MTV Video Awards opening the VMA’s with a timeless performance that recently won the Most Iconic VMA Perfomance and Best VMA Pop Performance categories in MTV’s 2011 poll. At the awards, this time the shades stayed on. Still embattled and under no illusions about the new landscape he occupied, it was a very different Michael Jackson that accepted the awards he was given that night. REM were the Vanguard recipients that night but all media references to their win indicate the award was presented to them as a MTV Video Vanguard Award .
In 1996 no vanguards were given out. But in 1997, MTV’s and the media’s revisionism can be seen in full effect again when US rapper, L.L Cool J won that vanguard that year. Bearing in mind MTV maintain the first presentation of the MJVVA was in 2001, how strange then to see that award referred to in a Black media site as the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, yet at a VH1 media site which is an channel parented by MTV, it’s simply called the MTV Video Vanguard Award. Wikipedia follows suit.
In 1998, a successfully completed worldwide HIStory tour, marriage to and children with Debbie Rowe combined to dim the memory of 1993 in the public’s consciousness. Despite the media’s industry wide targeting of Michael, especially now he had children, consumers were still responding well to HIStory sales around the world. To some, the perception was that MJ was on the way to a nearly full recovery from the turbulence of past years, but apparently MTV didn’t agree. At the 1988 VMA’s, The Beastie Boys vanguard award was presented as the MTV Video Vanguard Award, yet was confusingly referred to by some media at the time as the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, and others as the MTV Video Vanguard Award.
In 2001, with Invincible slated for an October release, well documented tensions between Sony and MJ concerning the structure of recoupment rates in Michael’s recording contract, reversion dates for the licenses of masters, attorney conflict of interest, and the fact that Sony’s ongoing negotiations to buy Michael’s music catalogue represented the potential for ‘unofficial’ sabotage of the Invincible campaign – were building behind boardroom doors. Insider rumors in the industry at the time about the amount of money being thrown at the album led to impressions that somehow this was some sort of ‘make or break’ album for MJ. However, as far as the public and the fans were concerned there was plenty to look forward to. Promotion by CBS for the highly anticipated two-concert Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Celebrations at Madison Square Gardens, [abbrev] “The Solo Years,” sold out in 5 hours. Hype around Michael Jackson was high. The VMA’s were held one day before the first of those concerts (the first scheduled for September 7th, the second, on the 10th.)
MTV, keenly aware of the hype surrounding Michael chose that year to feature a collaborative performance with MJ and various artists at the VMA’s that year and award the recipients of the 2001 Vanguard – U2, with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. This direct correlation between the expectant media momentum surrounding Michael at the time and MTV’s decision speaks volumes. It also provides a revealing perspective on what the motivations of big corporations are. A reminder that their primary, if not only, consideration in decision making is always – the bottom line.
2002’s infamous facepalm was a PR nightmare for Michael. Acutely differing interpretations of what took place can be nutshelled as this. To hear MTV tell it, it was all just a simple mistake. That year the VMA’s fell, just like 2011’s, on MJ’s birthday( then, 44th). At some point in the event Michael walked onstage to a surely unwitting Britney, who promptly presented him with a styrofoam cake-shaped trophy and said that “in her eyes” MJ was the “artist of the millennium.” Michael then spoke for quite some time thanking various people in his life.
MTV’s version was that there was no artist of the Millennium award and Michael had got confused. The other version, one perhaps rooted on planet Terra, is skeptical that MJ travelled all the way down to Radio City Hall in New York City – with a cold – to hear a roomful of music executives and celebrities wish him happy birthday. MTV denied any subterfuge, But the idea that MTV thought nothing of exploiting an appearance by Michael as an opportunity to essentially ‘punk’ him is less unlikely when one considers what was happening at the time.
Reasons for MTV’s treatment of Michael at the 2002 VMA’s were more than likely to have been part of the generally contemptuous reception by the mainstream media (with the exception of the Black press) and talk show pundits, to MJ’s very public falling out with Sony and his comments about Tommy Mottola in July 2002. The de facto non-promotion by Sony of the 2001 Invincible album was the talk of the music industry and the media, especially considering the approximately $ 30,000,000 + invested in it. MTV, historically, has extremely close ties to the recording industry since it is dependent on that industry for product and artist tie-ins.
Van Toffler, President of MTV and MTV2 from 2000-2004, before becoming President of MTV Networks music/film/Logo group (MTVN), knew Mottola very well and even commissioned Mottola as executive producer on one of MTV’s reality shows at the time ‘Mr Rooney’s Barber Shop.’ Toffler was not the only MTV executive Mottola knew. Reported dining with MTV chairman Tom Freston in 2003, it’s clear that friendly and useful relationships were, and are, cultivated between high level executives in a symbiotic relationship like MTV and a record company. While the fans backed MJ in the schism with Sony in 2001, most music industry executives, in particular most White music industry executives, firmly sided with Sony when the accusations of racism were levelled at Mottola.
2003 explains itself. Media was virtually hyperventilating over the false accusations being made by the Arvisos and the release of Jordan Chandler’s 1993 declaration, not a deposition as declared by the media on the Smoking Gun website. Storm clouds were at Mach 9. Michael was a no-show at the VMA’s. Recipients of the Vanguard Duran Duran walked away, predictably, with a MTV Video Vanguard Award. MTV was officially estranged from Michael Jackson.
2004 and 2005 were lost years for the Vanguards. The real life spectacle of a besieged, now indicted ‘fallen King of Pop’ was the 24/7 watercooler and media obsession of not only America but the world.
2006. In the aftermath of the internationally scrutinized farce that was the 2005 trial, despite the emphatic legal vindication of a 14 count acquittal, for Michael Jackson, nothing had changed. The irony that Hype Williams – the first Black Director to ever receive a MTV Video Vanguard Award and part of the generations of African-Americans that had grown up watching Michael Jackson short films and been inspired by them – could not now receive his award with that name attached to it because its bearer was effectively exiled; not lost on those who knew what meant.
In 2007 and ’08 no vanguards were awarded.
And so, 2009. A year to remember. A dance tribute to Michael and a defiant cameo from a still grieving Janet Jackson. An astonishing speech by Madonna in which she spoke of America’s “abandonment,” of someone who had given so much to his mother country, silenced a normally boisterous VMA audience. A moment of truth for a nation that should have been the ‘story’ the following day instead became a missed one when an agitated Kanye West decided he needed to be heard more than the truth did.
We arrive full circle. 2011, a point that marks exactly 20 years from when Michael Jackson was first honored by the renaming of MTV Video Vanguard Award by the very network he helped make what it once was. MTV have done the right thing at last and that’s great. No, it’s more than great, its tremendous. It’s a sign of where we all hope things are heading but also where we should always have been. The Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award has returned. One day, maybe the truth will too.