What Is A 'Video Vanguard' & Is Beyoncé One?

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mtv_03Photo: REX USA/Amy Harris/Rex.
If you don’t acknowledge the past, you can stay, in a sense, “forever young,” right? (Cue Alphaville or Jay Z, depending on your generation.) It’s an approach that I personally often subscribe to, so I’m not one to knock it, and it is certainly a conceit that drives MTV. Particularly since the late '90s, the company, in all its global iterations, has been resolutely uninterested in looking backward, remaining a brand fixated on the Clean & Clear set. Remember MTV’s 30th anniversary blowout on August 1, '11? You don’t, because it never happened. If there is no past, the thinking goes, you’re forever in the moment. And, why celebrate the past anyway, which inconveniently reminds people that you were once a revolutionary music force, and you’re doing just fine, thank you very much, having pivoted to being the 21st Century home of teen moms, wolves, virgins, and catfish?

This lack of hindsight does, however, present problems when you hand out an award that requires the recipient to have some kind of history. Last week, MTV announced a solid choice for the 2014 Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award: she who will not be denied, Beyoncé. The VMAs have been around for 30 years now and in most of those years, the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award was given out. But, for significant chunks of the '90s and the majority of the '00s, it wasn’t. Were there no deserving recipients in those years? Or, were the only people who could legitimately lay claim to such an award just too, you know, old? We’ll never know.

That award, added to her already pack-leading eight nominations, may just build a gigantic Beyhive around the LA Forum on August 24. It figures to be a coronation on the order of last year’s VMAs, which handed over a quarter of an hour to fête the 2013 Video Vanguard honoree, Justin Timberlake. In fact, that tribute included an NSYNC reunion (blink-and-you-miss-it, though it may have been) so it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think a date with Destiny could be in the works this year.
mtv_01Photo: Courtesy of MTV.
Just what is a “video vanguard,” anyway? Since it’s MTV’s award, I’ll defer to its description, from mtv.com: “Over the course of MTV history, the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award has been presented to exemplary musicians who have made an incredible and long-lasting impact on pop culture.”

Now, that’s a bit broader and more vague than the prize’s name would suggest. You would think that a “video vanguard” would be one who made an impact specifically on music video, who was at the forefront of some aspect of it. And, indeed, there were times over the years when the award was given to truly notable artists (Duran Duran, Madonna, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, David Bowie) and even directors (Hype Williams, Russell Mulcahy, Mark Romanek) who consistently made the most of the medium.

The MTV site goes on to make a case for this year’s recipient by focusing on her undeniable talents as an artist and entertainer, as one whose “impact on pop culture” has been massive. But, I would argue that even if we look only at her contributions to music video, Bey is more than worthy. While she’s not been a game-changer, changing the game is not really Beyoncé’s talent — rather, it’s executing the game as reliably, flawlessly and seemingly effortlessly as possible, and at that she excels like few others.

Plus, you can count at least three reasons she belongs in any all-time music video pantheon: “Crazy In Love,” the exhilarating 2003 pop masterpiece with a Jake Nava-directed clip that offered fire, water, and served notice that entertainment’s power couple of our time was indeed a thing; the self-titled “visual album” of last December that offered a video for every track, three of which are nominated at this year’s VMAs; and the modern classic that is 2008’s “Single Ladies.” As simple as can be, yet with perfection in every frame, it is indelible, the second-most iconic black-and-white video in MTV history after “Vogue,” with the second-most imitated choreography, after “Thriller.”

So yeah, I’m giving this year’s Michael Jackson Video Vanguard choice an unqualified “A.” That’s not necessarily always been the case, however. Going backward, let’s consider some selected past winners, and whether in hindsight they really qualified as video “vanguards.”
2013 Justin Timberlake: B
Forget “triple-threat” — the man is a multiple threat, one of the most gifted all-around entertainers of his generation, and (apologies to George Michael and Robbie Williams) the single greatest post-boyband solo success story ever. His two-fer return to music in 2013 proved him to be more of an artistic and commercial powerhouse than ever. But, music videos? Not the area in which Justin has made the most significant impact. “Suit and Tie,” “SexyBack,” “Cry Me A River,” “Mirrors,” “Not a Bad Thing”? Not bad things at all...just not unforgettable things.
2011 Britney Spears: A-
Two years earlier, MTV honored the woman who inspired JT’s “Cry Me a River” for her own career contributions. This is a choice I can get more on board with. No artist of the so-called “TRL Generation” has a music video CV full of more iconic images. From the skirt (“…Baby One More Time”) to the sauna (“I’m a Slave 4 U”), the airplane (“Toxic”), the catsuit (“Oops!…I Did It Again”), and the chair (“Stronger”), the 2000’s offered one signature image after another from Britney Jean. Plus, Lady Gaga, was on hand to present this in her Jo Calderone drag — pretty damn awesome.
duran_01Photo: REX USA/Erik C Pendzich.
2003 Duran Duran: A-
Quick, close your eyes and imagine the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words “early days of MTV.” After maybe that rocket-launch top of the hour and Michael Jackson making the pavement light up in “Billie Jean,” it’s Simon LeBon and his mates sitting on a yacht off Antigua going on about a girl named Rio who “dances on the sand” — as classic a picture as that era ever offered. Duran Duran took to the nascent medium like Birmingham ducks to water, which is why it’s such a head-scratcher that it took MTV 30 years to recognize them as Video Vanguards.
2001 U2: B+
The biggest band of our time has never really needed music videos. Three decades of solid records, a couple of which (The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby) are among the most acclaimed albums of all time, and as a must-see bucket list live act, almost untouchable. So, as fine as many of their videos have been, they’ve generally taken a back seat, and often been more about the grand settings — the better to frame their ever-anthemic songs — than anything visually groundbreaking. When U2 took the stage to perform as Video Vanguard recipients at the 2001 VMAs (only five days before 9/11), a power outage at the Metropolitan Opera House caused the band’s riser to get stuck, as they were set to play — you got it — “Elevation.” Bono later joked that MTV “forgot to pay the electricity bill.”
1998 Beastie Boys: A
R.I.P. MCA, you good and prescient man. Sixteen years ago, when the Beasties accepted the Video Vanguard, the late Adam Yauch took to the podium to call on America to look to non-violent means of resolving conflicts, and decry “…the racism that comes from the United States towards the Muslim people and towards Arabic people,” calling on the U.S. to “start respecting people from the Middle East.” It’s 2014, Yauch is gone, but sadly Islamophobia and Middle East strife is alive and well. Happily, so is the Beastie Boys’ brilliant, decades-spanning collection of videos, including 3:45 worth of pure Spike Jonze genius known as “Sabotage.”
rem_01Photo: REX USA.
1995 R.E.M.: A-
Rock bands, for much of the early music video era, were loathe to make anything other than straight ahead, rather predictable “performance” videos. Enter R.E.M., the alt kings from Athens, who took a bolder and more progressive approach. They got in the video game early, but it wasn’t until the mid-'80s that people really took notice. Collaborations with such artists as Robert Longo (“The One I Love”), Jake Scott (“Everybody Hurts”), James Herbert (“It’s the End of the World as We Know It”), and Tarsem Singh (the 1991 VMA Video of the Year-winning “Losing My Religion”) created a stunning body of Vanguard-deserving work.
1992 Guns ‘N Roses: C
So, what I was saying about it long being de rigueur for rock bands, particularly those of the cock rockin’ variety — to stick mostly to performance videos — the better to reinforce their “real musician” credentials? A primo example would be the monsters of George H. W. Bush-era hard rock, G ‘n R. With a relatively short-lived heyday, there weren’t a ton of videos: “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was the most artfully done, in grainy black and white, in which Axl Rose never looked better; others, “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” “Patience” were largely interchangeable. When they did mix things up it was for the overblown, obscenely expensive “November Rain.” A year before G’nR won it, the Vanguard award had been renamed for the King of Pop, though the ever-classy Axl, in his acceptance declared, “This has nothing to do with Michael Jackson.”
1991 Bon Jovi & Wayne Isham: B
In giving them a B, I’m not hating on the kings of arena rock, nor their right-hand man Isham who at the time of this award had directed no less than seven of Jon Bon and the boys’ clips, cementing their place as the gold standard of singalong fist-pumping hair rock. It’s just that by the sixth or seventh swooping-camera-live-performance clip, they were hardly vanguards advancing the art form. Most of us can find a place in our hearts for “Livin’ on a Prayer,” but adventurous they’re not.
1988 Michael Jackson: A+
A generation’s worth of legendary videos. One of the most gifted performers of all time. And, this award, three years after he won it, would be named after him. ‘Nuff said.
1986 Madonna: A++
Only one artist is more significant than Michael Jackson in the history of music video, and with all props to the late great MJ, it’s not really even close. Consider the fact that this award was given a mere four years into Madonna’s storied career, before “Like a Prayer,” “Justify My Love,” before friggin’ “Vogue” and long before “Ray Of Light,” and “Music.” Bitch all you want about the fact that it’s 2014 and she’s not going anywhere, not stepping aside for anyone, still making money hand over fist, and is not interested in acting your idea of appropriately middle-aged. When it comes to music video, to being a “Video Vanguard,” respect must be paid to the woman who is in a class by herself.

There have been plenty of other worthy winners: Peter Gabriel and a little band called The Beatles among them, as well as musicians like Janet Jackson, George Michael and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who burned brightly in the video world but have since faded from prominence. And, to be sure, you can name those who deserve a Vanguard but are still empty-handed — artists including Beck, Björk, and Eminem (though the latter will surely get one at some point) — and directors like Chris Cunningham, Floria Sigismondi, and the aforementioned Spike Jonze. For now though, it’s a choice we can pretty much all agree on. Let’s give Beyoncé her MTV Video Vanguard 15 minutes. And, I mean, literally, it will probably be about 15 minutes.