Awards

With Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, MTV Learns Risks of Naming an Award After a Celebrity: Analysis

Michael Jackson
Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

Michael Jackson performs on the 1995 MTV Video Music awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sept. 8, 1995.

As a general rule, it's not a good idea to name an award after a celebrity. Celebrities can get into trouble. Or they can simply fall out of fashion.

When MTV named its Video Vanguard Award -- which it first presented at its first show in 1984 -- in honor of Michael Jackson in 1991, it seemed like a perfectly good idea. Jackson may well be the most important artist in the development of music videos into an art form. His 1983 video for "Thriller" was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2009, the year of his death.

But Jackson's name has carried baggage since he was first accused of inappropriate contact with children in 1993. That baggage became even heavier in March when HBO aired the documentary Leaving Neverland, in which two men charged that Jackson sexually assaulted them when they were boys.

MTV has officially kept Jackson's name on the award. On Aug. 12, it announced that Missy Elliott was this year's recipient of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. But on the VMAs on Aug. 26, Jackson's name wasn't mentioned once -- except by Elliott in her remarks giving thanks for receiving the award. In a post-show press release in which it listed the winners, MTV again referred to the award as the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.

So the network is keeping Jackson's name on the award in press releases, but on the show it's referred to simply as the Vanguard Award -- unless the recipient chooses to invoke Jackson's name.

Jackson and MTV are like a separated couple that aren't officially divorced but clearly aren't together anymore either.

MTV declined to comment for this story.

I don't blame MTV for trying to duck the questions. MTV can't win in this situation. If it strips Jackson's name from the award, it can be accused of caving into pressure and dishonoring an artist who, for the record, was found not guilty the only time similar charges against him were adjudicated in a courtroom.

If it keeps Jackson's name on the award, it can be accused of insensitivity to those who finally summoned the courage to tell their stories. We're living in a #metoo era, where we as a society tend to believe accusers, especially when there are multiple accusers and their stories seem credible.

Jackson won the Video Vanguard Award in 1988. The award was named in his honor three years later. Even so, there have been a few years since then when the award was not presented with his name attached. The award was designated a lifetime achievement award in 1994, when it went to The Rolling Stones, and in 2003, when it went to Duran Duran.

In 1992, the award went to Guns N' Roses. Frontman Axl Rose concluded his acceptance speech by saying, "And, oh yeah, this has nothing to do with Michael Jackson. Thank you."

This isn't the first time that a music awards show has named a top award in honor of a big star and later taken that artist's name off the award. The Recording Academy introduced a lifetime achievement award in 1962, naming it the Bing Crosby Award in honor of the singer who was the biggest music star of the '30s and '40s. Crosby died in 1977. Five years later, the Academy quietly changed the name of the award to the lifetime achievement award.

Crosby was an important and groundbreaking artist in his time. He ushered in a more conversational singing style, which influenced such successors as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. But in the last decade or two of his life, he had a square image as an old-fashioned crooner. It was a limiting image for an award that was designed to go to a broad range of artists -- and indeed has gone to everyone from James Brown to The Ramones. It wouldn't have made a lot of sense to give either of those artists "the Bing Crosby Award," hence the name change.

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The Golden Globes named its top honorary award after famed filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. This year, the Globes added an equivalent lifetime achievement award for television stars, which it is naming after Carol Burnett (who was the first recipient in January).

Burnett, 86, is unlikely to be involved in a scandal. And her legacy as a beloved TV legend seems secure. But as a general rule, it's not a good idea to name an award after a celebrity. Celebrities can get into trouble. They can say or do awful things. Or they can simply fall out of fashion. You can give awards to celebrities, but it's not a good idea to hitch your fortunes to theirs.

MTV Video Music Awards