Entertainment, History & Now, Music

The history of the Michael Jackson Vanguard Award

The strife is real.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Sep 2, 2022

You’d be hard pressed to find someone that doesn’t know the dance, let alone lyrics, to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Even my 5-year-old cousins in Cape Town, South Africa know the words and dance to this iconic single. The legendary video, shot by John Landis in 1983, was 13 minutes long and cost $500,000 to make (a record at the time). Not to mention the huge sets and makeup by Academy Award winner, Rick Baker, and music by Elmer Bernstein. The dance sequence where Jackson fakes being a zombie is one of the most imitated and parodied segments in pop culture.



The late artist is equally known for “Bad,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean.” You truly can’t go to any bar without hearing those songs. They are real classics. So it’s no wonder that in 1988, Michael Jackson received the Video Vanguard Award at the MTV Video Music Awards. In 1999, “Thriller” even got a place in the Guinness Book of World Records after selling 9 million copies. And in 1999, MTV ranked it the #1 greatest music video ever made.


Although Jackson still has big fans all over the world, did you know that in 2020, MTV silently took away Michael Jackson’s name from the award? David Bowie was the first to ever receive the Vanguard Award in 1984. So from the jump, it was never really MJ’s award, but a general award MTV wanted to dedicate to the artist. But 7 years later, the network renamed the award to honor Michael Jackson. The title was quickly removed after a long list of sexual allegations in 2019 in HBO’s Leaving Neverland documentary.


In 2022, the award itself still exists. In fact, it still has some monumental names behind it: Missy Elliott was the first female artist to accept the Vanguard Award. In 2018, Jennifer Lopez became the first Latin artist to win the award. Some acts still believe Jackson was the top artist for transforming music videos into an art form and pay tribute to him in their acceptance speeches. Others, like Guns N’ Roses, detest that the award ever had anything to do with him.


Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion when it comes to believing or dismissing the allegations. It’s a hard place to be in. If MTV decides to add Michael Jackson’s name back to the award, the network could be accused of insensitivity, dismissing and disrespecting the stories of the accusers. They wouldn’t feel seen. But if they keep it off, they would be discrediting the work that Jackson put into the industry.


This also isn’t the first time a music awards show has taken off and altered the name of an award. We saw it in 1962, with The Recording Academy and the Bing Crosby Award. Although he was considered musically gifted, he was known as an old-fashioned crook in the last years of his life. So who knows? Maybe this is just a thing that happens in showbiz.


Did you catch the VMAs last weekend? Any moments that should go on our list of the most memorable?


Photo via Matt Gries/Getty Images