MTV announced on Monday that Missy Elliott will be the first female rapper to receive its most coveted VMA, the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. "I am humbly grateful to be receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award," she tweeted. "I Thank my FANS "Supafriends" who fought diligently to see this day come. @KidFury @Crissles who rooted for years 4 me. I am crying happy tears. Thank you God @MTV @VMAs am SO HUMBLED." There is no doubt that Elliott deserves the network's lifetime achievement award, and in fact, hip-hop fans have campaigned for this very moment. Honoring Elliott is long overdue, but continuing to associate MTV's lifetime achievement award with Michael Jackson is more controversial. Of course, it's complicated to cancel someone like the King of Pop; it's also essential to acknowledge his controversial legacy.
In 1988, Michael Jackson joined the ranks of artists like David Bowie, Madonna, and the Beatles to win MTV's Video Vanguard Award. Three years later, the network renamed the award after Jackson. The Vanguard Award—which MTV has also awarded to the likes of Kanye West, Rihanna, and Pink—cements an artist's status as a legend in pop culture. However, the release of HBO's recent doc, Leaving Neverland, which forced the public to revisit 25 years of allegations of child sexual abuse against Jackson, has tarnished the award's name. MTV's apparent choice to retain the name of the award and remain silent on the issue isn't helping society move forward with its cultural reckoning.
But not everyone is staying silent. Wade Robson, a choreographer who detailed allegations of extensive sexual abuse by Jackson in the HBO documentary, said in an interview with The Wrap on Monday, that changing the name would send a message to survivors: "I don't personally need MTV to do one thing or the other, but as child abuse survivors all over the world watch to see whether society supports them or not if they have the courage to come forward, in that regard, it's an unfortunate choice."
In the immediate aftermath of the documentary, according to Page Six, MTV seemed to think it was worth reconsidering the association. "There's a lot of heated discussion at the network about how to handle the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award this year and it's getting ugly," a source told the paper last month. "There's talk about if they should change the name or get rid of it altogether. [There's also talk] about who would present it and who would accept it."
It's unclear what the current status of the name is. The network's inconsistencies in naming can be traced back a few years, with the title of official video clips from the award show posted on MTV's YouTube page referring to the award as the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award in 2016 and 2017. The caption of the 2018 video of the award's presentation calls it by the same name. However, during the 2017 and 2018 shows, the award is referred to onstage as the Video Vanguard Award. MTV's Twitter post about this year's honoree also calls the award the Video Vanguard Award, although a press release sent shortly before the announcement explicitly mentions Michael Jackson. MTV didn't respond when reached for comment on whether or not they would be changing the official name of the award.
Historically, the relationship between MTV and Jackson has always been mutually beneficial. "It was the ultimate symbiotic relationship—we made him and he made us," former MTV VJ Mark Goodman said in a 2009 Billboard interview. "He, with the help of CBS Records, kind of forced us to realize that there was a change going on in music." The network disrupted the status quo in 1983 by playing "Billie Jean" during programming that was typically reserved for white rockstars, thus widening Jackson and the network's audience. Adding "Billie Jean" to its rotation strengthened MTV as an authority on popular music, not just rock, while debunking the myth that Black artists weren't valuable to the station.
At the very least, MTV appears to be distancing itself from Michael Jackson's name. But without clarifying their stance on the Vanguard's name change, the network is ignoring the elephant in the room. The goal of the ambiguous approach may be to ensure that the network minimizes any backlash, but MTV deserves scrutiny here, as do all the institutions that have turned a blind eye to previous allegations of abuse against Jackson. While the information presented in Leaving Neverland might have been the most detailed claims of sexual assault made against the singer thus far, the subject matter isn't new. Jackson faced an ongoing criminal investigation into his conduct that began in 1993, settled a civil suit brought by the family of alleged abuse victims in 1994, and was charged with lewd and lascivious acts involving a child (among other charges) in 2003 but was found not guilty.
Michael Jackson's DNA runs through popular music, and almost every notable artist has been influenced by him, whether intentionally or not. Fully canceling artists who are accused of bad things may not be possible, but refusing to critically engage with their legacies is not an option. Removing his name from the award won't erase his accomplishments. What it will do, however, is hold institutions to a new standard.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE. Follow her on Twitter.