MTV's Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award: Why It's So Iconic Even At The VMAs 2016

Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award: Why It’s So Iconic Even At The VMAs 2016

Michael Jackson still carries a lot of weight in the music industry, seven years after his death in 2009. So much so that the Rihanna winning the Video Vanguard award that bears his name was big news this year. Even Drake got in on the action and put up a billboard to celebrate Rihanna’s music video accolade from the VMAs.

But if you were born after the year 1995, you may be wondering why the award is such a big deal in 2016 and why the King of Pop’s name is attached to it. The answer has everything to do with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video which came out in 1984.

2006 MTV Video Music Awards Japan - Show
Michael Jackson’s Thriller video changed MTV and the music video format forever (Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

Michael Jackson’s Thriller revolutionized the music video format:

While Michael Jackson didn’t invent the music video, he’s the artist that defined the format during the early MTV era and influenced video artists that would come after him.

As The Guardian notes, Jackson’s “Thriller” video wasn’t just a music video, it was a thirteen minute short film that was marketed as an event which families gathered around their televisions for. It also got a week-long theatrical release so that it could be eligible for an Oscar nomination.

The video was directed by a film director, John Landis, whose previous films included Trading Places, The Blues Brothers, Animal House, and An American Werewolf in London. That last flick is reportedly the one that inspired MJ to call up Landis and ask him to direct “Thriller.”

Thriller also helped to create the “Making Of” video genre and the story behind that fact is pretty interesting. As Rolling Stone notes, production on the Thriller video cost $500,000, making it the most expensive music video ever made at the time. Michael Jackson’s record label, CBS Records, refused to foot the bill. So Jackson and John Landis sold the rights to the Making of Thriller to MTV and Showtime for $250,000 each. The behind the scenes documentary was 45 minutes long and Landis is well known for calling it the “Making of Filler.”


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The “Thriller” video didn’t just send Michael Jackson’s album sales skyrocketing, but it also gave VHS tapes a huge boost in the 1980s, as people bought the video on tape so they could watch it any time they wanted.

“Music videos in the early 80s started as a little cottage industry in Britain, really,” said Brian Grant, British director of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” video Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in an interview with The Guardian. “As soon as the Americans got involved, things became monetized, turning music videos into a proper industry, which operated alongside MTV. The big turning point was ‘Thriller.'”

Michael Jackson helped break down cultural barriers on MTV

Videos for Michael Jackson songs like “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” also got heavy rotation on MTV during the 1980s making him the first black artist to get that type of recognition on the channel according to an article on CNN.com

“Michael Jackson made culture accept a person of color way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah Winfrey, way before Barack Obama,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “Michael did with music what they later did in sports and in politics and in television. And no controversy will erase the historic impact.”

His appeal to a wide range of people from various demographics made Michael Jackson the first African-American global superstar and helped MTV gain mainstream success, Steroboard notes.

“For the first time in the history of MTV, we spotted big time rating spikes,” former MTV executive, Les Garland has previous said according to Stereoboard. “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.”

The MTV Video Vanguard Award: Controversy and Changing Names.

As their website notes, MTV did not always call its flagship accolade The Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Before 1991, it was simply called he Vanguard Award or The Lifetime Achievement Award.

The first Video Vanguard Award was given out in 1984 at the first MTV VMAs. Those early music video vanguard awards went to David Bowie, The Beatles and Lester. Michael Jackson won the award in 1988.

However, by 1993 MTV started to drop his name from the award or not give it out altogether. According to Stereoboard, these actions coincided with the child sexual abuse allegations against MJ that first became public in 1993. His name was officially returned to the award in 2011 after his death when the honor was bestowed on Britney Spears.

The history and legacy attached to the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award makes it a big draw for the VMA TV audience. Let’s see what the 2016 recipient, Rihanna, does on stage to show that she’s fit to follow in the King of Pop’s moon-walking footsteps.

[Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images]

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