When Missy Elliott receives the Video Vanguard award at MTV’s Video Music Awards Monday night, the honor will technically still be presented in Michael Jackson’s name. MTV’s decision not to strip Jackson’s name from the show’s “highest honor” is particularly interesting in the context of “Leaving Neverland,” the HBO documentary that thrust allegations of child molestation against Jackson back into the spotlight in January.
In some respects, this could be evidence a gradual process is in motion when it comes to reevaluating Jackson, whose legacy is so central to the history of pop music. Interestingly, the A.V. Club observes that MTV referred to the award without Jackson’s name in a video announcing Elliott as the 2019 winner. That seems to raise the possibility that at some point it’ll simply be dropped altogether.
The “Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award” has been presented since 1991, two years before the first allegations of child abuse were made against Jackson. His name remained on the top prize even as Jackson battled more charges of molestation until his death in 2009. Elliott appears to be accepting the title without any public resistance.
Released in the era of Me Too, “Leaving Neverland” caught traction in January, reigniting fierce debate over Jackson’s legacy. Few artists would be more difficult to immediately “cancel” than Jackson, given the scope of his influence. At the same time, few artists are dogged by allegations as serious and credible. In that light, maybe MTV’s decision to keep the Michael Jackson name attached to its signature VMA honor — but quietly — indicates pop culture is dealing with the icon by gradually phasing him out.