Why Beyonce doesn't deserve MTV's vanguard award
MTV has announced it will award Beyonce the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the upcoming Video Music Awards on August 24 in Los Angeles, but she doesn't deserve it.
Why? Because bigger is not always better.
Beyonce, who also leads the VMA nominations with eight, is a pop icon no doubt. She is the richest, most successful female artist in the world at present, and to quote Queen Bey herself, girls most certainly do run the [pop] world. So that makes her the most successful pop star in the world.
Beyonce is mostly a very fine role model, she's made several hugely empowering female anthems and more importantly not just retained her identity throughout her marriage to hip-hop mogul Jay Z, she's transcended the apparently struggling union and become much more famous.
But the notion of Beyonce being at the cutting edge of music seems empty. I wouldn't - couldn't - count her as the most important or greatest artist in the world today, difficult as those adjectives are to define. I'd still put Madonna ahead of Beyonce on both counts - Her Madge is still proving women can have continued success (she remains a hugely successful touring artist) and relevance into their 40s. Beyonce may have made one of the best pop songs ever in my opinion (Crazy in Love), but she just doesn't rule the world in the same way Madge did. For 10 years Madonna (who won a vanguard award a remarkable 28 years ago) made us gasp at every new release with her daring and her ideas, not just her regal poise and toned bod.
The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen top those hypothetical lists (greatest and most important), in my humble opinion, still. The Stones are extraordinary for their career longevity and for the extraordinary way they have brilliantly commercialised their best asset: their live show. That's the forum music is most powerful for artist and fan, but also presents an artist with their toughest test. With small amount of fuss, Springsteen has continued to resonate with the public from a place of social awareness and passion for his craft. He gives the impression of having as much authenticity as the most earnest struggling young idealist.
Furthermore, Beyonce's career has for a while been veering in a slightly discomfitting direction. 'Queen Bey' as she is portrayed, lives large in a way that only the privileged and obscenely wealthy can: she's one half of the richest celebrity super-couple in the world (worth more than $900 million) and runs her own empire. Increasingly in videos she presents herself as untouchable, materialistic and flawless (think the clip for No Angel, which was shot in Melbourne last year or Superpower, which Warpaint's Theresa Wayman criticised), arguably disconnecting herself from fans - no matter how much they want to be like her.
With a few notable exceptions (like the terrific Sia Furler-written Pretty Hurts this year, a sharp commentary on the beauty industry), Beyonce's public image seems heavily influenced by American hip-hop stars of the past 15 years: bling, greed, the demand for respect, even adulation. MTV even buys into that, saying we should "bow down, [because] beyonce is coming [sic]."
But I digress. Plenty of artists who have deservedly won MTV's vanguard award have been guilty of ostentatious vanity but still been game-changers: none more than Madonna and Jackson, also U2 and George Michael.
MTV's Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award is for "exemplary musicians who have made an incredible and long-lasting impact on pop culture". If the context is the music video, what has Beyonce done to redefine it? If anything Beyonce is as derivative as anyone, trading so heavily on her appearance that her ideas can go unnoticed.
To reward her with what amounts to a lifetime achievement award at this point in her career seems premature, no matter how successful she is, especially when so many acts who have been game-changers with their music clips (and have been around a lot longer) have gone unrewarded.
Few videos had as much impact on the culture of the music as Run DMC's (and Aerosmith's) Walk This Way in 1986; uniting two genres and playing with the form. Joan Jett's grainy black and white clip for I Love Rock N Roll (whose co-writer Jake Hooker died on Thursday) put rock on the small screen for millions to appreciate in 1982. Prince, Nirvana and Cyndi Lauper all helped transform music video and pop culture and are arguably more deserving recipients.
Going back further, what about Bob Dylan? His voice might be hard to understand these days, but Dylan made crucial contributions to the music video as well as popular music more generally. The clip for Subterranean Homesick Blues, with a fresh-faced Dylan flashing lyric cards as beat poet Allen Ginsberg lurks in the corner of the screen, is still a remarkable clip and has been copied dozens of times.
If you are going to make legacy awards purely on the basis of popularity, then give one to Katy Perry, who has racked up nearly 600 million YouTube views in less than 12 months for Roar, one of the biggest singles of last year. Or Miley Cyrus who has nearly 700 million in less than a year for well, sitting naked on a wrecking ball while licking a hammer. There's no better way to describe it. Or Justin Bieber whose Baby revolutionised the connection between pop and YouTube back in 2010. On second thoughts, please don't give one to Miley or Justin.
If it's about popularity with influence, perhaps the most deserving winner of the vanguard award for 2014 is Korean megastar Psy.
Gangnam Style is streets ahead of anything else as the most popular music video of all-time, with more than 2 billion views now. He actually has two of the top 10 most watched clips, since nobody understands the music video like Psy. His career has been short, but it's doubtful his records will ever be beaten. His influence is monumental and transcends the music video: he took K-pop to the world, he internationalised Asian pop.
Lady Gaga too is someone who warrants recognition for her videos; the performance art and willingness reinvent herself for her art is admirable, even if she seems off her game lately. Bad Romance, way back in 2009, was a rightly acclaimed video. She's even been accused of becoming 'normal', although perhaps critics miss the point that's just another reinvention for Gaga.
Beyonce is indeed inspirational, a phenomenal talent and the biggest superstar in music. But since vanguard means "leading the way in new developments or ideas", at least according to the Oxford dictionary, Beyonce fails the test.