Does Rihanna Deserve the Video Vanguard Award?

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Earlier this week, MTV announced that Rihanna would be presented with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the 2016 Video Music Awards. The award is considered the premier honor of the night, in which the artist is expected to perform an epic medley and give a heartfelt speech upon receiving the award. Naturally, Rihanna’s fans— the Navy— were ecstatic to hear of their favorite star’s high-profile appearance. Rihanna is currently on a world tour supporting her eighth studio album, therefore the public can expect a spectacle performance complete with signature Rihanna attitude. MTV seemed firm in their decision to award Rihanna the Video Vanguard title. However the reception of this news was not all positive. Some protested, stating the VMA’s have become a sellout award show that have made a mockery of the Video Vanguard award. Critics state that Rihanna’s artistry does not live up to Michael Jackson’s legacy; that the honor has become tarnished by general popularity. Rihanna is undoubtedly the it-girl of 2016, sure to boost ratings of the Video Music Awards on August 28th. But what is it that makes Rihanna worthy—or unworthy— of the Video Vanguard title?

When one considers the name Michael Jackson, a million things come to mind. In regards to music, Michael Jackson was the prominent figure in pop— earning the title “the Prince of Pop” by establishing an infectious sound all his own. His artistry—extending beyond his hits, however, allows him to stand alone as a legend. Michael’s influence became synonymous with MTV, bridging the musical gap between visual and sound. Michael Jackson’s image and videography truly redefined what it meant to be a musical artist in the 20th century. The Video Vanguard Award was established in his legacy to acknowledge his mark on pop culture through music videos. Michael Jackson’s mark on pop culture is undeniable. Can we say the same about Rihanna’s artistry?

Previous Video Vanguards include Janet Jackson, Madonna, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé and Kanye West. Each of these individuals were awarded at points in their careers where they were proven legendary in their own right. For the most part, the artists awarded seemed to be selected in a year when their artistry showed a considerable transformative collection. It was almost as if MTV executives sat down and questioned, “who solidified their name this year?”. For this reason, it is only recently that MTV began awarding the Video Vanguard annually. Now with an artist to find up to standard every year, Rihanna seems like the logical step for 2016.

In our evolving technological culture, our personal devices lend themselves to the power of music. Our iPhones provide avenues to countless streaming services, allowing artists to creep into our daily routines with great force. Rihanna is the most streamed female artist ever, racking up one billion global streams on Spotify. A billion. Clearly people are fond of Rihanna. The issue of her being awarded as the 2016 Video Vanguard is not a matter of her being the people’s choice. Music becomes popular to the general public because it entices and ultimately speaks to us. If the Vanguard Award was the voters’ choice, Rihanna would most likely win due to her popularity.

However, that which is popular is not always impactful. The song “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen was musical disease in 2012. This is not to say the song was anything but adorable, I simply mean the song was infectiously catchy and it spread everywhere. Do you not remember the countless Vines and YouTube videos of baseball teams and girl squads everywhere lip-syncing to Carly Rae Jepsen’s voice? However, the weeks the song held #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 did not make it genius. The song was not trendsetting or fresh— it was just what we wanted. And the things we simply want too often define popularity. Because of her likability and statistics, many are worried Rihanna was in fact chosen only because of her success. While this speculation is considerable, we mustn’t let popularity shroud Rih’s diversified body of work.

There is something to be said for longevity in the music industry. Long, successful careers are characteristics previous Video Vanguards possess. Rihanna’s first-ever single, “Pon de Replay”, graced American radio in 2005. Rihanna debuted as a sweet, island girl in flare jeans and chandelier earrings. That Rihanna seems worlds away from our beloved bad girl of the present. In a way, Rihanna’s 10-year career has snuck up on us. Her international superstar status makes it easy for us to forget her humble beginnings with Music of the Sun and A Girl Like Me. Reinvention has played a massive role in Rihanna’s success. Rihanna transformed her image as well as her sound countless times since 2005. The genre-bender has brought variations of dancehall, reggae, house, RnB, pop and rock all to mainstream radio. This evolution enriches the idea of “Rihanna”, creating a true portfolio of her career.

Madonna received the Video Vanguard Award award in 1986 for the same chameleon ability. Madonna lives on as the Queen of Pop for such ingenuity. For over three decades, Madonna repeatedly redefined what pop culture looked and sounded like with her iconic catalog. Rihanna is undoubtedly an icon as well. But is she on the same legendary platform as Madonna and Michael Jackson? Sure, she has been a part of music— but has she changed it? Rihanna will be remembered for her contribution— will she be revered?

Rihanna’s legacy is characteristically heterogenous. She is not as definable as the image of, say, Beyoncé. Gathering the signature pieces of Beyoncé creates her image fully. We can visualize her: the wind-blown hair, great choreography, the booty, the Wonder Woman stance, the boldness. Rihanna is more fluid. As you close your eyes, how does Rihanna appear in your mind? What lasting impression has Rihanna left on you— on our culture? Reflecting upon her videography specifically, a few examples stand out.
Though it came from her third album, “Umbrella” took Rihanna from rising star to a blow-up hitmaker. Good Girl Gone Bad reintroduced Rihanna to us as she made her debut on the “Umbrella” music video in 2007. Sporting new chopped, sleek black hair, “Umbrella” was a coming out of sorts for Rih. The cold fireworks, the CGI water-bending, the umbrella choreography in fishnets, Rihanna appearing head-to-toe in silver body paint— it was all so elevated. The “Umbrella” video was artistic, hot and powerful. Rihanna had arrived.

The naughty and edgy side of Rihanna continued its growth with her fourth album, Rated R. Songs like “Rude Boy”, “Hard” and “ROCKSTAR 101” had us convinced Rihanna was going in a certain punky direction. Her next album Loud, however, turned our idea of Rihanna on its head. The video for its lead single “Only Girl (in the World)” placed Rihanna in a setting fit for any music festival. The Loud aesthetic was bright and euphoric and the “Only Girl” video gave us the right taste of this. As the dance floor hits began to roll in, Rihanna showed us how she does the sound of 2010. The result— “Only Girl”— left us in ecstasy. Not only that, but she quickly became the face of cheery dance-pop while maintaining her swagger.

In the same album, Rihanna offered perhaps her most provoking work yet. “S&M”, true to its title, was Rih’s homage to sexual BDSM practice. Obviously pop artists before her had expressed their sexuality in their work, but “S&M” was conscious, garish and, well, Loud. A female proclaiming her sexual prowess is striking on its own, but the contrasting events in Rihanna’s personal life let the song take on a new weight. As a survivor of a (very publicized) domestic attack from then-partner Chris Brown, the world was waiting for Rihanna to respond. Rather than surrendering to the incident as a victim, she arose outspoken as ever. Some thought it tasteless for a woman to proclaim “Sticks and stones may break my bones/ But chains and whips excite me” after being beaten by a man. But what could be more feminist than not backing down and admitting your cheeky sexual fetishes? The “S&M” video was delightfully inappropriate with LaChapelle-ian vibrant visuals. Here Rihanna gave us a musical legend’s trifecta: a song that smashed, pop cultural context and a video that awed.

Rihanna progressed in the early 2010’s with Talk That Talk and Unapologetic. Unlike other hit-making machines, Rihanna pumped out chart-topper after chart-topper with passion and purpose. Her artistry, though eclectic in sound, still found its cohesion in her personality. As a cultural icon, many saw Rihanna as an enigma; bossy but chill, luxurious but humble, sexy but effortless. It was in these records that Rihanna stepped out as a hustler like never before. She experimented heavily with Hip-Hop in tracks like “Birthday Cake” and “Pour It Up”, which gained air-time at strip clubs everywhere. The “Pour It Up” video featured Rihanna in a diamond bra, surveying exotic dancers from her throne. Throwing stacks and twerking while damp, we relished in her power. Rather than letting us feel an advantage, like we had with so many female pop stars before her, the look in Rihanna’s eyes let us know she was in control of her own spectacle.

There is something distinctly masculine in her energy that makes her a dynamic female artist. It should be noted that Rihanna was featured as the lead vocals for some of the most iconic male artists’ biggest hits. Jay-Z, Eminem, Drake, T.I., and Kanye West hand-selected Rihanna to steer their musical vision. Each of them felt she added the right emotion and temperament to their songs of the rap genre. It takes a remarkable female to steal the stage from the likes of these in-command male artists. The tracks with her feature may be accredited to the aforementioned rappers, but make no mistake, they are Rihanna’s songs now.

Just as she appeared red-blooded, raw and haughty, in the same breath Rihanna released “Stay”. The single essentially put listeners at a standstill. She had put out slow-tempo songs before, but the simple piano ballad was emotional, heart-wrenching and absolutely stunning. The world was aware of her power-house vocals, but “Stay” shared with us her unique ability to share her heart musically. The “Stay” visual featured Rihanna sinking into a murky bathtub. No plot line, no special effects. Just footage of her dazed by her own pain. The song spoke of a torturous love. Combined, the lyrics and music video resulted in a hopelessness I can bet few stars of her caliber have ever ventured to before. This glimpse of Rihanna’s vulnerability was lasting, reminding us her persona is multifaceted. The artistry behind “Stay” took us bone-deep.

We left the Unapologetic era with Rih more real than ever and waited (and waited!) for her return to music with her eighth studio album. That return was found with the moody, electro-soul ANTI in January 2016. It’s clear Rihanna is in the stride of her prime. Mature and free, Rihanna’s recent record showcases the height of her womanhood and artistic ability. Her lead single “Work” threw it all the way back to her dancehall roots, while catering to a pop audience. The video for “Work” features two visuals, both in which she is whining away unfazed. The gaudiness is gone, but the strength of Rihanna remains. Her latest work echoes her previous themes of a hard and fast life with equal parts coolness and courage. No one is more bossed up or in control than Rihanna.

Considering her most iconic moments and collections, Rihanna’s legend steadily begins to build. Outside of music, Rihanna has been acclaimed as a fashion icon. As an innovator, Rihanna has integrated fashion into musical image like no other female artist of the moment. Artistically, Rihanna delivers work that has remained crisp and individual. As a millennial, Rihanna has always been a part of my understanding the music industry. Not once has Rihanna faded to the background. This applies to the cultural stage as well. Rihanna has broached subjects like crime culture, drugs, sexual deviance, masculinity, domestic abuse, and arrogance. As a black woman, her voice in these things should not be taken lightly.

The past is often so easy to analyze because it is history. Of course the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna are legendary with hindsight in their favor. Discussion of impact on the present is fickle; how do we know what’s important today won’t fade away in the near future? Rihanna’s sales and chart performances certainly raise the concern of popularity trumping merit. The Video Vanguard Award is representative of a new age of artistry; one that is blended, liberal and non-formulaic. Are there any three words more suiting to Rihanna? Her videography is a mod podge of creative expression. Through the years Rihanna may have not presented the absolute most defining work in pop culture. But her gumption to remain a prominent figure in music credits itself. The award is meant to go to an artist that has somehow paved the way for further expansion of music and its visual representation. No better to give the award to than an artist who has gained success by being unapologetically Rihanna.