Only MTV would consider giving its top career achievement award to Rihanna, who, at 28, is the same age as many just starting out.
Of course, the MTV Video Music Awards are nothing if not unconventional.
The awards show, which takes over Madison Square Garden for the first time on Aug. 28, has always been better known for Miley Cyrus introducing twerking to the American mainstream or Madonna sharing a full-on kiss with Britney Spears than for who won what award.
So, in a way, honoring Rihanna with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award simply continues the tone the VMAs have always set.
“The Video Vanguard is about a body of work, but it doesn’t have to be at the culmination of one’s career,” explains Garrett English, executive producer of the show and MTV’s senior vice president of programming, events and live production. “It’s about the scope of her career, and the scope of her impact is massive.”
Though plans for her performance remain under wraps, Rihanna tweeted that she was honored to receive the award. English says Rihanna may be taking inspiration from Justin Timberlake’s tightly scripted, 15-minute career retrospective that he delivered with no breaks at Barclays Center in 2013.
She may need every second, considering how many hits she’s already fielded this year, with “This Is What You Came For” with Calvin Harris and her own “Needed Me” currently in the Top 10 and her new duet with Drake “Too Good” quickly gathering steam.
Also gathering steam are the expectations for Spears’ performance. “Britney’s heritage with the show is almost unparalleled,” English says. “She has had so many iconic performances when you let Britney be Britney.”
And Spears certainly has plenty to prove with this performance, her first since 2007 when she struggled through “Gimme More” in the midst of a personal meltdown and the high-profile rollout of songs from her new “Glory” album.
“The culture of our show is always challenging,” English says. “We know what this show means to our artists. Taking the VMA stage sets an incredibly high bar for what that performance means. Each time you come back, the bar gets higher and higher. That’s the exciting part.”
Adding to the excitement is having the show at Madison Square Garden for the first time. “We’re going to embrace the environment,” English says. “Being in The Garden and what that means to an artist and the audience, it adds to the energy.”
David O’Connor, Madison Square Garden Co.’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement that the arena was thrilled to host the VMAs for the first time.
“Madison Square Garden has been known throughout its history for inspiring the greatest performers, sports icons to break records and make history,” O’Connor said. “We have no doubt that the MTV VMAs — so celebrated for its exciting and unexpected mix of music and entertainment — will add an unforgettable chapter to that unparalleled legacy.”
English says the VMAs will also use the area outside The Garden as part of the festivities. The preshow will be held on the streets of Manhattan, with three live performances for the first time, and Nick Jonas and Ty Dolla $ign will perform Jonas’ hit “Bacon” outside during the show.
The VMAs will not only reflect New York, but will also reflect where America is culturally at this point, English says. Though the unpredictable political campaign and other hot-button issues don’t have a set place in the show, they will likely become some part of it because the artists are interested and involved in them, English says.
“There is a lot of fodder for creative expression right now,” he says. “We want to be the creative center, the blank canvas. … We want to be the place where creative expression rules the day.”