Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott has been part of the American music landscape since the mid-1990s. After her career-spanning performance at last night’s 2019 MTV VMAs—where she joined Madonna, Britney Spears and other megastars as a recipient of the Video Vanguard Award—Missy’s also reaffirmed her status as a singular, timeless talent.
A Standout Show After a 16-Year Break: Missy “Annihilated” the Stage
At the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, hosted in Newark, New Jersey, performers like Lizzo and Queen Latifah—the latter joining other “hip hop legends” from the Garden State for another tour of hits—already raised expectations for this year’s ceremony. It was Elliott, though, who was set to receive 2019’s (controversially named) Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.
Honoring the occasion, as artist-winners have done for many years, Missy took to the stage in a run-through of her aptly titled new single, “Throw It Back,” and selections from many of her earlier, seminal hits.
The headlines since last night’s seamless seven-minute set have been rapturous. “Missy Elliott Annihilated the VMAs Stage,” according to Jezebel; it was an “Incredible, Career-Spanning Performance,” says Pitchfork; in these doldrums of 2019 news, Elle simply declared “Good Morning to Missy Elliott and Missy Elliott Only.”
The imagery was out of this world – literally, with a spaceship-like light assembly hovering semi-ominously over the stage and the crowd. Contortionists and break dancers, backup players and the “reprise” of Alyson Stoner—the little girl from the “Work It” video, now 26, who joined the celebration—also reinforced Missy’s traditional emphasis on redirecting the spotlight onto other talents in her orbit.
The latter summarized the spectacle of seeing Virginia’s Greatest Pride™ sail through her hits, with Nerisha Penrose writing:
Missy did five (!) outfit changes. She kicked off the performance dressed in a silver jumpsuit and a matching coat to perform her new single “Throw It Back” and recreated the “snatch they wigs ‘til I see scalp” moment from the video, in which her dancers’ wigs were literally snatched off their heads—mine, too.
For fans of her earliest solo work, Missy’s Hefty Bag Couture prominently returned – another throwback that felt futuristic, referencing the video for her performance of “Supa Dupa Fly (The Rain).”
The set included other now-classics: “Hot Boyz,” “Get Ur Freak On,” “Work It,” “Pass That Dutch” and, finally, “Lose Control” (the 2005 hit featuring “criminally underrated” Ciara and Fatman Scoop).
Twenty-two years of music unfolded across seven minutes (and, again, five costume changes!) to wild audience reactions in the crowd, at home and on Twitter.
Her music was from the future when it came out. That’s why it fits right the fuck nowwwwww.
— 🆃🆁🆄🅳🆈 (@thetrudz) August 27, 2019
This was so amazing https://t.co/ldncLvib4f
— #SankofaSummerSchool (@FeministaJones) August 27, 2019
(The outstanding Feminista Jones also wrote on Medium three years ago about musical celebrations of big beautiful women by some of music’s most remarkably talented big beautiful women – including Elliott and fellow 2019 VMA honoree Queen Latifah, along with Shirley Murdock and Jill Scott, among others. Read it!)
This is a renewed era of Missy appreciation (the … Missyssaince? The Missy Elliopoch? Making a portmanteau sufficiently honoring her is hard), and it still feels somewhat inadequate.
Supporting Roles, Futuristic-Yet-Timeless Skill, Queer Iconography
Elliott has had many lives throughout her long career: lyricist and songwriter, high-flying featured artist and singer, philanthropist and music video innovator. It’s impossible to summarize in this space, but even just looking to her presence through the last two decades of queer music iconography, Missy’s imperial gifts shine.
- The smash-hit cover of “Lady Marmalade,” from Moulin Rouge!, was produced by Elliott, who also appeared in the video’s introduction as host
- Timbaland’s “Bounce” featured Dr. Dre and Justin Timberlake, but it was Missy’s rapid-fire, sex-drenched verse that kicked the song to the next level;
- Ciara’s second hit single, “1, 2 Step,” which—according to a more-thorough summary of Missy’s features over at Dazed—marveled at how “Missy kills it with a quick-fire verse that sees her rhyme ‘fillet mignon’ with ‘nice and young,’ because why not?” Why not!
Then there’s Missy’s tragically overlooked, high-energy “Work It” interpolation at the 2003 VMAs, following that infamous Madonna–Britney onstage kiss. The kiss might’ve stolen the show and dominated the next day’s headlines, but the same high-energy wildness we saw on last night’s stage deserved better 16 years ago. The Madonna/Britney/Christina Aguilera performance of “Like a Virgin”/”Hollywood” was pure pop spectacle after all, but it feels almost plodding, lethargic compared to the live-wire delivery of Elliott’s massive hit, which then blends seamlessly back into Madonna’s own “Hollywood.”
As Harper’s Bazaar wrote last night, this year’s performance was actually the first since that 2003 marvel. Writing there, Erica Gonzales concluded
The VMA recognition is long overdue for Elliott, who’s delivered some iconic videos through her decades-long career, including “The Rain,” “Lose Control,” and “Work It.” When MTV announced that Elliott would be this year’s recipient, she was “humbly grateful,” she explained on Instagram, and didn’t even think she’d be able to receive the award.
Missy’s new album, “Iconology,” dropped this past Friday. She’s not done yet.
MISSY ELLIOTT JUST. DID. THAT. #VMAs
— XXL Magazine (@XXL) August 27, 2019