The Liberated Pop Future Missy Elliott Envisioned is Now

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Missy Elliott poses in the Press Room with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award during the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center on August 26, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey.  ( Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for MTV)

For over two decades, Missy Elliott has created with her eyes and ears towards the future.

She was body positive before it was a marketing gimmick ("I got a cute face / chubby waist"). She embraced Afrofuturism before it became part of the pop culture lexicon. She went overseas to Korea to work with G-Dragon before K-Pop charted on Billboard. And, from 1997's "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" to 2019's "Throw It Back," she produced, rapped, danced and sang at the highest level, and used her talents to make listeners feel like their best, most liberated selves.

Justin Timberlake was right, speaking in the testimonials that played on MTV before Elliott took the VMA stage: her reception of the Video Vanguard Award at tonight's ceremony was an incredibly belated accolade. And the technicolor celebration of self-love, blackness, immigrant identity, queerness and fatness on display throughout the awards proved that Elliott's pop music philosophy—the rhythm's potential to free us from shame so we can all celebrate our bodies, identities and selves—has come to fruition and then some in 2019.

On stage at the VMAs, Missy Elliott took fans through 20 years of career highlights in a dazzling seven-minute show filled with airtight choreography, CGI visuals and homages to her best-known music videos. She and her dancers revisited era-defining tracks like "Lose Control," "Get Your Freak On" and "Work It," which included a show-stopping dance number from Alyson Stoner, the little girl in the video now all grown up.

Elliott's iconic inflatable suit made an appearance during "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," the outfit in which she defiantly, exaggeratedly took up space during peak heroin chic in the late '90s. We saw the cornfields from the "Pass That Dutch" video transform from historical sites of exploitation into a party for black ingenuity. Set designs, costume changes and complex group choreography flowed from one track into the next so quickly and seamlessly that it was easy to forget to breathe.


This was Elliott's night, and her influence echoed throughout the VMAs before and after her performance. Lil Nas X's rendition of "Panini," where he danced in a black-lit, neon robot outfit in a set reminiscent of Blade Runner, recalled the cowboy-meets-cyborg getups Elliott wore in the "She's a Bitch" music video from 1999.

Lizzo, whose work descents from Elliott's fat-positive, sex-positive vision of self-love, and with whom Elliott collaborated this year on the thick-girl anthem "Tempo," took the stage with dancers of all shapes and sizes in front of a giant, jiggling booty. In the testimonials that played before Elliott's turn to take the stage, Lizzo teared up while recalling the magnitude of Elliott's influence. And Normani's impressively athletic choreography during her performance of "Motivation" seemed inspired by Ciara—an artist Elliott developed and produced early on in her career.

Elliott and the Gen Z and millennial artists she's influenced imbued the VMAs with a refreshing sense of joy missing on the show in recent years, and the air of celebration carried over into the rest of the night, as people of a wide variety of identities historically underrepresented on MTV got a chance to shine. Taylor Swift brought a gaggle of queer and trans artists on stage after winning the Video for Good award for "You Need to Calm Down," and stepped aside as executive producer Todrick Hall gave the acceptance speech.

Performances from Ozuna, J Balvin and Bad Bunny (and J Balvin's heartfelt speech when he accepted the Best Latin award with Rosalía for "Con Altura") brimmed with Latinx pride. And the introduction of the new Best K-Pop category further attested to the evening's celebration of many different cultural identities.

Missy Elliott herself hasn't publicly addressed all of these issues (for instance, she's widely regarded as a queer icon, despite being completely private about her personal life). But she has clearly empowered by example. Her music's message of acceptance and celebration came through loud and clear, reverberating through decades of pop until it reflected back at her on the 2019 VMA stage.