In Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, employees at a mysterious company can access a portal into actor John Malkovich’s mind. It’s a movie within a movie. This is sort of what last night’s inaugural YouTube Music Awards felt like.
Jonze, a longtime music-video director before switching to film, was the creative force behind last night’s 90-minute awards show, framing all the live performances as smaller scenes on one big stage within a stage, rather than the typical main stage performances. Watching Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt hype a crowd across the room from M.I.A.’s DayGlo hula-hoop trip might have made sense in, say, a festival context, but as framing for the YouTube Music Awards, it felt a bit curious. A feeling of impending chaos was constant throughout the night, and that wasn’t always good, epsecially when the livestream cut out.
Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts hosted, and they had a rapport that was genuine, and fueled by that chaos. Schwartzman made sure to let us know the YTMAs were unscripted, and that the night’s theme was “creativity.” Their banter was a nice change of pace from the awkward teleprompted readings of most awards shows, but having them dig through cakes or get pelted with colored dust killed some of the momentum. Why not have a performance or interview with a nominated artist in that space?
But, OK, chaos. A good awards show has a few fourth-wall-demolishing moments. (Remember when Courtney Love interrupted Madonna’s interview at the 1995 MTV VMAs?). The YTMAs fully embraced this, and left no wall standing, letting the audience see all the inner workings and loose threads of an awards show.
The live performances shifted locations throughout the space, but there was no real thread to tie them together, much like YouTube videos. Lena Dunham’s short film for Swedish DJ Avicii, which may as well have been a deleted season from Girls season 2, was hard to watch. Arcade Fire’s opening number, directed by Jonze, was well-orchestrated, if a bit precious, but the follow-up “history of YouTube” medley by CDZA felt like a hurried and half-baked parade through a few chuckle-worthy memes (T-Pain, Tay Zonday). Besides Lindsey Stirling and CDZA, no other artists who got their start on YouTube performed. Seems a little off, no?
The highlight might have been Lady Gaga, who performed a power ballad called “Dope,” off upcoming album Artpop. She sat behind a piano, dressed down in a flannel shirt and baseball cap, and played the drama high, tearing up before even starting the song. Gaga became a Jonze character, and in this one moment, things sort of made sense.
MTV, which hasn’t hosted a decent VMA in more than a decade, threw a bit of virtual shade via Twitter last night. So did fans of One Direction, Demi Lovato, and Justin Bieber, after Korean pop collective Girls’ Generation won Video of the Year for “I Got a Boy.” While many fans defended and applauded the group’s win, there was the usual sprinkling of casual youthful racism.
Notable YouTubers questioned the lack of YouTube talent involved and the character of those who won awards:
— Tyler Oakley (@tyleroakley) November 4, 2013
the youtube music awards should have a lot more actual YOUTUBER involvement. such as youtubers as hosts and presenters #YTMA
— Ricky Dillon (@RickyPDillon) November 3, 2013
At its peak, the show had more than 200,000 viewers, but does that equal success? Google, YouTube’s owner, obviously plunked down a lot of money to make this mess, but did YouTube decide to put its weight behind big names like Arcade Fire (who just streamed their album on YouTube) or Eminem to get eyes on their program, unsure of who would tune in otherwise? They’ve got another year to figure out who they want to represent.
Here are the winners:
Artist of the Year: Eminem
Video of the Year: Girls’ Generation, “I Got a Boy”
YouTube Phenomenon: Walk Off the Earth, “I Knew You Were Trouble”
Innovation of the Year: DeStorm
Response of the Year: Lindsey Stirling & Pentatonix, “Radioactive”
YouTube Breakthrough: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Screengrab via YouTube Spotlight