Since its inception, YouTube has been an odd little universe. It’s an anything-goes outlet where experimentation and vanity manifests itself in infinite strange and often pointless video clips. It’s also a platform for discovering the best of that experimentation, be it by an amateur genius or megawatt superstars. It’s here that a video moves from brilliant idea to phenomenon.
Sunday night’s quirky, disjointed, and, at times, epically cool YouTube Music Awards was a fitting continuation of that tradition.
Trying to make a mark in an industry already saturated with music-related kudosfests, the YTMAs were promoted as an answer to the stuffy pomp and circumstance of the Grammy Awards and the manufactured commercialization of the MTV Video Music Awards. The event was co-hosted by actor Jason Schwartzman and comedian Reggie Watts, helmed by creative director Spike Jonze, and featured performances by mainstream powerhouses like Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire, and Eminem, and artists whose fame is owed to—and mostly lives on—YouTube, like Walk Off the Earth and violinist Lindsey Stirling. The awards themselves were voted on in categories ranging from Video of the Year to YouTube Phenomenon by music fans across the country.
It was, like YouTube is, strange and fun—and brimming with potential.
You know when you spiral down a YouTube rabbit hole, clicking from one video to the next so many times you forgot why you logged onto the site in the first place, until finally you land on something so alarmingly nonsensical it stops you right in your click-happy tracks: “What the hell am I watching?” That, essentially, describes the hosting style of Schwartzman and Watts, who ran (literally) between the five stages at Manhattan’s Pier 36 with no proper script, fumbling through bits, and, on several occasions, even asking out loud where they were supposed to be standing.
There was an endearingness to the spontaneity of it all, but also a palpable stress accompanying the frenzy. To present the winner of one award, they, for no discernible reason, had to dig through five different cakes to find the envelope. For another, they carried around two babies handed to them by Rashida Jones, both of who cried through the entire uncomfortable segment. Later, Schwartzman had his face painted into an intricate mural. It was impressive. Also pointless.
The messiness of the hosting, however, was in stark contrast to the polish of the performances, all of which were filmed to be live music videos for the songs. Staging the performances in this way—different video sets were erected throughout the venue, with the audience meandering from stage to stage to watch—with the intention to create new video content was brilliantly on-brand. If the point of YouTube as a platform is to create buzzy, sharable, and, yes, viral content, then what better use of the performances at YouTube’s first-ever awards show than to create more of that very content?
Arcade Fire kicked off the night with a live performance of “Afterlife.” Right before the show began, Schwartzman and Jonze came on stage to alert—and maybe warn—the audience that “not only are you watching the show, you’re going to be a part of the videos.” The performance of “Afterlife” made that abundantly clear, in the coolest way possible. Indie darling Greta Gerwig starts the song dancing in an apartment set, continues her manic choreography as a camera follows her in one take through a woodland set-up, and finally leaps into the audience where a dance troop of young girls join her in front of the band itself for a joyous finale in the midst of the audience.
The performance itself was a feat of ambition, intricate planning, and pure spectacle. But watching the camera feed of the production live on the many monitors throughout the venue and then watching the finished product that was posted on YouTube immediately after (see below) proved the unique potential the YTMAs have to upend expectations of what an award show can be: how it can involve the viewers in the audience and the community watching at home and why an experimental ceremony from an internet social platform could, and maybe should, be taken as seriously as the elder statesmen award shows.
Some performers weren’t quite as adventurous with their live video shoots, though the end products (not to mention the performances themselves) are just as entertaining. Lady Gaga stripped her usual lavish stage show down to just a piano and backlighting for an emotional performance of her new song, “Dope,” which managed to be as moving in the cavernous hanger she was performing it in as it is in the intimate live video the performance produced.
Eminem contrasted the simple concept of his “Rap God” performance and video—he simply rapped in front of a luminous white backdrop—with a bombastic delivery, providing pyrotechnics with performance instead of effects.
The rest of the show weaved awkwardly between performance sets, the best of which included M.I.A.’s epileptic “Come Walk With Me” and Earl Sweatshirt & Tyler the Creator’s claustrophobic moshpit performance of “Sasquatch,” and the handing out of actual awards.
When YouTube first announced its nominees, there was a bit of backlash, with the list perhaps too heavy on major artists and lacking in acts who’ve been more directly impacted by the power of YouTube in their careers. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, One Direction, and Nicki Minaj were among the Artist of the Year nominees, which was won by Eminem. Only one nominee, Epic Rap Battles of History, could really be called a “YouTube Artist.”
Yet the eventual winners did spotlight YouTube’s varied audience and global reach. Lindsey Stirling, a violinist, won an award for a remix of a Psy song she performed with an a capella group. And Video of the Year didn’t go to nominees Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, One Direction, or Selena Gomez. It went to K-Pop group Girl’s Generation, which most people in the audience likely had never heard of.
Right before Arcade Fire performed, the band’s frontman Win Butler joked, “If we tried to do this at the VMAs, we’d be fucked.” As meandering and uneven as the YouTube Music Awards were at times, that’s perhaps the best endorsement of why the event should be celebrated.