Lady Gaga created buzz on last year's VMAs. (Interscope Records )
More than 30 years ago, video killed the radio star. Is YouTube killing MTV's Video Music Awards?
On the surface, the VMAs are alive and well — even thriving. Last year's broadcast by the 31-year-old music video network was the No. 1 attraction among all TV programs in its Sunday evening time slot. Thursday night's broadcast from Staples Center is expected to fare comparably well.
But just as MTV's arrival in the early 1980s permanently changed the way that popular music was seen and listened to, Internet music channels like YouTube and social-networking platforms are reinventing the way that music (including music videos) is experienced and consumed.
That could spell trouble for the VMAs over the long run.
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In previous decades, being in "heavy rotation" on MTV was the El Dorado of every aspiring heavy-metal rock god and under-the-radar rapper. Today it may be just as valuable, if not more so, to snag a few thousand Facebook "likes."
It's notable, for instance, that two of this year's VMA nominees, Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" (in the new artist category) and Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" (up for video of the year) became popular on MTV largely after going viral online.
The awards' attempt to keep up with these trends? The new, most share-worthy video category.
But YouTube, Vimeo and other Internet-based video-sharing sites, as well as tastemaker multimedia festivals like SXSW, are steadily eroding the artistic relevance, if not the economic clout, of the VMA telecast.
So to make up for the fact that the VMAs have less and less to do with actual artistry, the award show's producers and presenters have become more and more adept at keeping TV ratings high and the Twitterati in a vicarious lather by shocking Middle America with some new bit of carefully choreographed outrageousness.
"Who is your audience for the VMAs?" said one L.A. music video and commercial director who requested anonymity. "You're going to have to at some point appeal to the drooling, mouth-agape sort of watcher that's tuned in that wants to see Lady Gaga on a big giant Popsicle or Madonna and Britney Spears kissing. So if you throw this really beautiful, earnest, one of the best-looking cinematography videos that really moves somebody like me, I don't know if everybody would get that."
So why do we watch the VMAs? There's still the draw of the live musical performance — it gives real artists an opportunity to twist a lyric or guitar riff to allow us to hear new dimensions in a familiar tune. But celebrity luster is a bigger factor, and since popular music has become more and more about personality over song, the VMAs have morphed with the times to include a roster of names that have little to do with musical innovation and everything to do with ratings.
We're also hooked by the prospect of seeing those celebrities implode, although these moments have begun to seem increasingly scripted and somewhat desperate. Remember Lady Gaga's seemingly endless monologue last year after morphing into her declasse alter-ego Jo Calderone? Alas, so do I.
And, there are the videos themselves. Every year, a handful of directors, cinematographers, editors, art directors and visual effects creators are nominated with the potential payoff of becoming the next Spike Jonze. Jonze, who had the talent to transition into feature filmmaking, is still making music videos. This year he's nominated for his work on Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Otis," a hip-hop duet with a posthumous Otis Redding cameo that has racked up 48 million YouTube views.
Still, it's hard to avoid feeling that most music videos, like most Hollywood studio movies, have run short on ideas and are stranded somewhere between anxious recycling and flat-out decadence. "Somebody That I Used to Know" is a perfectly fine, innocuous little ditty about a painful breakup, visualized as moody streaks of color gradually transforming the bodies of a male and female paramour.
But it's a far cry artistically from, say, Peter Gabriel's aggressively innovative "Sledgehammer" (1986). That short-form masterpiece, directed by Stephen R. Johnson, with its comic-spastic stop-motion animation techniques, synced perfectly with the song's superficially sunny subject matter. It won nine VMA awards in 1987, when the record industry had a lot more cash to throw around.
There's some cause for hope. Sites like YouTube, as well as cheaper technology, have allowed a new generation of video artists to enter the field. "The landscape's been leveled," said Dori Oskowitz, who has directed videos for Cee Lo Green and Passion Pit. "Now you can make something cool and people will see it."
Other players are elbowing into the video awards sweepstakes. Vimeo launched the annual Vimeo Awards in 2010. SXSW also has become an arbiter of music video risk-taking.
This year's winner at the Austin, Texas festival was Battles' "My Machines," directed by the L.A.-based two-man team known as Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). It's a clever bit of Buster Keaton-esque physical comedy in which a man takes a pratfall down a shopping-mall escalator while the band fights back against material complacency with garage-rock guitars and industrial-strength drumming.
That's the kind of integrated visual-aural artistry that the VMAs seek to honor with another new category, best video with a message. Perhaps what the VMAs need reminding is that every video needs to have, if not a "message," then at least a purpose beyond selling product. Which, come to think of it, is what every awards show needs too.
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