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MTV Video Music Awards 2012: So, how were the videos?

September 07, 2012|By August Brown
  • Singer Rihanna performs onstage at the 2012 Video Music Awards.
Singer Rihanna performs onstage at the 2012 Video Music Awards. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images )

By any measure, the "video" portion of the Video Music Awards is nominal at best. Yes, there are categories for editing, cinematography and art direction (and something called "message"), but every year the VMAs become increasingly untethered to any cinematic output in favor of manufactured spectacle that gets less and less spectacular in time.

So, for what it's worth after the foggy haze of One Direction hormones and Rihanna's laser-emitting reptile thrones, here are some thoughts on the major videos as actual videos.

PHOTOS: 2012 MTV Video Music Awards | Arrivals

1. One Direction needs direction, visually

When a young band breaks, they get one shot at the "this is how we roll" video, and the clip for "What Makes You Beautiful" ably showcases the idyll of being barely legal and insanely famous (even if we always thought that beach party was a little dude-heavy). Yes, a director can probably set their next video on a band trip to the pharmacy to pick up toothbrushes and it'd pick up a hundred million views. But looking back at the boy-band legacies of yore, from "A Hard Day's Night" to "I Want It That Way," they need something more iconic than their haircuts to remember them by visually. Nothing self-consciously "arty," but stylized enough to be remembered as film and not just as a vehicle for openly weeping at Harry's cheekbone majesty.

2. Rihanna's life-vs.-film problem

When the video for "We Found Love" made the rounds, the conversation turned to an obvious point -- she'd cast a Chris Brown dead ringer in a starring role as a deadbeat-but-somehow-compelling boyfriend. Years after their 2009 pre-Grammy altercation, and with several million words worth of relationship speculation printed, she can't mine that incident for cinematic spark many more times and move her career forward. On record, she's a hit machine and has clearly found a sound in the darker, vampier corners of techno. But the emotional thrust of the "We Found Love" video came not from the veracity of its casting, but the evocative visual details, such as a wan apartment and lighting to suggest the sentimental fog of past relationships. That's where she should take her clips -- less biography, more poetry.

3. Drake, finally himself

What was the big complaint about Drake as he entered the upper reaches of pop stardom? That he had an amazingly idiosyncratic biography but neglected it to play the Lothario with a heart of gold? He made up for lost time with the "HYFR" clip, which finds him getting re-bar-mitzvahed and finally sussing out the uniqueness of his vantage point in hip-hop. (The video can be found here, but be forewarned about the profanity and other language.) It was funny, artfully composed and though certainly one of his lesser singles, the video did what everyone hoped he'd do -- use his life to make art no one else can. This had to be the first video with both a hora and a Birdman cameo.

4. Romain Gavras needs a new topic

His video for M.I.A.'s "Bad Girls" is one of a long line of clips that have only one real theme -- violence exoticized. From the Justice "Stress" clip that made Parisian African immigrants out to be marauding electro fans to a truly unconscionable and muddled take on Occupy for Watch the Throne's "No Church in the Wild," his formula is to toss some recently-newsworthy Other into a nihilistic terror sequence and let it count as art. No one can doubt that he has his familial gene for political noir, and that this ghost-riding Bedouins clip is, on its own, pretty arresting. But taken as a whole, his catalog adds up to one of violence gestured at without being explored, and foreignness used to his own artistic ends without giving the subjects any kind of story. He needs a new idea.


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