All year, Google (s GOOG) has been experimenting with new ways to unite, celebrate and sell the idea of what YouTube is to a mainstream audience; last May’s Comedy Week and August’s Geek Week brought together the platform’s top channels, as well as some big names from the Hollywood side of things, for high-profile specials uniting and celebrating the current evolution of YouTube.
Comedy Week and Geek Week were not raging successes, which is why last night, it was interesting to see a different attempt to showcase what is, by the numbers, YouTube’s actual bread and butter: music and music videos.
The YouTube Music Awards, live-streamed from a New York City warehouse transformed into a massive performance space, brought hosts Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts face-to-face not only with YouTube music stars like DeStorm and Lindsey Stirling, but headliners including Lady Gaga and Eminem.
The hour-and-a-half-long show, directed by Spike Jonze, had a deliberately unscripted, unrehearsed feel — the hosts, performers and audience roamed free from stage to stage, at times literally being chased by the cameras.
Schwartzman and Watts were constantly subject to surprises including winner announcements hidden in cakes and face-painting. By the end of the night, they were covered in dust and chalk, and clearly exhausted. It was an entirely different take on awards shows, one that had its fans:
— Xeni Jardin (@xeni) November 4, 2013
And its detractors:
The #YTMA is what would’ve happened if the Oscars had asked James Franco to direct as well as host.
— Lon Harris (@Lons) November 3, 2013
First, let’s dispel with the idea that the actual awards mattered at all. Conceptually, honoring the best in music on YouTube by using the format of an awards ceremony makes sense; in practice, though, the actual awards handed out on Sunday night were inconsequential.
I don’t just say that because the fan-elected winners were either obvious or odd (just one example of the odd: Eminem took the award for Artist of the Year, beating out talent including PSY, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and Epic Rap Battles of History) but because the idea of what a YouTube Music Award actually is never seemed to coalesce.
That out of the way, how was the actual show? Depending on who you ask: A trainwreck or exuberant. (There doesn’t appear to be a lot of middle ground.)
Here’s the thing: YouTube is currently in a place where it’s trying to determine what, exactly, its aesthetic is. After all, it’s a platform whose roots are arguably based in authenticity; letting Schwartzman and Watts literally run around a warehouse with little clue to what was happening next feels like a much stronger fit than a heavily scripted variety show.
But YouTube has also been courting the notion of being a home for premium content, which in theory brings along premium advertising dollars. Partnering with Spike Jonze, then, seems like a logical move — Jonze’s past films, including Being John Malkovich, represent this idea of roughhewn elegance.
Jonze’s signature style, of course, was developed as a music video director, and that experience lead to some of the evening’s highlights. Because really, the best tribute to YouTube’s influence on the music world were the actual musical numbers — billed as “live music videos,” and often inventively staged.
Handing Lindsey Stirling a small red YouTube play button and letting her thank her fans is mildly interesting. Showcasing her talents as a dancer and performer with “Crystalize” was far more impressive.
Also, the opening number, featuring Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife” and actress Greta Gerwig, was flat-out transcendent for me. When the awards stepped aside and let the music take over, the event made sense.
For me, the most dispensable element of the evening (beyond, of course, the actual awards) was the “interactive” short film written by Lena Dunham; that might be an issue of personal taste, but the idea seemed tailored towards a very small, specific audience, and much of Dunham’s dialogue played awkwardly in the environment. Here’s a thought: If you’re aiming for a PG-13 show, and you have a scripted element in the middle of it, maybe don’t fill it with profanity that will lead to multiple audio mutes throughout the sequence.
In general, there seemed to be a disconnect between the rating YouTube was aiming for and what was actually being performed; I think I only heard about half of Earl Sandwich and Tyler the Creator’s performance, not to mention Eminem, because of the swearing being muted on the live-stream. It’s a minor complaint, but one that got distracting as the evening proceeded.
The large complaints, coming out of the event, seem to be frustration with the tone and approach, and people upset that the YouTube community wasn’t represented well enough — a sacrifice made so that more mainstream talent could get showcased.
But this now leads us to ask about what is mainstream, in a world where Eminem’s Vevo channel might have three billion views after decades of performing, but Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are closing in on a billion after less than a year in the spotlight. If that’s the revolution YouTube is trying to celebrate, then those are the stories that need to be told.