Last night (November 3) marked the inaugural YouTube Music Awards, a spectacle that balanced precariously on directoral innovation and viral “Harlem Shake” videos. The awards tapped famed auteur Spike Jonze, known for his surreal style and subtle humor in his many music videos and feature films, to serve as the event’s creative director. It was a bold idea: to create live music videos, direct and produce them in real-time, and create something more than just a taped theatrical presentation. They were going to create actual music videos. It was ambitious and worth of respect for attempting to stand apart from the other award shows, but did it work?
Well, sort of. With Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts hosting, much of the show played out like an improvised world similar to Charlie Kaufman’s movie Synecdoche, New York: A series of obtuse vignettes that sort of felt connected but really weren’t. Combining something like Avicii, Lena Dunham, live streaming, and choose-your-own-adventure storytelling is delightful in theory, but a little clunky in execution. This was one of seven “music videos” that were produced from the show. Here is our rundown of what really worked, and what really didn’t.
Eminem – “Rap God” (Created by James Larese)
What worked: This one’s all about Eminem. With a rather stilted performance on SNL the night before, Em took his most dexterous song in years out for this shot. The simple black & white made for a good backdrop to put the spotlight on Em’s supreme ability as a performer.
What didn’t: With Em just kind of pacing around on stage, the camera had a hard time finding focus, and after the black & white backdrop gave way to the crowd, there was no real hook to the video anymore, just Em and his hypeman performing with their backs to the crowd.
If this were a movie, it would be called: Pi 2: Return To 8 Mile
M.I.A. – “Come Walk With Me” (Created by Fafi)
What worked: Most of it! M.I.A. had one of the more successful executions. The hand-held camera effect, the close-ups inside the rope-light mirror tunnel, even just the image of someone blithely texting while hula-hooping is great.
What didn’t: Well the reason this worked mainly because there was no real performing, just a backing track. This, it would appear, defies the “concept” of what they were going for, but also made for one of the best videos. Do we care that she’s not singing? Not really.
If this were a movie, it would be called: Spring Breakers (Bollywood Remake)
Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator – “Sasquatch” (Created by Tyler, the Creator)
What worked: Very little. It does capture the feel of an intimate Odd Future show, though.
What didn’t: This video kind of redefines the use of “negative space.” Most of the song “Sasquatch” contains words that the FCC do not approve of at all, so perhaps in a subversive move, Tyler and Earl picked a track they knew would be 60% muted. Art! (?)
If this were a movie, it would be called: The B**** W**** Project
Lindsey Stirling – “Crystallize” (Created by Ray Tintori)
What worked: Lindsey Stirling isn’t a household name, but the YouTube-approved dubstep violinist and composer–who took home the award for “Response of the Year” for her cover of Imagine Dragons‘ “Radioactive” with a cappella group Pentatonix–used her moment to dance through what looked like Gotham City. The video’s creator Ray Tintori made good use of a few old school camera tricks, like flipping the background projections to make Sterling look like she was flying through the air à la Sally Field’s The Flying Nun.
What didn’t: While it’s clear that Stirling wasn’t really flying, seeing her walk through the control room on her way to the next segment, which featured the tall grass of an open meadow, did make us feel like Dorothy when she realizes the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz was a fraud all along.
If this were a movie, it would be called: The Flying Violin
Avicii – “Hey Brother”/ “You Make Me”/ “You Wake Me Up” (Directed by Spike Jonze and Chris Milk)
What worked: Written by Girls scribe Lena Dunham, the PSA for finding love in the club highlights three tracks from Avicii and casts Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Shannon as a much douchier version of the DJ, who steals Vanessa Hudgens away from her hoodie wearing sad sack of a boyfriend.
What didn’t: Dunham’s story, a melodramatic skit that featured a girl fight, seemed like it was taken right of the cutting room floor of her HBO show. But it’s that tragic Choose Your Own Adventure ending, which might have seemed good on paper, but live, just seemed like a lame way to take advantage of it being broadcast live on the Internet. Though, all the supporting actors were really good sports about having blood and guts dropped on them.
If this were a movie, it would be called: Carrie 3: Tragedy at da Club
Lady Gaga – “Dope” (Documented by Spike Jonze and Chris Milk)
What worked: The stripped-down, raw performance stood out mostly for its subtlety, not usually Lady Gaga’s forte. Watching her just wail it out behind the piano in just a ball cap and a flannel shirt–and some convincing dope fiend eye makeup because yes, this is Gaga–was a welcome surprise and something we’d like to see more of from Mother Monster.
What didn’t: The too close-up, too dark shot made it hard to see what was really going on. Sure, we were told Gaga had the waterworks going, but that black shadow over her face made it hard to see those alleged tears.
If this were a movie, it would be called: The Dope Fiend’s Lament
Arcade Fire – “Afterlife” (Directed by Spike Jonze feat. Greta Gerwig)
What worked: This one is all about actress Greta Gerwig, who showed off her Francis Ha dance moves to get over a break-up. She sashays out of her apartment through a snowy forest, where she completely ignores Arcade Fire’s Win Butler creeping in the shadows, and ends up on stage with the band alongside a bunch of young ballerinas. This clip seems like the best example of what the YouTube Awards were going for when they said they were filming live music videos.
What didn’t: Some of the choreography was a little well…cheesy, like it was taken right out of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” video, also directed by Spike Jonze, who stars as the lead dancer in the clip. Except here, no one was in on the joke. They probably should have gotten a real dancer to star in this one, but bless Greta’s little heart for her willingness to do this at all.
If this were a movie, it would be called: The Break-Up 2: Electric Boogaloo
— Jeremy D. Larson and Shannon Carlin, Radio.com