Can YouTube create live content that inspires watercooler zeitgeist moments like television? Google’s giving it a shot with the YouTube Music Awards, a celebration of do-it-yourself Internet culture livestreaming on YouTube right now. It’s chaotic, innovative, offensive, silly, and downright weird. But one thing’s for sure. You won’t see this on TV.
Creative director Spike Jonze’s goal with the the YouTube Music Awards was to create “live music videos” on stage with artists like The Arcade Fire and Lady Gaga. You can read the New York Times’ piece on the lead up to the YouTube Music Awards for more context on the production and its intention.
Judging by the concurrent viewer number shown on the livestream (hovering around 175,000 with a peak at 220,000 during Lady Gaga’s performance) the show isn’t a runaway hit. But we’ll have to wait and see whether people take advantage of the option to watch the show on YouTube later.
5:45 EST – Rather than awkward red carpet footage, viewers showing up early are being greeted with behind-the-scenes interviews and clips of how the New York City production came together.
6:00 – With little fanfare, hosts Jason Schwartzman (actor from Rushmore) and Reggie Watts (improv musician and comedian) have kicked off the first YouTube Music Awards. The microphones are bit quiet signaling this won’t be the highest production value affair.
6:03 – For the first live music video, actress Greta Gerwig is dancing out her breakout woes to a new tune from Arcade Fire. The traditionally very serious band doesn’t quite mesh with the funny faces and spaz-out dance moves Gerwig is tossing around.
6:05 – The hosts are already fumbling over themselves trying to keep the chaotic program on the rails. They introduce a sprawling medley of YouTube hits sung by tribute musicians and viral video stars like Walk Off The Earth (a whole band who plays covers by simultaneously playing a single guitar) and Tay Zonday of “Chocolate Rain” fame. It’s ridiculous and campy, but the middle-school dance squad doing “What Does The Fox Say” was cute.
6:15 – The first YouTube Music Award for YouTube Breakthrough goes to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for their “Thrift Shop” video. Macklemore tells the crowd they shot the video for just $5,000 with a bunch of their friends, highlighting the democratizing nature of YouTube. And in the first moment proving this is not television, after thanking his family and fiance, Macklemore thanks “the guy who used to sell me shrooms.”
6:25 – Lady Gaga draws the biggest audience of the night with a stripped down performance of her new song “Dope”, taking advantage of the lack of censors to sing “I know I fucked up again because I lost my only friend.” Instead of her typical sensational costumes, she’s keeping it real in a flannel button up and baseball cap. With tears seeming to build behind her eyes, Gaga provides the most compelling moment of the evening when she cries out “I need you more than dope!”
6:30 – In one of many strange gimmicks, Schwartzman and Watts have to dig the name of the winner of the “Response Of The Year” award out of a set of birthday cakes. It goes to pop violinist Lindsey Stirling & Pentatonix for their cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive”. Sterling says “I owe everything about my success to YouTube. YouTube let me be true to my passion…true to myself.”
6:35 – Tyler The Creator of Odd Future (not A$AP Rocky as we originally wrote) and Earl Sweatshirt shoot a live music video by rapping from inside a rowdy moshpit.
6:40 – The most artistically successful part of the evening saw Lindsey Sterling flying on wires through a lightning-struck city scape. Her music gives the impression of hurdling through space and Jonze captured it vividly.
6:45 – The discombobulating nature of the event is starting to make it feel grating. When Taylor Swift song “I Knew You Were Trouble” wins the YouTube Phenomenon award for inspiring the most fan videos, Arcade Fire lead singer Win Butler comes out and “steals” the microphone, mimicking Kanye West’s famous interruption of a Taylor Swift award speech year ago. Butler announces that obviously “Harlem Shake” should have won. It all feels a bit canned.
6:50 – Korean girl group Girls’ Generation wins Video Of The Year. Their “I Got A Boy” video seems pretty boring and has had little domestic notoriety despite racking up 70 million+ views. It seems like an obvious nod to YouTube’s international audience.
7:00 – MIA performs “Come Walk With Me” in psychedelic LED tunnel. Difficulty capturing the lights on camera detracted from what was probably quite dazzling in person.
7:10 – Eminem inexplicably wins “Artist Of The Year” despite his new album not being released until later this week. He beat out musicians who were actually huge this year like Justin Bieber and PSY, whose “Gangnam Style” now has 1.8 billion views.
7:15 – Well isn’t that convenient. Eminem is the closing performance for the show…except he’s nowhere to be found. YouTube quickly pipes in a jagged set of “highlight” clips from the show, followed by Reggie Watts freestyling to kill time. When Eminem appears five minutes later, his performance of “Rap God” is a middling attempt at higher brow art shot in black and white in a blank soundstage.
7:25 – That’s all folks. Schwartzman and Watts seem to have completely run out of things to say as they close the show, with Watts thanking his home state of Montana. The last meaningful thing uttered before the stream cuts off was Spike Jonze saying thanking YouTube “for letting us make this mess.” Accurate.
So Did It Work?
The YouTube Music Awards was fun to watch. The entertainment oscillated between coming from appreciation for great musicians, being impressed by the artistic vision of the whole production, and cringe-worthy scenes when everything seemed ready fall apart. It was anything but boring, which is a huge improvement on the multi-hour Grammys. And it didn’t run gags into the ground like the MTV Video Music Awards.
What was noticeably absent was the practically infinite money of Google. Keeping with the homemade style of much of its content, the hosted interludes between segments were rough around the edges. Cursing, drug references, and the breakneck pace kept it feeling young and fresh.
Still, the YouTube Music Awards could have been much better. The Eminem show lacked inspiration, and though Tyler The Creator’s performance captured the aggression of his music, it looked like a crappy concert video you’d shoot yourself. Unrehearsed chit-chat and mediocre cinematography made it less than spellbinding.
Crystallizing the chaos, at one pointa stagehand (seen below in the middle back) had to come out on stage and tell Schwartzman and Watts they only had 20 more seconds of dead air to fill because Eminem was finally ready to go on.
Some in the YouTube creator community blasted the show for focusing on major label musicians rather than the stars who made their names on YouTube itself. Sterling did win an award and perform, and Destorm, another YouTube celeb also took home a play button statue, but it was the radio stars who got the top slots.
The biggest problem may be that the show lacked a “must-see/must-tweet” moment. There was no Britney Spears-Madonna kiss, Kanye West controversy, or jaw-dropping dance number. YouTube could have done more to engineer something blogworthy.
If you wanted an off-the-cuff, lo-fi awards show, YouTube delivered. It was fun, full of surprises and ambition. If you wanted something to rival television glitz like the MTV Video Music Awards or Grammys, you’re gonna have to give YouTube some time to get its act together.
But if YouTube can do this well already, the TV networks have something to worry about. Google doesn’t demand perfection, it demands progress, and the YouTube Music Awards made television look dated.