What We’ve Learned from the YouTube Music Awards

YouTube Music Awards

Despite promising live performances from artists like Lady Gaga, Eminem, M.I.A., and Arcade Fire, the inaugural YouTube Music Awards received an average of 200,000 viewers throughout its hour and a half premiere. The live awards show, which aired on YouTube on Sunday, November 3, turned out to be a failed experiment. Michael Smith of The Guardian Express writes that “the entire experience was disappointing,” and Bobby Owsinski of Forbes claims that the show was a “missed opportunity” for YouTube. So what, exactly, went wrong, and what can this tell us about YouTube’s place within contemporary media culture?

One of the reasons why the show wasn’t a success is because it didn’t offer anything new. Airing on YouTube at 6 PM eastern instead of 8 PM eastern doesn’t exactly radicalize the awards show. Sure, it was live, but so are the majority of awards shows that air on television. The production values may have been more “amateurish” here, and the structure was certainly less scripted, but overall, the YouTube music awards had all of the conventions we’ve come to expect from awards shows: mediocre monologues, award presentations and speeches, and live performances.

The live performances were fine, and a few of them were even spectacular, but they weren’t exactly revolutionary. The opening number by Arcade Fire, for instance, was a beautiful moment, but YouTube’s description of the performance as a “live music video” is somewhat misleading. There is no such thing as a live music video. If it is live, it is a performance, and we’ve seen plenty of these on awards shows and reality music competitions for decades. This is not to undermine the performance’s quality, because it really was extraordinary (Spike Jones directed and Greta Gerwig danced wonderfully), but YouTube’s promotion of it as something other than what it was suggests that YouTube isn’t entirely clear what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Arcade Fire - "Afterlife" - Live at the YouTube Music Awards (YTMA)

This is even more apparent during Eminem and Lady Gaga’s performances. Eminem performed “Rap God” and Lady Gaga performed “Dope,” with the former rapping in front of a white and black background and the latter sitting at the piano.

Eminem - "Rap God" (YouTube Music Awards)

After viewing Eminem’s performance, I was disappointed to find that YouTube censored the “offensive” language. In 2011, Eminem performed at the Grammys with Rihanna, Skyler Grey, and Dr. Dre, and much of his language was censored by CBS, which turned a potentially powerful performance into a guessing game. Instead of being moved by Eminem’s lyrics, I was trying to figure out what the networks had bleeped. YouTube could have corrected this by allowing the viewer to listen to Eminem freely, but instead they censcored his lyrics, thereby showing that they couldn’t rise above other awards shows.

Lady Gaga - "Dope" (YouTube Music Awards)

The same can be said of Lady Gaga’s performance. “Dope” is a great song and she sings it beautifully, but it is distracting to hear a censored version, and equally frustrating to find that YouTube, a social media platform, is responsible for this. They also do this to M.I.A.’s performance of “Come Walk With Me” and Tyler the Creator’s performance of “Sasquatch” which makes me wonder why they invited these performers in the first place.

The most interesting moment in the show comes with the presentation of Lena Dunham’s “live short film” Hey Brother, which merges interactive storytelling, live performance, and filmmaking. Like Gerwig in the Arcade Fire performance, actors Michael Shannon, Dree Hemingway, Nick Lashaway, and Vanessa Hudgens act out in front of a live audience, only here they are playing characters and performing a narrative written by Dunham. This happens while Avicii plays his set in the background.

Four minutes and 44 seconds into the performance, host Jason Schwartzman stops the show and asks the live audience to “choose their own adventure” and decide how they want the narrative to end. Interactive storytelling isn’t anything new, but it certainly moves us away from the conventions of the awards show. Only during this performance did I feel that the YouTube Music Awards were pushing the envelope.

Avicii - "Hey Brother" / "You Make Me" / "Wake Me Up" (YouTube Music Awards)

The ratings and reviews don’t lie. For YouTube’s standards, 200,000 viewers is low, especially considering the hype surrounding the awards show and the appearances by superstars like Eminem and Lady Gaga. By contrast, the recent MTV Video Music Awards averaged 10 million viewers, and most trending YouTube videos typically garner at least one million hits. Therefore, what we have is a media industry trying to achieve market domination and failing to do so. The YouTube Music Awards suggests that viewers would prefer to turn to other mediums for live entertainment.

It is interesting to note that many video clips extracted from the larger broadcast have received more than 200,000 views since the show’s premiere, which implies that individuals are interested in the content. YouTube exists to eradicate any sense of liveness by allowing users to return to past video clips from other mediums (mostly television) and re-watch them for their own purposes. Thus, it is perplexing to find YouTube trying to emulate television when its very strength lies in its ability to stray from television. This explains why many of the performances within the show have received more views after the fact.

The YouTube Music Awards promised to be a “live performance” where “anything can happen,” but this doesn’t work, because YouTube is successful precisely by allowing users to return to past live moments in an attempt to relive them. YouTube enables us to study Madonna’s superbowl performance or Jimmy Fallon’s lip sync battles, thereby erupting the time-space continuum.

Therefore, the reason why the YouTube Music Awards failed is because it was live.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.

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  1. YTMA was terrible. Poor hosts!

  2. Nicolas Huff

    I liked it. Good to see a genuinely interesting awards show rather than the usual bland efforts (or, even worse, the over-staged ‘shocking’ events that happen at certain ceremonies). Will be interested to see how YouTube ups the game next year.

  3. guadalupe

    Gaga was the only good thing about the awards.

  4. LIKE! It was an abomination to the human spirit and should not be viewed be humans that are alive

  5. So happy for Girls Generation. This born and bread American voted for them. There is such great Pop, Independent and music of all genre coming out of Asia right now. Good job Youtube, you did it right.

  6. Well, if YT wourld put out an awards show with the polish of the Emmys or Oscars, then I think it would miss the whole point of Youtube. OF COURSE they won’t be a high-buck ratings bonanza. Youtube is about content generation by individuals: that was it’s operating core before Google bought it, and it still is a mainstay. If Youtube degenerated into what broadcast or even cable TV is now, it’d basically defeat the purpose of Youtube in the first place: There’s a reason why the chaotic mess of it all works.

  7. YouTube is in general “chaos you’ll never see on tv”.

    That’s what’s so great about it, and its weak point.

  8. this music awards was a joke most of the winners arent even youtubers

  9. Michelle Webb

    I didn’t even bother to tune in because the marketing of the event didn’t seem on par with the VMAs – the hype of the event just wasn’t present. Whether YouTube likes it or not, awards shows will always be held up in comparison to alike events. In this case, YTMA seemed like a budget version with a weaker production team to pull it off.

    In agreement with Ron’s thoughts, who commented above, it’s a head-scratcher as to why they call it the YouTube Awards… where are our favourite YouTubers at then? I think they should follow through with what they imply: they need an awards event for our favourite vloggers. The YTMA’s were just dabbling in the bleeped music of often overrated acts from the mainstream industry!

  10. Other problem is timezones, The show will never be live all over the world, I voted but I’ve not watched a single second of the show as the timezone would have meant me getting up to watch some music award shows in the middle of the night on a tuesday there’s little point in me doing that.

  11. Nat Parsons

    The way we watch entertainment is changing due to YouTube and on-demand services. The very attraction lies in the fact you don’t have to sit in front of the box at a certain time a day to be entertained. YouTube completely missed the point, and you completely got it, Jon Lisi. x

  12. You can’t blame Youtube for trying. I tend to agree that most people will watch Youtube to see documented video clips and not live presentations. However, the reception to inaugural events like this are typically polarizing and I would not be surprised to see it hit millions of views next year.

  13. This was a failure in the same way that YouTube’s “Year in Review” is a failure: it tries too hard to be in accord with popular culture to the point where it undermines its own historic identity created by the longtime users, and the result is something that is obviously fake and reeks of being fake.

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