What We’ve Learned from the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.