Award shows are typically empty spectacles. Behind whatever aura of self-importance they perpetuate are little more than the same logical underpinnings that drive desperate-for-views bloggers to churn out top-10 lists: We’ve narrowed down an unfathomably large field into a few “worthy” selections, and amongst those only one — will it be the one YOU want? Will you be outraged if it isn’t? — will emerge victorious, its merit, its chance of becoming a cultural touchstone, now magically augmented thanks to our little ranking. Although they have the ostensible purpose of rewarding the artistic figures nominated, the main function of award shows is to provide fan service, to trick the viewers at home into feeling they should have some sort of emotional stake in the outcome. This isn’t exactly a novel observation, but it does help explain the shortcomings of Sunday’s YouTube Music Awards.
While the poor viewership numbers received a lot of the attention, the biggest failure of the YouTube Music Awards was its inability to represent the fan-driven nature of the website. The show advertised itself as being a carnival of unscripted mayhem, eschewing the professional rigidity of most award shows in favor of an aesthetic akin to an ideal(ized) viral video: off-the-cuff, random, organic, and independent of expectations. While the madness of what actually transpired on stage could be seen as reflective of that aesthetic — reviews of the show swung between labeling its spontaneity either “sloppy” or “slyly winking” — the problem is that the backbone of the show (the nominated videos themselves; the aspect the fans are supposed to care deeply about) directly contradicted the goal of making the night all about the fans.
For a website that once sported the slogan “broadcast yourself,” there was very little about the nominated videos that represented “you” as a fan (besides the fact you probably watched the videos at some point). While attempting to make the night’s proceedings reflective of an organically viral video, something anyone could (even accidentally) make on a shoestring budget, the nominees were almost wholly comprised of professionally filmed videos by mainstream artists already rooted in the public eye. Sure, there was a Response of the Year category, but it’s impossible to feel any of YouTube’s anyone-can-be-a-STAR appeal when the Video of the Year nominees include the likes Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez. Yes, individual viewers helped make videos like “Gangam Style” and “Thrift Shop” viral sensations, but the videos themselves, their crispness and their professionalism, aren’t exactly replicable for your average viewer. The night was advertised as being actually about the community of YouTube viewers, but it merely ended up being a rehashing of the collective tastes, measured in clicks and important only to those who profit from views, of that community. That isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it is an unimaginative method of ensuring the pre-established stars remain stars and the fans remain relegated to a lower rung of importance, tolerated en masse for their buying powers but irreplaceable and immaterial on a personal, individual level.
Of course, it is easy to say that people should have simply voted differently if they desired a more diverse array of nominees, but that argument fails to take into account that not all YouTube videos start on equal ground. Yes, you have technically have the ability to earn as many views for your homemade music video as, say, Katy Perry does for her latest SFX blockbuster, but only one of you has the ability to make the release of her video a cultural “event.” Anyone can theoretically be a star on YouTube, but those who profit the most from what the website offers in terms of exposure are those who are established in other realms, like radio or television. We elevate the importance of the rare rags-to-riches success stories because they provide us with hope that we too can become famous, but the ability of YouTube to “break” new artists is criminally exaggerated. In an era where fewer and fewer people are buying albums, YouTube is a valuable tool that allows mainstream artists to remain in the spotlight, and while an occasional unknown can rise to the top, it is delusional to see the website as more than a reinforcement of the status quo, sporadically tossing bones to the masses to keep them sated and clicking.
Herein lies the ultimate trickery of the YouTube Music Awards: It’s a show where you nominate the videos you like, but the underlying structure is such that only certain videos truly have a chance of making the final list of nominees, and it’s almost guaranteed that none of those nominees will be something you could potentially make. That bold line between Artist and Fan isn’t unfair, but it seems disingenuous when incorporated into an award show conducted by a website that purports to be all about dissolving that line.
Sunday night was “about” the fans, sure, but only in the hollow way that every single other award show manages to be about the fans. As long as people are on social media debating the winners and arguing about who had the best live performance of the evening, then the show “succeeded” at providing the requisite fan service that normally attracts people to award shows. Onstage shenanigans aside, Sunday’s event was generic, treading the same ground every other award show treads because, hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The YouTube Music Awards, despite the pretense and hype, did little to differentiate itself from the crowd, which is fitting, in a way, considering the night ensured the viewers wouldn’t stand out, either.