Sometime between Macklemore asking if he could keep a stranger’s infant and an award winner’s name being hidden in the middle of a cake — or, wait, maybe in between Lindsey Stirling flying through a city and Avicii incidentally soundtracking a cat-fight involving Vanessa Hudgens — the inaugural YouTube Music Awards became a lovably unhinged affair, complete with “live” music videos with all the seams showing and comedic banter that smacked of zonked-out improvisation. The 2013 YouTube Music Awards, held at New York’s Pier 36 on Sunday night (Nov. 3), was an art installation posing as an awards show, with some of the biggest names in popular music serving as sculptures willing to be molded.
Remember at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards when the affable host, Diddy, kept proclaiming that “anything could happen” that night, and the biggest surprise of the evening was a performance by MC Hammer? The YouTube Music Awards actually provided the spontaneity — for better or worse — that Diddy boasted about eight years ago, thanks largely in part to creative director Spike Jonze. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler rushed the stage to chastise Taylor Swift cover artists with a wink. Avicii’s performance, set against a cracked romance tale penned by Lena Dunham, was paused midway through so fans could vote for a conclusion, a la choose-your-own-adventure books. Even a small moment like Tyler, The Creator gently stroking co-host Jason Schwartzmann’s stringy hair was delightfully zany.
Unexpected comedy peaked through the award presentations and performances at the YouTube Awards. When Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won the award for YouTube breakthrough while Schwartzmann and co-host Reggie Watts were inexplicably holding babies in their arms, the rapper cracked, “I can’t believe we won these kids, man. I’ve always wanted a kid, without having to actually have sex.” It was an unscripted joke that felt “real,” as the raver in Avicii’s meta-performance might say.
While some of the performances benefited from the viral-ready strategies at the forefront of the YouTube Awards, others sagged under the mechanisms of their concepts. Arcade Fire’s opening rendition of “Afterlife,” directed by Jonze channeled Fatboy Slim’s Jonze-helmed “Weapon of Choice” video by featuring an acting great (“Frances Ha’s” Greta Gerwig) spasmodically dancing outside of her middling terrain, before the group (and some cheerleaders) eventually joined her onstage. Eminem’s night-closing “Rap God” was simplistically designed, starting off with the rapper against a white backdrop crushing syllables and lines together, and successfully captured the fire of the chorus-less track. And viral sensation Lindsey Stirling became perhaps the breakout star of the ceremony by allowing herself to be suspended in air and zipping through cityscape projections during an invitingly wacky performance of “Crystallize.”
However, Lady Gaga’s stripped-down take on her “ARTPOP” track “Dope” failed to be the emotional stunner it desperately deserved to be. Jonze and Chris Milk’s direction kept the camera close to Gaga’s tears-streaked face as she sat at a piano, rasping “I need you more than dope” on a darkened stage; unfortunately, the screaming audience at the awards show torched that intended feeling of intimacy. Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator’s mosh-pit performance was awe-inspiring… unless you have motion sickness, or hate when every other word is bleeped out. And Avicii’s story-as-performance was a deeply compelling way to digest his production, precisely until the action (and music) stopped for fan voting. It was an intrusive “meta” moment, killed under the guise of cleverness.
In between Schwartzmann asking Stirling “So how long have you been playing?” upon her award win and Watts’ microphone scatting, the YouTube Award hosts appears frazzled and unsteady, their comedic power hidden underneath a layer of face paint applied by OK Go. But the YouTube Music Awards, despite its many awkward steps, proved itself a dance worth attending in its first year. The guerrilla-style affectations need to be smoothed-out, but for the most part, there was real electricity and a refreshing go-for-broke attitude at the ceremony. The 2013 YouTube Music Awards were far from stuffy, and with the right tweaks, next year’s event could be required viewing.
Here are the 2013 YouTube Music Award winners:
Artist Of The Year: Eminem
Video Of The Year: Girls’ Generation, “I Got A Boy”
YouTube Phenomenon: “I Knew You Were Trouble”
Innovation of the Year: DeStorm, “See Me Standing”
Response Of The Year: Lindsey Stirling and Pentatonix, “Radioactive”
Breakthrough Of The Year: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis