For the third year in a row, I am looking at MTV’s list of what defines the best of the past 12 months in music video and will again be breaking down the nominees for the night’s biggest award – Video of the Year, while also diving into the other categories as well. Predicting the VMAs is a bit like hitting a moving target, since the major categories are decided by fan voting via MTV.com, and the technical categories are decided by “members of the industry.” Couple that with MTV adding a couple of additional new categories in the last few weeks and who knows how any of this process goes down.
Those who bemoan MTV not playing music videos anymore, and I was one of them for the longest time, simply have to live in the now and present. VEVO and YouTube are the destination for these clips, with Vimeo, Daily Motion, and the channel-based streaming found on MTV, VH1, and Fuse serving as the way people want and find their music videos nowadays. Lost in the marginalization of the medium is the fact that music videos remain a vibrant and, often times, fascinating insight into the filmmaking process. With thousands of artists releasing thousands of singles each month, there are literally thousands of music videos released every month as well. As a passionate film writer, reviewer, and observer, I cannot be closed off to some of the remarkable and innovative work found still today in the world of music video.
Last year, Katy Perry outlasted presumptive favorite Adele (“Rolling In The Deep”), the Beastie Boys (“Make Some Noise”), Bruno Mars (“Grenade”), and my personal favorite selection of the 2011 Video of the Year nominees, Tyler the Creator’s “Yonkers” to win the biggest prize of the night. Perry took home two other VMAs for her duet with Kanye West (“E.T.”) and Perry is back in the race again this year with “Wide Awake”. Rihanna competes against herself as both a lead (with Calvin Harris) and featured artist with Drake, while the ubiquitous Gotye and always interesting M.I.A. round out the field.
Mini-reviews of the Video of the Year nominees follow (note: the music videos are reviewed NOT the songs themselves), along with quick thoughts and guesstimates on the other categories for 2012. Videos are graded on a 5-star scale. Note: the eligibility period runs from July 2011 to June 2012…
Watch the videos and see my analysis after the cut!
First up we have arguably the two hottest hip-hop artists around right now, nominated for the clip supporting their melancholic and introspective ballad “Take Care”. Drake and Rihanna may or may not have been a thing, and likewise, may or may not have prompted Drake and Chris Brown’s dust-up at a club a month back or so, but here they are together in simpler times with a minimalist clip from French director Yoann Lemoine.
Recognizing that this is a hip-hop song, makes this video quite striking because this type of clip is something you would generally find with an indie rock band or more adventurous style of artist. Largely composed of static shots of Drake and Rihanna brooding and conveying the romantic emotions present in the song, Lemoine also incorporates images of a bull, a blue jay, and other animals, intermingled with imagery symbolic of global warming, the destruction of the environment, and animal unrest and cruelty. To call “Take Care” adventurous is an understatement. The clip is ambitious, shooting for a meaning and scope far more grand than one may expect or anticipate if they know the song. Does it work though?
Yes and No. Personally, I am quite taken by the track, especially the riveting and far too short Gil Scott-Heron sample that brings forth the tribal music break in the middle of the song. When I first saw the video, I found “Take Care” pretentious and reaching. On subsequent viewings however, the clip retains a curious beauty that resonates with each repetitive watch. Also, Rihanna can cut one helluva steely-eyed look. Contrasting sweetness with unease, calm with storm, Drake and Rihanna’s “Take Care” is an interesting video that I can find people liking and hating in completely equal measure. For me, I am regrettably middle of the road – in love with the visuals, but not sure if it gets itself where it wants to go or not.
Nominations: 4 (Video of the Year, Best Male Video, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography)
With more than 313 million views on YouTube and a consecutive 8 week stint at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” is neck and neck with Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” as the pop music event of 2012. Rare is the song that transcends categorization in this categorical world we live in, but this track hits across all demographics.
And the music video speaks to the often forgotten approach that less is more. Strikingly beautiful and abstract, Gotye’s mournful ballad of a love last over rather trivial disagreements gives us both Gotye and his featured artist, Kimbra, naked and painted into a mosaic of shapes and configurations that eventually have the singers completely camouflaged into the tapestry behind them. The body painting by Australian artist Emma Hack, took nearly a full 24-hour day to complete and the artwork that Gotye and Kimbra absorb into was actually a painting created in the 1980s by Gotye’s father.
I find the clip rather extraordinary, picking up little nuances and details each and every time I watch it. I love the mystery of the piece when you first view it, admire the brilliant subtlety when Kimbra sings her verse, justifying her actions which may or may not have led to the breakup, and how that plays perfectly with her simply stepping out of line with the art the two had created together as lovers and partners. You may have grown weary of the song by now, but this music video is something truly special and distinctive. And a complete longshot with viewer-based voting to win Video of the Year.
Nominations: 3 (Video of the Year, Best Editing, Most Share-Worthy Video)
Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. is so much more than her massive pop breakthrough “Paper Planes” in 2008 and “Bad Girls” is a fine example as to why her legion of fans have stayed with her through the rise and fall of mainstream success. Maligned for her middle-finger salute during Madonna’s Super Bowl Halftime Show performance this past February, M.I.A. does not compromise or fall in line with conventions. Sometimes that works against her and other times, like with her “Bad Girls” clip, the appeal of M.I.A. shines through in a refreshingly breathtaking break from the norm.
The calm before the storm, if you will, comes after the video’s opening credits with director Romain Gavras nailing a perfect shot of M.I.A. leering directly at the viewer. In a frozen stare, she essentially asks us if we are ready, daring us to go on, and then…significant cultural stereotypes about Middle Eastern women gets confronted and attacked. Director Romain Gavras gives us women dancing with AK-47s, moving provocatively, and performing some incredible driving stunts, all under the leadership of revivalist M.I.A. The uprising is intoxicating and tellingly, M.I.A. and director Gavras shot the video in Morocco, to avoid any potential risks of arrest and prosecution.
The behaviors depicted here by women are grounds for imprisonment in some Middle Eastern countries, but the overarching element of “Bad Girls” is whether or not the video reaches its lofty goals of activism and female empowerment or simply perpetuates more stereotypes. To me, the imagery is liberating and compelling and turns things on the ear just enough to make you think about gender roles, how societal norms from all cultures are perpetuated in the media. Frankly, I love it.
Nominations: 3 (Video of the Year, Best Direction, Best Cinematography)
Our returning champion, Katy Perry released “Wide Awake” just under the wire for eligibility rules and ends up still scoring a second consecutive Video of the Year nomination. “Wide Awake” is a powerful song that is very obviously addressing not only the end of her in-and-out marriage to Russell Brand, but also the insanity of the last two years of her career. Only at the MTV awards can Katy Perry be nominated for Video of the Year and get shut out of Best Female Video, just as Gotye was likewise left out of the Best Male Video category. Logic is lost on the nominating committees apparently, but I digress.
“Wide Awake”, to the vast majority of viewers, is big, grand, and ambitious. Perry ties the video to her documentary feature “Katy Perry: Part Of Me” at the beginning and end of the clip, but the rest of the video deals with Katy walking through mazes and labyrinths, encountering frightening horned man/beast hybrids creatures, dealing with mirrors and reflections, enduring some freaky kind of medical experimentation, all while her child-like self accompanies her through this journey Katy must complete to come out the other side – healthy, happy, and restored back to self. It’s big budget, A-list star power run amok, but also infinitely watchable.
And for those familiar with the conspiracy theories surrounding The Illuminati and their influence on pop culture, “Wide Awake” is a ripe and rich example believers now point to regarding secret coded messages placed by those co-opted into the secret society. In fact, “Wide Awake” nails every single item on The Illuminati Conspiracy Checklist. Secondary Persona? Check. Disassociated Fantasy World Fraught With Peril And Danger? Check. Labyrinthine worlds to navigate? Check. Forbidden fruits? Yes. Dark-and-white flooring? Check and check. Monarch Butterflies? Oh, hell yes! Baphomet/horned head creatures? Absolutely! Hypnotic, spinning eyes? Gloriously yes. And from a stuffed cat no less!
You see, I have come to the conclusion that “Wide Awake” has to be custom-made to screw with those who allege that not only is The Illuminati all around us and corrupting our society, but that Katy Perry is one of its most heralded members. Perry stated that she knew from the moment the song was finished, the video concept, direction, and story that she was telling. In that regard, I take great comfort in the notion that Katy Perry took on all of those Illuminati conspirators and threw them a healthy dose of red meat, giving them plenty to chew on while she takes her much deserved self-imposed exile for awhile.
Nominations: 3 (Video of the Year, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction)
Now this is one deliriously odd music video. Rihanna goes all out for this anthemic electro-track that preceded Gotye and Carly Rae Jepsen as being the massive, all-everywhere, all-the-time pop song of the moment. The music video, which was used to launch her latest album, Talk That Talk, is quite intense and yet another example of the global superstar making music videos that cause a lot of consternation and attention from her devoted followers.
“We Found Love” is a little bit of Requiem For A Dream tossed into a shaker and mixed with equal parts physical abuse, carefree sex and drug use, in and amidst the backdrop of the EDM world the music fits within. Rihanna stars with British actor Dudley O’Shaughnessy in a whirlwind clip featuring powerful editing, troubling imagery, and an overwhelming sense of provocativeness, for the sake of, you know, causing controversy. I like Rihanna well enough, but more often than not she feels conveniently controversial. Like filming portions of “We Found Love” in an Irish field, owned by a local politician, and deciding she would go topless for awhile. You know, that kind of thing.
The video accomplishes its goal, I think, of coupling the urgency and pulsating Calvin Harris-produced music with the chaotic and frenzied relationship depicted in the storyline. Clearly, the relationship is not healthy as carefree sex and partying leads to domestic violence and alarmingly, a sexual tryst or four with a seemingly intoxicated Rihanna. Hmmm. The video ends with Rihanna vomiting streamers and then finding her beau essentially overdosed on the floor of their tiny flat. She leaves, then ends the video sobbing in the corner, wearing only a button-down shirt and undoubtedly the scars of the preceding 4:30 minutes.
Stylistically the video is an unmitigated success, but honestly, I shoulder-shrugged at all the desperation on display. If not Perry or Drake, with fan voting deciding the Video of the Year, I certainly could see Rihanna easily winning her second Video of the Year moonman here, following her 2007 winner, “Umbrella.”
Nominations: 3 (Video of the Year, Best Female Video, Best Pop Video)
(VOTED ON BY THE PUBLIC with Projected Winner in all caps):
BEST MALE VIDEO: JUSTIN BIEBER, “BOYFRIEND”, Chris Brown, “Turn Up The Music”, Drake (Feat. Rihanna), “Take Care”, Frank Ocean, “Swim Good”, Usher, “Climax”.
BEST FEMALE VIDEO: Beyonce, “Love On Top”, Selena Gomez & The Scene, “Love You Like A Love Song”, Nicki Minaj, “Starships”, Katy Perry, “Part Of Me”, RIHANNA (FEAT. CALVIN HARRIS), “WE FOUND LOVE”.
BEST NEW ARTIST: fun. (Feat. Janelle Monae), “We Are Young”, Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”, Frank Ocean, “Swim Good”, ONE DIRECTION, “WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL”, The Wanted, “Glad You Came.”
BEST POP VIDEO: JUSTIN BIEBER, “BOYFRIEND”, fun. (Feat. Janelle Monae), “We Are Young”, Maroon 5 (Feat. Wiz Khalifa), “Payphone”, One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful”, Rihanna (Feat. Calvin Harris), “We Found Love”
BEST ROCK VIDEO: The Black Keys, “Lonely Boy”, COLDPLAY, “PARADISE”, Imagine Dragons, “It’s Time”, Linkin Park, “BURN IT DOWN”, Jack White, “Sixteen Saltines”.
BEST HIP-HOP VIDEO: Childish Gambino, “Heartbeat”, Drake (Feat. Lil Wayne), “HYFR”, Jay-Z & Kanye West, “N****s In Paris”, Nicki Minaj (Feat. 2 Chainz), “Beez-N-The Trap”, KANYE WEST, BIG SEAN, PUSHA T & 2 CHAINZ, “MERCY”.
BEST ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC VIDEO: Avicii, “Levels”, Duck Sauce, “Big Bad Wolf”, Calvin Harris, “Feel So Close”, SKRILLEX, “FIRST OF THE YEAR (EQUINOX), Martin Solveig, “The Night Out”.
BEST VIDEO WITH A MESSAGE: Kelly Clarkson, “Dark Side”, Gym Class Heroes (Feat. Ryan Tedder), “The Fighter”, K’Naan (Feat. Nelly Furtado), “Is Anybody Out There?”, Lil Wayne, “How To Love”, DEMI LOVATO, “SKYSCRAPER”, Rise Against, “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown”.
MOST SHARE-WORTHY VIDEO: MTV is showing the voting for this award and voting is determined by how many tweets each video gets with a particular #hashtag. Currently, it breaks down at press time like this: 1) One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful”; 2) Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”; 3) Beyonce, “Countdown”, 4) Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”; and 5) Gotye (Feat. Kimbra), “Somebody That I Used To Know.
(as voted on by MTV personnel and musicfolk):
BEST DIRECTION: Coldplay and Rihanna, “Princess Of China”, Duck Sauce, “Big Bad Wolf”, Jay-Z & Kanye West (Feat. Otis Redding), “Otis”, M.I.A., “BAD GIRLS”, Frank Ocean, “Swim Good”.
BEST CHOREOGRAPHY: Avicii, “Levels”, Beyonce, “Countdown”, Chris Brown, “Turn Up The Music”, Jennifer Lopez (Feat. Pitbull), “Dance Again”, RIHANNA, “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN”
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: David Guetta (Feat. Nicki Minaj), “Turn Me On”, Linkin Park, “BURN IT DOWN”, KATY PERRY, “WIDE AWAKE”, Rihanna, “Where Have You Been”, Skrillex, “First Of The Year (Equinox)”.
BEST ART DIRECTION: Lana del Rey, “Born To Die”, DRAKE (FEAT. RIHANNA), “TAKE CARE”, Of Monsters And Men, “Little Talks”, Katy Perry, “Wide Awake”, Regina Spektor, “All The Rowboats”.
BEST EDITING: A$AP ROCKY, “Goldie”, Beyonce, “Countdown”, GOTYE (FEAT. KIMBRA), “SOMEBODY THAT I USED TO KNOW”, Jay-Z & Kanye West, “N****s In Paris”, Kanye West, Big Sean, Pusha T and 2 Chainz, “Mercy”.
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Adele, “Someone Like You”, Coldplay and Rihanna, “Princess Of China”, Lana del Rey, “Born To Die”, DRAKE (FEAT. RIHANNA), “TAKE CARE”, M.I.A., “Bad Girls”.
MTV TR3S BEST LATINO ARTIST: Juanes, Jennifer Lopez, PITBULL, Romeo Santos, Wisin y Yandel.
The 2012 Video Music Awards, hosted by Kevin Hart, take place Thursday, September 6 at a new start time of 8pm Eastern/5 Pacific, so as not to conflict with President Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech, scheduled for 10pm Eastern/7pm Pacific.
Share your thoughts below? And what music videos do you love, that did not make the cut. I have a long, long, long list personally, but maybe these fit the bill for you?!?!