MTV VMA 012: Rihanna and Katy Perry Prove MTV Did Not Kill the Video Star

The MTV Video Music Awards are right around the corner, possibly the most insensible and meaningless awards show aired on television. But on the bright side, there will be more music in those three hours than there will be in an entire week’s worth of MTV’s programming. 

The VMAs exploit teen frivolity by praising marketability over artistry; they praise popularity rather than musical achievement. However, their focus—the music video—is an important art form and is worthy of celebrating. Though MTV and its subsidiary stations have phased out nearly all of their music programming, the music video’s importance to artists and to music has only grown. They will continue to grow in importance as our culture becomes more and more digital-centric. 

When MTV started to phase out their music programming in favor of reality television shows over ten years ago, I remember many critics saying that the music video would soon be a doomed and obscure art form. In spring 2009, MTV removed its last music program hosted by a VJ. MTV cited the fact that more music video consumption was taking place online and that their other shows were more popular than their video programming. Video killed the radio star, and The Real World and The Jersey Shore killed the video. 

The music video did find a fitting home in YouTube, and now that YouTube has become the most popular platform for youth to consume music, it is more vital for artists to produce quality videos. I could not find figures on how much artists make through the sharing of their videos 10 years ago versus how much they make today. It’d be an interesting figure to see, they may make more today off ad revenues. Vevo—a music video platform backed by several major music labels—collected a total $150 million in ad sales on their YouTube channel and website in 2010. The labels and artists get a cut of that money every time their video is viewed. Vevo’s CEO says that a billion dollar revenue is not out of the question in the near future.

Music videos are an effectual, stimulating, and convenient way for people to share music in the digital sphere. Videos often come out before the albums, and thereby offer a great way for listeners to get a sense of the music and total aesthetic that an artist has attempted to capture on their upcoming release. The release of a music video also offers a great excuse for extra publicity. If an artist releases two singles, then two videos for those singles, and then an album, they can get five posts on a music blog or music news platform for the price of one. A song’s visuals can help a song have more of an emotional impact on the listener; it can create more salient memories, which can help keep their product on the forefront of consumers’ minds.

The artistry of the music videos has also been reaching new heights, to couple the increased viewership on YouTube, Vevo, and Vimeo. This new attention to artistry is due in part to the efforts of a few visionary musicians, Kanye West and Lady Gaga being two of the most important. To promote his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West released a 35-minute short film entitled “Runaway” that included music from multiple songs on his album. 

This video is the most important music video to come out in recent years. At the video’s premiere at the British Academy of Film and Television Art in London, Kanye cited the canon of great music films—Prince’s Purple Rain, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Michael Jackson's Thrillersaying he “wanted to do a modern version of that.” He cited artists Matisse and Picasso as inspiration. The “Runaway” video was included with the album and appeared for free viewing on YouTube. It was not sold as a separate music film like Purple Rain or The Wall were, yet its production value was as high, if not higher than these other films. Kanye raised the bar for production value of music videos, and a range of artists have followed suit, making music video epics of all kinds. The artists range from Lady Gaga with her stylish “Telephone” video. 

To the Beastie Boys with their hilarious “Make Some Noise”:

To Tyler, the Creator’s haunting war film “Sam Is Dead”:

All these videos are much longer than the songs they’re made for. These videos have plots (sometimes completely unrelated to the song’s lyrics), dialogue, celebrity cameos, and high levels of visual spectacle.

A handful of the videos that are nominated at the MTV Video Music Awards this year contain some of these elements, but none are epics like the videos above. For Video of the Year award, I’m putting my money on Rihanna’s “We Found Love”. 

The video is a surreal and graphic exploration of a downwardly spiraling relationship between Rihanna and a guy who looks a lot like Chris Brown. The video explores drug abuse and relationship violence in an unflinching and imaginative way. It’s racy even by MTV’s new super-low Jersey Shore standards. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Love” has a fair shot, but is probably a bit too artsy. The song and the video are not flashy enough for MTV. 

Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” video is noteworthy. It invokes David Bowie’s Labyrinth in a lot of its imagery. It notes a definite departure from her earlier sexy, body-centric videos.

Some artists have started launched their careers on the strength of videos alone. Tyler, the Creator is a noteworthy example. His rap collective Odd Future (also known as OFWGKTA, for long) had built a solid fan base underground before he released his video for “Yonkers.

But after that video premiered his popularity skyrocketed, and he and his collective emerged into the limelight. The group attracted the attention of 60 Minutes and BBC Newsnight, and both of them ran interview specials that talked about the video. The video helped define the rap group’s aesthetic and said a lot about what the group’s mission, which is express social discontent in shocking and disgusting ways.

There are a handful of musicians that make good videos, I mention Odd Future because their career started as a homegrown internet movement. The group has been able to utilize the internet to remarkable effect to generate hype and create a business. Music videos are only a portion of the large amount of digital products they’ve created to feed their ravenous fan base—they have a tremendous amount of free mixtapes, they have immediately recognizable and colorful visuals, and a handful of interactive blog sites. It is important for musicians nowadays to craft widespread and well-developed digital presences like this. Nearly every important musician has an active Twitter personality, a blog, a Facebook, and person distribution page—a Sound Cloud, a Sharebeast, a Bandcamp or the like. Music videos are an especially great way for artists to show an expansive presence in the digital multiverse we navigate day to day.

So while MTV and the Video Music Awards are entities that are nearly devoid of meaning and sense, the music video is not. They are more vital to artist careers than they were 10 or 15 years ago now that the internet, and more specifically YouTube, dominates the business of music distribution and consumption. Music videos can define an artist’s aesthetic mission; music has an aesthetic that goes beyond the composition of the music itself. Many things contribute to it—the artist’s personality, their appearance, the social groups that connect with the music. All these things function implicitly in the experience of the music. Music videos are an effective way for artists to give listeners a sense of all these things, and are effective for spreading their art and their message in the multimedia-ed digital sphere.