MTV Video Music Awards 2012: From Madonna to MIA, Looking Back at 28 Years of VMAs


What do you get when you mix a Kardashian, a Kanye, Snooki's Baby and around 20 acts you've never heard of in one room? The 2012 Video Music Awards.

You know what you are getting into with the VMAs; an awards show to celebrate music vetted by pay-to-play charts owned by one or two corporations. You get your new Madonnas dressed up to valiantly accept awards for songs they didn't write performing in videos they got the script for on the day of production.  It's a bottom-line enterprise mangled with American social and cultural politics displaying the limits of what is acceptably edgy for that year. Pay-to-play agreements between stations, channels, and labels inevitably lead to a person on stage who cannot hold a note, wearing the latest post-apocalyptic half-shirt wailing a pointless message often about screwing over their ex. Sometimes more then one person will be onstage with an entourage of folks you can expect to be the highlight next year. And they're all drunk and on a combination of meds probably made by the same corporations who developed the artist. 

To offset this spectacle, MTV highlights it's clean Disney factory cream puffs who, like a pleasant smearing of cheese, are smacked in between the gross displays of pseudo-sexuality that couldn't turn on even the most hormone laced teenager. Unless of course that artist is the Beebster who invokes the masochistic blood lust of teenage girls unrealized sexual cannibalism. If you are a screaming teenager and paid attention to any of MTV's 17 channels throughout the year you might be gathered off the street to play up the fan:celebrity act in the crowd. Now we have a show.

To write a concise history of the breakdown of the VMAs one would need a costly MBA in cultural politics, several frozen dinners, a bitter buddy who worked in the music industry in the 80s and a VHS player. Or we can track the deevolution of the MTV audience from Lil Waynes introduction to now and keep it simple.


At the first ever VMAs in '84, I remember Madonna doing "Like a Virgin" and her forehead glistening from sweat. She was awkward on stage rolling around on a pink paper-mache cake touting her loss of virginity. Eight years old at the time, I asked my mom what a virgin was, didn't get a straight answer, and went on thinking virgins were clumsy, sweaty girls who looked like hairdressers (with a penchant for arts and crafts.) 

One bad performance wipes out the thousands of dollars a team of A&R people put into crafting an artist image and videos. Madonna, bumbling around the stage like a vaudeville hack with all her faults did not matter to my 15-year-old aunt though. Watching an error prone pop-star only fed her belief she was real and represented her views. That's the allure of the VMA's in a nutshell.   The children of the 70s got an awards show for a new format (the music video) special to their generation and smothered it with all they had, even if a bosom or two popped out in the process.

From Kanyes notorious drunken interruption of Taylor Swift, to Madonna french kissing Britney, it's the stunts and bloopers that the audience most relates to since they are what's "real." It's the little unexpected errors and slips of the tongue, not the music videos, that keep the press talking weeks after the event. The moments when the heavy choreographing breaks down or the presenter chokes on the cue cards are more important then the lighting and editing of the video. Besides, we actually only ever see around 30 seconds of the videos nominated.

The music videos themselves are promotional tools that match the look and feel of the commercials that play before and after them. The function of the music video format remains the same: Sell the song, build the artist's image, rinse, repeat. At its best maybe we get a little social commentary or a speciously considered message to a appeal to "light" cause, but don't expect miracles from today's brand of minstrel. Some say the music is overproduced and undernourished or that MTV is not what it used to be; that all powerful cultural exporter of rebel yells and new styles replaced by cliched chorus' and safe words. Both assumptions are correct. The 8-year-old me who watched the first VMAs eventually grew to direct music videos for MTV, none of which got nominated or were for huge acts, but I learned the network is a slave to the same charts they inadvertently contribute to. With other music video channels competing for low end advertisers MTV has branched out into multiple sub-channels dedicated to everything from niche genre charts to pop charts. How a song "charts" is an inside secret. The secret sauce is a mixture of sound scan sales  (the company that tracks what music people are buying), the artist previous relationship with the charts and some favor pulling. The favor pulling is almost always the dominant ingredient. 

You may ask yourself, "What exactly happens to allow for a Lil Wayne or a Katy Perry to continue existing?" Usually it's the magical part of that secret chart sauce where newer charts like Beatport sales or revered trendspotters tune in. In terms of the group LMFAO with their track "Party Anthem" it was simply their fathers over at the record company who gave their sons number one priority at the label. Hopefully the secret has not left you stuck with having to live alongside a skyscraper sized billboard of One Direction, the newest boy band, over your head. If it has though, hopefully we can learn to appreciate the capitalistic spirit of it all and the thousands of photoshop designers that have steady freelance work.

It takes a lot of smudge brushes to make these artists look good. The lead singer of a video I directed complained he "looked too old," this was before online color correction and "youth" plug-ins. He had to live with it and life went on, but today there is a job known as "cosmetic digital compositor." This persons spends their workdays crafting perfect faces and bodies out of imperfect humans. If nothing, music videos provide work for a creative class raised on MTV, think about it like the children of the machine working for the machine.

MTV, FUSE, UKs Top of the Pops and a dozen other clones including iTunes are in the business of the business, like a B2B promotion service reselling the creative output of sometimes several hundred employees to the "artist" who create content for a generalized audience. The friend of yours into obscure Phish bootleg recordings or the strict Coltrane Jazz-o-phile is not concerned with Demi Lovato's , of Disney fame, new screeching dance track. Nor is a '90's techno deejay concerned with the new Skrillex speaker-destroying dub step anthem played by a rejay (my word for button pushers,.)  For the interesting, obscure and talented please do not turn to the VMAs. They phased out the "Best Experimental Song and Video" category in the mid-90s. And guess what? MTV doesn't care about them either. If the artist isn't pulling in tons of sales, advertisers won't bite. That much is not inside knowledge.

Chances are slim that you will have heard 90% of the music though unless you represent the 14-25 demographic, troll the U.S. pop charts, or work in the industry. According to a broad, unofficial, and slightly lazy survey of my millenial, gen X/Y/Z's and fiercely-independant friends, no one is watching television. Justin Bieber's success is due to YouTube (he's won most views in a day at 4 million for "Boyfriend") and crappy bands are what makes America so great (what has Hanson and Silverchair been up to lately?)

Video may have killed the radio star but the internet did not kill the music video star, it just increased their exposure to fans. 

We can complain about the homogeneity of a musical trend. Currently this trend is autotune and using the word 'Tonight' in every chorus. We can debate the efficacy of Kanye saying a certain word versus Gwyneth Paltrow saying the same word all day long.  We can even blank out into our fantastic "What real music sounds like" dreamworld and go on about how certain music has Darwinian superiority over others. Wherever we go with this though, the general public relationship to the music video is a crafted and calculated reaction that comes with a certain degree of risk for the artist and almost always a heavy financial pay-out. Even so-called "leaked" songs aka white lie PR hoaxes have lead to "leaked" unfinished videos to generate a buzz. Case in point, Erykah Badu's unfortunate Flaming Lips collaboration for a cover of “The First Time Ever I saw your Face” which lead to a video leak of unparallelled depravity where her sister's naked body was subjected to all sorts of organic slow motion juice attacks. Since it was "leaked" the video had a green screen unmasked (meaning the cosmetic digital compositors hadn't reached it yet.)  I find it curious that a finished version never appeared.

Before the public sees the new Katy Perry music video, over 100 checks have been written to everyone from the freelance video effects guy, to the social media outsource, to the PR agency who doled out the previous two checks, etc.  The most cost conscious artists cut corners wherever they can, venturing into becoming their own directors or even shooting the damn thing themselves (ie, Beastie Boys.) This idea of Green Music Videos hasn't caught on yet but acts are finding that keeping the production simple by relying on existing "cool stuff" or just having a really good concept is enough. That's why this year I have to hand to one of the nominees up for "Best Music Video." M.I.A and her video for "Bad Girls" in a one location, epic image shocker done with little production value by Costa Gavras' son (of Z fame), Roman Gavras. If it wins it could be a turning point for the VMAs and the standard artists have to attain. "Bad Girls" should be to today's MTV generation what "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" was for 1984's MTV generation.  Furthermore, M.I.A's nomination is not enough, she must win in order for Adam "MCA" Yauch 1998 prophecy about the United States growing race hate to come full circle.

Yauch, upong receiving his Video Vanguard award for directing the Beastie Boys videos said that the United States had to watch itself over the growing tide of anti-Muslim fear mongering.  Back in '98 it was unheard of (Islamophobia wasn't even a word) to bring politics into the VMAs.


I spoke to some the MTV folks about this.  You know, the little people with important jobs who work over at that Viacom building on 42nd Street. Apparently they don't watch the stuff. "Man, I'm just working on getting this big ass paper mache cake built, we ain't into politics." In so far as we're in an election year, embroiled in several known wars and several more unknown ones, the VMA's of 2012 should be a noble distraction that gives us the next few weeks to discuss why a rapper no one heard of said this, or why whats her face wore that. The last thing that will be on our minds is the statement of hijab wearing girls dancing in lockstep while men in thobes and keffiyehs drift in the desert to future music.

It makes you wonder if a music video is shown in the forest but no one see's it, does it actually exist? This is about music videos, right?