Miley Cyrus' dirty dancing antics at August's MTV Video Music Awards helped the cable channel clean up in the ratings, pulling in more than 10 million viewers. Since then, replays of Cyrus' bawdy performance, along with reports about her exploits and parodies, have racked up tens of millions of hits on YouTube, helping to solidify the moment as a perverse pop cultural oddity.
The Cyrus proliferation on YouTube also underscored the website's perch as the primary place to find and watch music videos, a space MTV has largely abandoned in favor of Reality TV and other original programming. Now YouTube, in a virtual twerk at MTV, is launching its own music awards show Sunday – unofficially claiming the music video throne from the founding king.
Both entertainment powerhouses have traveled, to varying degrees, from their original missions. MTV debuted in 1981, appropriating man-on-the-moon imagery to stake its claim as the round-the-clock home for music videos. The cultural phenomenon moved from cries of “I want my MTV!” to “Rock the Vote” to “The Real World” to “Jersey Shore” to the point where music videos are an excuse for an awards show whose real objective seems to be inspiring controversy.
YouTube began in 2005 with a goal of making it easier to find and share videos. At the time, few likely imagined the site would change the music industry with an impact second only to iTunes.
Save for the classic “Charlie Bit My Finger – Again!” short, the rest of the 30 most-watched YouTube clips of all time are music videos, according to Videotrine. PSY’s wacky and catchy “Gangnam Style” is the leader, with more than 1.8 billion hits – nearly twice as many as the runner up, the Justin Bieber earworm, “Baby.”
Both PSY and Bieber are finalists in YouTube’s Video of the Year and Artist of the Year categories, which seem straight out of the MTV playbook. But the other categories were built for an online audience, including Response of the Year (fan remix, parody or response videos), YouTube Phenomenon (“Gangnam Style” seems a lock), and YouTube Breakthrough (artists with biggest growth in views and subscribers).
Sure, there will be performances Sunday by Lady Gaga, M.I.A. and Arcade Fire, among other major acts. But the stars’ fates are in the hands of the fans, who will decide the winners via an online vote.
The show, to stream live from New York, is set to be hosted by Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts, under the supervision of Spike Jonze, whose directing career spans music videos (Weezer, Beastie Boys) and movies (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”). It’s unknown, of course, how many people will view the live stream – but it doesn’t much matter. In the YouTube music age, the show’s success will be judged by viral moments that will be watched – over and over – long after the final award is announced.
In the meantime, check out YouTube Music Awards nominees here and a video below from Schwartzman talking about the big event:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.