The MTV Video Music Awards may be turning the big 3-0 Sunday night, but don’t expect lots of retrospectives and reminiscing.
With high-profile performers, including Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, the VMAs will take over the Barclays Center to become the first major awards show held in Brooklyn, and instead of getting lost in nostalgia, they plan to make new buzzed-about memories.
“Change is in the DNA of the VMAs,” said Dave Sirulnick, MTV’s executive vice president of news and production and the VMA’s executive producer. “Change is in the DNA of MTV. … The form that we celebrate – music video – is always changing. Pop culture is always changing. The audience is always changing.”
Perhaps changing even faster is the perception of the music video. Less than a decade ago, the music video was struggling – yet another casualty of declining music sales, as belt-tightening major labels slashed budgets for promotional clips.
Last year, however, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” – and, maybe more important, his follow-up, “Gentleman,” which was only partly in English but still reached the Top 15 on the American charts this year – made it clear that a great music video could launch a career today, just as it did for Duran Duran and Madonna more than 30 years ago.
In February, Brooklyn producer Baauer landed a No. 1 hit with “Harlem Shake” on the strength of its video – and the millions of parodies of it – after Billboard changed the formulation of its charts to count YouTube views as part of its tally of a song’s popularity. In April, the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria launched what it called “the first museum exhibition to celebrate the art and history of the music video,” collecting more than 300 influential music videos, as well as artifacts and props used in their creation.
“Music video, for decades, has been an art form, and, like any art form, it has its ebbs and flows,” Sirulnick said. “I think we are currently in a high period creatively for music videos.”
He credits changes in technology and in the availability of the tools needed to make music videos for the resurgence. “Right now, the odds are that you have a camera in your pocket that you can make a video with,” Sirulnick said. “Making videos, visuals of all sorts, is part of what culture is about now. There are more and more people growing up with a different sense of what it means to express yourself through video.”
Sirulnick uses Miley Cyrus’ distinctive “We Can’t Stop” video, up for four awards, as an example of how a new generation of artists is taking the art form to new levels.
“When someone like Miley Cyrus is launching this new phase of her career and launching this album, her music video choices are going to be informed by the fact that for years and years and years she’s already been expressing herself through videos – not considering her past as a TV star, just as a person,” he said. “This one is so personal and expressive about her. She found images that stick out and that you have not seen in the prior 30 years of the Video Music Awards. That’s pretty amazing.”
The power of music videos these days has only added to the strength of the VMAs as the kind of cultural event that few can rival.
At a concert in Central Park last week for “Good Morning America,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who tied Justin Timberlake for the most VMA nominations this year, just shook their heads at the thought of performing their hit “Same Love” on the show.
“It feels crazy,” Lewis said. “To perform on the VMAs is a privilege, so we’re very, very excited. It’s gonna be a special night, I think.”
This year, Macklemore & Lewis are in the same position that everyone from Nirvana to Taylor Swift has been in before – introducing themselves as performers in front of a roomful of music’s biggest stars while the rest of the world looks on. “There is just something about the proving ground of the VMAs,” Sirulnick said. “It could change the direction of their careers. It’s their chance to show the world what they can do.”
With such a big platform, it’s no wonder superstars are lining up to use the show as the kickoff to promotional campaigns for their new or upcoming albums. Both Lady Gaga, who will open the show with “Applause,” and Katy Perry will perform their new singles for the first time in public, while Kanye West is set to tie Madonna for the most performances on the show when he takes the VMA stage for the seventh time to do “Black Skinhead.”
“The notion of having a lot of new music is one of the things that keeps the VMAs very fresh,” Sirulnick said. “We’re very much in the moment and looking forward.”
He adds that having the show in Brooklyn adds to that feeling.
“Brooklyn has a rooted culture, but it has also embraced the new and changed thoroughly,” said Sirulnick, who adds that he was born in the borough. “We’ve always had our eye on Brooklyn, but there wasn’t ever the prized venue to house the Video Music Awards. It’s quite a large show. When the Barclays Center was announced, it was something that we were really, really interested in.”