NEW YORK – As the first YouTube Music Awards came to a close Sunday night, creative director Spike Jonze thanked the powers that be at the video-sharing website for “letting us make this mess.”
He couldn’t have chosen a more apt word.
The inaugural 90-minute webcast, held in New York City and hosted by actor Jason Schwartzman and comedian Reggie Watts, was conceived as a more spontaneous answer to the Grammys or the Video Music Awards, one in keeping with the anarchic spirit of the Internet.
But the show, which featured a smattering of performances by mainstream pop stars as well as homegrown YouTube celebrities, was broadcast from Pier 36 in downtown Manhattan and often seemed not just free-wheeling but unhinged.
The broadcast was not a huge draw online. The live stream maxed out at a little over 200,000 viewers – a drop in the bucket compared with the 10 million or so who tuned in to the VMAs on MTV in late August.
YouTube enlisted some big-name talent to put the show together, including Jonze, the innovative filmmaker who got his start crafting videos for the Beastie Boys and Weezer. The actor and director – among other things – is also enjoying Oscar buzz for his upcoming feature, “Her,” and Vice, the über-hipster multimedia company responsible for sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea.
Particularly noteworthy Sunday were performances by the likes of Eminem, M.I.A. and Lady Gaga, which were staged as “live music videos,” each with a radically different sensibility. In the boisterous opening number helmed by Jonze, actress Greta Gerwig danced through a snowy forest to the sounds of Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife” and onto the venue floor, where she was joined by a troupe of young girls.
Lady Gaga, who showed up in little more than two clam shells and a thong at the VMAs in September, opted for a more buttoned-up look on YouTube, wearing an oversized flannel and a baseball hat for a stripped-down, tear-streaked performance of her single “Dope.”
A set by the Swedish DJ Avicii played like a choose-your-own-adventure in which the audience got to decide the fate of a young couple who meet cute at a club.
The show was, to the relief no doubt of parents everywhere, largely devoid of the shock value that’s come to define the VMAs. There was nary a foam finger or lascivious teddy bear in the house, but it also was a bit of a mess.
Every effort was made to create an air of spontaneity, but the kitchen-sink approach yielded more mass confusion than memorable moments. At one point, hosts Watts and Schwartzman were handed a pair of adorable, diaper-clad babies and had to make small talk with winners Macklemore and Ryan Lewis as the infants began to wail.
It probably didn’t help that the webcast was beset by a number of technical glitches, including dropped sound and a wonky livestream, or that Schwartzman and Watts frequently had to scramble to fill the frequent dead air between performances.
But if the broadcast looked a little unpolished, the vibe inside the hangarlike venue on the East River was downright chaotic. Moments before the show began, Jonze and Schwartzman warned audience members they might get jostled.
They weren’t kidding. For the several hundred mostly young and hiply appointed attendees in the audience, the night felt less like an awards show than an expensively produced rush-hour commute – one during which they were liable to be pelted with bags full of colored powder or be stampeded by a frantic Steadicam operator while trying to upload blurry photos of Lady Gaga to Instagram.
The actual awards seemed to be something of an afterthought. Eminem was named artist of the year, while K-pop group Girls’ Generation won for video of the year with “I Got a Boy,” prompting a collective “Who?” from the audience. Other winners included Taylor Swift with “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which was named YouTube phenomenon – in other words, the video that inspired the most fan responses.
That’s not to be confused with response of the year, recognizing “the best fan remixes, covers or parodies,” which was awarded to Lindsey Stirling and Pentatonix for their cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.”