Once upon a time, back in the network’s golden years, MTV would assemble all the stars in the top-40 galaxy for an annual celebration of the very best in music videos. They called it the Video Music Awards — the VMAs, for short. They still do, believe it or not, but the VMAs have come to serve a very different purpose in an age when MTV and C-SPAN air roughly the same number of music videos.
These days, it would be fair to say that the VMAs exist less to celebrate music videos than they do to celebrate MTV itself, to reaffirm the network’s place in the zeitgeist. As a pop spectacle, the VMAs are right up there with the Super Bowl halftime concert. As an awards show, they’re a complete farce (to this day, nobody actually knows how the nominees are selected, and few people even bother to ask).
Be that as it may, the VMAs are still a great reminder that music-video culture is as strong and creative as ever, even though (or perhaps because) it has almost exclusively migrated to the internet. The braintrust over at MTV should never be trusted to divvy up the VMA nods with any evident rhyme or reason, but the quality of this year’s nominees suggests that the world’s most famous musicians are still focused on creating award-worthy videos, even if the Moonperson doesn’t have the same gravity that it used to.
The VMAs will air on MTV on Sunday, August 27th at 8pm EST.
7. A Tribe Called Quest — “Dis Generation” (Directed by Hiro Murai)
Nominated for: Best Visual Effects
When A Tribe Called Quest resurfaced from the pages of history, they came back to the game with love in their hearts. Their final album hits every note on the emotional spectrum at one point or another, but it’s pulled along on undercurrents of hope — it says goodbye to the past and casts its eyes toward the future. There’s a lot going on in “Dis Generation,” but the main thrust of the song is dedicated to shouting out the next generation of artists, the people who are gonna keep the Tribe’s flame alive.
The elegant video directed by “Atlanta” mainstay Hiro Murai is a testament to that continuum, the camera gliding down an infinite subway platform as the beat goes on and on. It’s a hypnotic thing of beauty, a clip that shines light on the Tribe’s place in hip-hop while also letting them step into the shadows.
6. Katy Perry — “Bon Appétit” (Directed by Dent De Cuir)
Nominated for: Best Art Direction
This isn’t the Katy Perry video that scored VMA nominations for Best Direction and Best Visual Effects (that would be the maximalist “Chained to the Rhythm,” which is like Tomorrowland by way of Tim Burton), but Dent De Cuir’s “Bon Appétit has a little bit more going on under the hood. It’s a thinker! At least, it’s more a more intellectually stimulating video than you might expect for a song that sounds like a real-life version of the vulgar pop parodies that Rose Byrne’s character sang in “Get Him to the Greek” (“a ring, a ring, a ring around my posey…).
“Bon Appétit” opens with the letters “NSFW” in big neon letters, and proceeds to make good on their promise. Kind of. There’s nothing especially explicit here, but the video is all the more suggestively titillating for that, as we watch a team of chefs knead Perry’s ass like raw dough while she pops her mouth open in orgasmic delight. They’re getting the starlet ready for public consumption in the most literal terms possible, and she’s smiling all the way to the slaughter. Too bad about the Migos part, though.
5. Sia — “The Greatest” (Directed by Sia and Daniel Askill)
Nominated for: Best Choreography
Upon first watch, Sia’s video for “The Greatest” seems like just another one of her kinetic collaborations with twitchy teen doppelgänger Maddie Ziegler. And if that’s all it was, it would still be great; this unlikely duo may never top the unbridled lightning-in-a-bottle rush of “Chandelier,” but it’s still a treat to watch the tiny dancer fling her body around a rundown hallway with such unchecked precision. However, when you put “The Greatest” in its proper context, this particular video begins to assume a new power all its own.
It begins with Ziegler applying rainbow-colored face paint, and it ends with her tears washing that paint away. In the time between, co-director Daniel Askill helps transform Sia’s poppy track into something the songwriter never intended, something much darker but full of hope. Surrounding Ziegler with 49 other dancers — one for each of the victims of the terror attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando — the video resolves into an oblique tribute that’s all the more powerful for the sheer force of life that it leaves behind.
4. Lorde — “Green Light” (Directed by Grant Singer)
Nominated for: Artist of the Year, Best Editing
MTV might pick the nominees for these meaningless awards by blindfolding a random executive and having them throw darts at a wall of celebrity headshots, but the editing in Lorde’s “Green Light” video is pretty great (shoutout to editor Nate Gross). Music videos aren’t exactly known for their patience or judicious lack of cuts, but this killer piece from director Grant Singer — who’s previously directed videos for the likes of The Weeknd (“Mania”) and Ariel Pink (“Dazed Inn Daydreams”) — opens with a confrontational 27-second close-up that immediately galvanizes the hyper-intimate power of this anthemic “Melodrama” single.
The rest of this irresistible video is just a perfect visual distillation for how its song makes you feel. From Steve Annis’ grainy cinematography to Lorde’s crumpled dance moves (as unbridled and awesome when she’s just standing in front of a sink as they are when she’s flailing on the roof of a car), the video courses with a raw sense of reckless abandon. It’s liberating, permissive, and not incidentally the lead track on one of the year’s best albums.
3. Chance the Rapper — “Same Drugs” (Directed by Jake Schreiber)
Nominated for: Best Hip Hop
“Same Drugs” may not actually be about drugs — it’s more about growing up and growing apart — but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise after watching this bittersweet and beguiling video for Chance the Rapper’s gospel-inspired hit. Sitting at a piano next to a sleepy pink-purple monster puppet, and shot through a soft haze that makes him look like a special guest on a particularly stoned episode of “Sesame Street,” Chance croons away until the fantasy falls apart and the rapper is alone in a world he doesn’t recognize. It’s a simple and not-too-serious clip that leaves a wistful aftertaste, as “Paper Towns” director Jake Schreier finds a novel way to nail the surreal isolation of sudden fame.
2. Kendrick Lamar — “H U M B L E” (Directed by Dave Meyers & the little homies)
Nominated for: Video of the the Year, Best Hip Hop, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects, Best Choreography
Nominated in just about every category for which it could possibly be eligible, the video for Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” is as swaggering and self-conflicted as the song itself. A sharp contrast to the urgent, hyper-focused videos that Lamar has commissioned in the past, this piece from Dave Meyers & the little homies is such an irrepressible eruption of big ideas that it feels like a glimpse inside the rapper’s brain (or at least a look at one of his more irreverent lobes). No wonder his head is literally on fire.
In the song, Lamar implores his contemporaries to recognize his greatness in the same breath as he reminds himself to stay humble. In the video, Lamar strides across the globe like he’s starring in a live-action “Super Mario Galaxy”; he demands humility while sitting in Jesus’ spot at the Last Supper. He stands amidst a sea of other black men, the only one who isn’t bald, cowering the crowd one second and sinking into it the next.
It feels like there’s still 10 big ideas in this thing after that one, and they’re all equally silly and tinged with seriousness — they’re all perfectly at home on a banger from an album called “DAMN.” Lamar’s greatness is a gift to us all, even if he’s still wrestling with it. Be humble. Sit down.
1. Young Thug — “Wyclef Jean” (Directed by Ryan Staake)
Nominated for: Best Editing
What do you do when the rapper who hired you to make his music video never shows up for the shoot? That was the dilemma facing Ryan Staake when Young Thug totally ghosted him on the set of “Wyclef Jean,” stranding the director at a Hollywood mansion with a gaggle of models, a bunch of hyped-up little kids, a fleet of mini-cars, and…a kielbasa, for some reason. So what did Staake do? He made lemons into lemonade, turning the video into a hilarious document of its own disastrousness.
Like an episode of “Pop-Up Video” as written by a frustrated Charlie Kaufman, “Wyclef Jean” uses copious text, the voicemail of Young Thug’s original pitch, and even behind-the-scenes footage shot by a Vice camera crew to create a meta-textual work of art that’s miles better than whatever was originally planned. It ends with a note that says “The video cost over $100,000 and the artist never showed up,” but this masterpiece was worth every penny.