Nowadays, it’s hard to know MTV’s end game. The annual Video Music Awards (whose 2015 nominees were announced on Monday), once recognized as a go-to for recognizing achievement in the artform MTV popularized, have devolved into a celebrity-buzz-on-celebrity-buzz television and social media clusterfuck that can’t seem to decide whether it wants to empower art or devalue it, reflect popular taste or define it, or whether or not it’s even culturally relevant. Chalk it up to MTV’s youth-centric audience, which is maybe less likely to think about an award show’s "meaning," but the VMAs seem like a decontexutalized vomit of everything good and bad going on in music culture today, with very little in between. And regardless of what anybody else thinks, people care and pay attention.
We’re among those people, and given the VMAs’ apparent identity crisis, we shouldn’t have been surprised by the following five nominations. Still, we were surprised—even though the VMAs honor hitmaking artists of color every year (Beyonce tied this year with Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran for the most nominations), they aren’t a bastion of equality, and many deserving POC musicians don’t get due recognition. When the following five videos were nominated, it was shocking to say the least.
1) FKA twigs – "Pendulum" and "Two Weeks"
This mixed-race British singer and composer’s debut album "LP1," whose stuttering production and angelic vocals made her a critical smash and mini-celebrity with the indie set, made a strong case for lustful experimentalism in her video for album stand-out "Pendulum." So we know that, but apparently MTV did too, nominating her for "Artist To Watch (presented by Taco Bell)." Maybe Taco Bell saw something in her? Either way, an experimental R&B artist with this much critical acclaim and artistic curiosity typically doesn’t light up MTV viewers. Same goes for the similarly-inspired "Two Weeks" video, which was nominated in the Cinematography category.
2) Kendrick Lamar – "Alright"
Although Kendrick’s a verifiable superstar, his high art-minded and confrontational music always seemed like a weird fit in the pop sphere—even his appearance in the video for the many-times-nominated Taylor Swift juggernaut "Bad Blood" seemed forced, completely out-of-place, and like it was just done for the paycheck. So it was especially bizarre that his most ambitious video yet, for the trippy "Alright" (which shows bleak scenes of police violence in black-and-white amidst shots of the rapper throughout bleak Compton) would be nominated for anything, let alone Video of the Year. But maybe this is a sign that MTV actually cares about artistic integrity?
3) A$AP Rocky – "L$D (LOVE x $EX x DREAMS)
The A$AP Mob’s most visible superstar shouldn’t be a shocking nomination, but have you seen this video? It’s worth a watch, but the basic thesis is that he falls in love in the midst of light-splayed Tokyo and it looks and feels like an acid trip. It got nominated in one category—Editing—but it’s a trippy-enough affair that we’re surprised it even made it into the nominees at all.
4) Flying Lotus – "Never Catch Me (feat. Kendrick Lamar)"
We’re not sure how this slipped into MTV’s worldview—maybe the Kendrick appearance? Don’t get it twisted, "Never Catch Me" is one of the best videos of the year, from one of the best albums of the year, Lotus’s "You’re Dead!" But this song is but the most accessible on an avant-jazz-hip-hop album that envisions death (especially those of people of color) as an everlasting psychedelic journey. That’s not quite the simplicity that MTV likes, and the music video’s concept—which shows two dead black children leaving the coffins at their own funeral and ecstatically dancing—seems too involved and occasionally bleak for the network. Regardless, the exceptional video was nominated for Choreography and Cinematography. That’s a nice little throwaway for one of music’s most trailblazing artists.
5) The Entire "Video With A Social Message" Category
So this is kind of cheating, because it’s five nominees, but I already talked about both FKA twigs videos and you’re still here, so whatever. Despite the quick re-entry of political and social consciousness into many facets of pop culture, who would’ve expected MTV to dedicate an entire video category to those artists challenging social norms and political reality in their own pieces? Then again, it would be like MTV—the same network to produce Jose Antonio Vargas’s "White People" (which premiered Wednesday night)—to create a cursory category for message-driven music videos and not have to honor them in any other part of the show. That said, the category features standout videos from Jennifer Hudson, Big Sean, and Rihanna (above) that are worth watching.
The VMAs will be hosted by noted appropriator Miley Cyrus on August 30, broadcast live by MTV from Los Angeles’s Microsoft Theater.
Were you shocked by any of the nominations? Tell us in the comments!