Things got weird quickly at the inaugural YouTube Music Awards last night. The streaming show promised an hour-and-a-half of anything-goes live entertainment. Hosts Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts weren’t allowed to rehearse beforehand and were forced to move around the venue to look for the winners as if they were in a scavenger hunt. Creative director Spike Jonze told Rolling Stone that the objective was to create an awards show unlike any other, where the audience gathered in a non-stuffy space – a warehouse at Pier 36 in New York – and the production moved organically throughout the room. Instead of a typical awards show, the performances by Eminem, Arcade Fire, Lady Gaga and Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator, among others, were billed as live music videos with many of them having elaborate stage setups and narratives. But many of the quirkier moments happened in between.
Arcade Fire enlisted Greta Gerwig for a dance freakout
For their live “Afterlife” video, directed by Spike Jonze, Arcade Fire cast Greta Gerwig as the star. In a nod to her character from the film Frances Ha, Gerwig twirled and spastically danced throughout a snowy pine tree background, lipsyncing parts of the song. She was joined by a group of young dancers and they jumped around frontman Win Butler as he sang.
Lady Gaga wept over a piano
Lady Gaga skipped the theatrics for this performance, put on her serious face and delivered the love ballad “Dope” from her upcoming album ARTPOP. Her outfit was toned down for the somber number – she wore a dark plaid shirt and trucker hat bearing the title of the song – and she teared up throughout. It was the second time in two days that she cried in public – the first was when she lost her childhood dog. And it was less of a music video than a lo-fi set but there was a surprise ending: when she stood up, she revealed that she had skipped out on wearing pants, which was actually a pretty low-key surprise, on the Gaga spectrum.
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Tyler, the Creator rapped with his eyes rolled back into his head
Tyler and Earl Sweatshirt brought the unpredictability YouTube promised. Set in a pink box with a clear wall for the audience to see into, the pair put forth a heavily-censored rendition of “Sasquatch,” a track from Earl’s 2013 album Doris, beneath a flickering light while the rowdy crowd shouted along to every word and collectively gave the finger. Directed by Tyler’s alterego, “Wolf Haley,” the cinematography was shaky and chaotic. His parting words: “Golf Wang in this bitch. Thanks guys.”
OK Go face-painted Jason Schwartzman
After Tyler and Earl’s set, Schwartzman returned with OK Go to present the award for innovation. In attempt to demonstrate what that looks like – “the force of chaos,” as Schwartzman defined it – OK Go put a hood over Schwartzman and seemingly began abstractly painting his face as he sang an impromptu jingle with Reggie Watts. When that painful song ended, the camera showed that Schwartzman’s facepaint blended into a larger mural of a ram and a lion, the meaning of which was never explained.
Schwartzman and Watts demolished several cakes while searching for an award
When they presented the award for Response of the Year to Lindsey Stirling, for her song “Radioactive” with Pentatonix, Schwartzman and Watts had to dig through a cart of cakes to find out the winner. Shortly after, Sterling performed her violin-dubstep jam against a cityscape backdrop, while propped up on a pedestal with cinematography that gave her the effect of flying. It was one of the few performances that came closest to feeling like a music video.
Win Butler pulled a Kanye
When Taylor Swift’s song “I Knew You Were Trouble” won for YouTube Phenomenon – a category for songs that sparked the most fan videos – Win Butler pulled a Kanye West move, interrupting the group of young fans accepting the award: “Not ‘Taylor Swift, Imma let you finish’ . . . but the YouTube Phenomenon of the Year was definitely the ‘Harlem Shake.'” Schwartzman later addressed the incident: “Thank you to Winye West Butler.”
Michael Shannon subbed for Avicii
Avicii was the only artist who didn’t appear in his video. Instead, Michael Shannon played him in a Lena Dunham-penned treatment that featured a tiff between Vanessa Hudgens and Dree Hemingway, where the music was in the background, and the narrative up front – a move that recalled Daft Punk‘s video for “Da Funk.” (Spike Jonze directed both.) It peaked with Schwartzman freezing the scene to ask the audience how it should end. They chose a double suicide, rather than a happy ending, in which fake blood splattered everywhere.
M.I.A.’s dancers texted while hula hooping
In an M.I.A. rave, dancers hula hoop with LED rings while texting, wearing sunglasses and burqas. People threw colored chalk into the air. And confetti dropped. For her “Come Walk With Me” video, a song on her upcoming Matangi album, all of this happened as the singer ran through a tunnel of technicolor lights.
Eminem gave the most straightforward performance
By comparison, Eminem had the most normal video of the evening with the artist performing “Rap God” against a black and white backdrop. It was a throwback to his battle MC days – he namechecked Pharoahe Monch, another turn-of-the-millennium underground rapper – and the minimal production skipped between footage of Eminem, his hype man and his DJ’s turntable. Years ago, Eminem would have been an awards show wild card.
Spike Jonze cut his goodbye short
After Eminem’s closing video, Schwartzman introduced Spike Jonze who thanked YouTube for “letting us make this mess.” He asked Jonze if he had anything else to say but the director said, “No I think we’re done” and walked off camera. It was an awkward moment that captured the energy of the night. Everyone was slightly off but that was also the appeal – raw, accidental drama.