Videos of the Year: What the 2013 MTV VMAs Got Right and FADER’s Underdog Picks

August 23, 2013

This Sunday, FADER will attend MTV's VMAs. After a stint in LA, the ceremony's returning to New York this year, with YouTube's brightest converging on Brooklyn's hulking Barclays Center. We're legitimately thrilled to go—with no host, it's set to be masterfully engineered pageant comprised mostly of actual music, with performances by Drake, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and maybe/probably *N SYNC. Before we jump into the belly of the VMAs ourselves, we thought it'd be wise to acknowledge that there was a lot of great stuff that didn't make the nominee list. Here, we pick our favorite videos that received nods, and discuss a handful that didn't, but deserved to.

Drake, "Started From the Bottom"
(Best Direction, Best Hip-Hop Video)

They should change the Moon Man to be a Drake action figure posed in the moment when he's doing the loose ring finger dance in all white in a convertible in a suburban snowstorm. For me, at least, it's equally iconic to the moon landing, if not more memorable. What more could you want from a music video than an image so crystalized you never need to see it again. It'll just be there in my brain, ghostriding, waiting to be recalled.

Miley Cyrus, "We Can't Stop"
(Best Female Video, Best Pop Video, Best Editing)

What audience is "We Can't Stop" for? What lifestyle, aside from the explicitly endorsed use of Beats speakers, is it trying to sell? Miley has said the video's loosely based on what it's like to be her, visualized here by director Diane Martel as molly-fueled stationary bike riding, white bread for dinner, and having a backyard of Hollywood hills to share with friends at sunrise. "It's like a giant, fucked-up selfie," Martel has said. NPR's Ann Powers wisely points out that in such a selfie, with Cyrus offering up and adoring herself as a product or thing, rather than a real girl with a music job and inner life, it's hard to know if she's having real fun, being playful, mimicking someone else for profit in bad faith or taking risks in good faith. With Miley's personhood bleeding into consumer culture and back again, you have to guess what's real and what's not, which is kind of why I like the video.

Ciara, "Body Party"
(Best Choreography)

I learned to dance from MTV, specifically when I was in middle school and I'd try out choreography to Aaliyah's video for "Are You That Somebody" at bar mitzvahs. If I was an MTV tween now, Ciara would be my role model for bedroom rehearsals. Not Gaga, with her aggressively practiced productions, or even Beyonce, with her Wonder Woman power moves, but Ciara, a woman who simply rolls her entire body with sexy ease, who makes dance seem natural and personal and erotic and, most importantly, possible to people without huge budgets, "concepts" and 15 dancers. "Body Party" is an odd video, a funny little showcase of Ciara's relationship with Future. I remember watching it the minute it came out, crowded with my colleagues around an office computer. Ciara looks so sensual in leggings, a T-shirt and dark, dark sunglasses—who wouldn't want to be as cool, as talented, as magnetic as her? Sure, we may never look as good as her when doing that shoulder stand, but we'd having so much fun trying.

Slava, "Girl Like Me"
(would-be Best Video with a Social Message)

I feel pretty uncomfortable writing about this video, and I feel even more uncomfortable admitting that I think it’s pretty amazing, but I do. Is it ethically permissible to say that you enjoyed watching a video that deals with the subjects of sibling incest and teenage sexuality in a way that seems to aesthetically fetishize them, at least to some degree? I’m really not sure, but I do know that shock value in art usually doesn’t do anything for me—my mind just registers it as such as a way of shielding me from the parts of the work in question that have the potential to deeply disturb me. In “Girl Like Me,” the shock value aspect just creeps up on you until it explodes into something unavoidable, much like the forbidden crushes that this brother-sister duo seem to have on each other. The whole thing is beautifully photographed, painstakingly styled and perfectly edited to the beat, which is part of what makes me like it in spite of myself. But what makes it really upsetting is that instead of just caricaturing the sexualizing aspects of consumer youth culture à la Ryan Trecartin, director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s video links it to some deep Freudian shit that even your analyst probably doesn’t want to think about, and makes it hard to look away.

Pure X, “Thousand Year Old Child"
(would-be Best Rock Video)

As director Malcolm Elijah can tell you, it’s hard not to love Bob. Bob is an American-born actor from Texas who is currently making a movie about his life-long ambition of getting cast in a Fellini film. (Learn about it here.) He’s also the person who steals the show in this very poignant short film for Pure X’s “Thousand Year Old Child,” which pays tribute to one ordinary old man’s undying show business dreams in lurid, black-and-white photography.

Cat Power, "Manhattan"
(would-be Best Female Video)

When I heard "Manhattan" for the first time last year, I immediately sent the song—THE song from Cat Power's Sun—into multi-month-long overplay mode. Its meaning is loose enough to walk your way into, but tight enough to be summed up in a single image. There's a moment in a Subway station when Cat Power, with a pink vulva symbol taped to the back of her leather jacket, covers her face in oversized mittens, cracking up at the rare sight of that weird train that only carries dumpsters. This isn't the kind of video that happens in a boardroom or a studio—it just happens.

Le1f, "Spa Day"
(would-be Best Male Video)

When is the rest of the world going to wake up and see Le1f as the pop star he truly is? It's no bother to him either way—he keeps making epic video moments whether MTV acknowledges him or not. "Spa Day" is his "Slave 4 U"—he's past being not yet a girl, not yet a woman, and now he's a fully functional sensual star. He'll tell it to the world: I've just begun having my fun. Everybody else should be playing catch up.

Videos of the Year: What the 2013 MTV VMAs Got Right and FADER’s Underdog Picks