Of the nearly 120 nominations at this year's show, artists of color lead the pack with 30, split between Cardi B, The Carters (Beyoncé and Jay-Z), Childish Gambino and Drake alone. Black artists, in particular, are reveling in a renaissance of the music video as a form of protest and cultural critique. In a year contextualized by the racial divisiveness and gender bigotry that's become a hallmark of Donald Trump's presidency, absurdity truly is the new black.
When MTV launched in 1981 — with the slogan "You'll never look at music the same way again" — videos were virtually an afterthought in the music industry. Even for the VMAs, which started in 1984, videos have always been ancillary to the award show's primary purpose — gathering the biggest names in pop under one rowdy circus tent. Last year's show reportedly drew the lowest TV ratings in VMA history. It's a reminder that music videos don't live on MTV anymore, they live on the Internet, where the award show itself is increasingly streamed by viewers.
Today, artists in hip-hop, R&B and Latin pop owe their collective climb in consumption directly to the world's largest streaming site: YouTube. They've used the free platform in inventive ways to extend both creative depth and commercial reach. This new symbiotic relationship, in which videos are no longer mere conduits for music consumption but an intrinsic part of the content being consumed, is exactly what media critic Marshall McLuhan was referring to over 50 years ago when he said, "The medium is the message."
The most urgent and impactful videos nominated this year are those in which the video release doubled as the surprise debut of the song. Whether it be the vagina pants of Janelle Monáe's "PYNK," the shooting of the church choir in Childish Gambino's "This is America" or the Louvre takeover in The Carters' "Apeshit," these symbols are tied to the identity of these songs and the way we process them. Much of this has to do with a rise in creative risk-taking.
"Just looking at the videos that are up for best hip-hop video, but particularly the other best art direction videos, there is a certain amount of freedom in a lot of them," says Miles Mullin, who is nominated for best art direction for his work on J. Cole's "ATM." The video, like Cole's album KOD, satirizes the infatuation with material things and self-medication central to certain segments of rap. To symbolize the insanity, Mullin made oversize objects including a seven-foot bottle of cough syrup.
For Ernie Gilbert, who's up for best editing on Gambino's "This is America," the tonal shift in music video production is being fueled in part by a change in the music's messaging. "We're in an interesting place with music videos," he says. Gilbert has worked in the medium for eight years and also works with with the video's director, Hiro Murai, as an editor on Donald Glover's Atlanta. "We've come to a place where it seems like the old gimmicks don't work anymore, in terms of getting people excited about a video — like, how many beautiful houses and awesome cars can we be in?" But creating content intent on conveying a message doesn't mean sacrificing creativity. "It goes back to that idea that audiences are more savvy, the world is a little bit more dialed in," he says. "You want to think about the messages, what you're conveying and how you're doing it, so that you walk that fine line between something being cheesy [like] a PSA or something being unnecessarily inflammatory. In our crazy news cycle with everything that's going on, how do you keep your message kind of true and authentic? It's not easy and it's something that hopefully people are thinking about as they are working on stuff. I know I am."
He credits Gambino and Murai with creating an explosive video that quite literally "danced around some really hard subjects in a nuanced way, in a way that I think really encouraged discussion."
Likewise, Janelle Monáe's "PYNK" became an instant conversation piece when it premiered online this past April. Nominated in several categories, including video with a message, the visual's provocative vagina pants, worn by Monáe and her accompanying dancers, speak volumes in the wake of President Trump's admitted predilection for grabbing private parts. "If you try to grab my pussycat / This pussy grab you back," as Monáe sings on Dirty Computer's "I Got The Juice." But it's Monáe's self-declaration — revealing in an interview with Rolling Stone this year that she identifies as pansexual — characterized by the creative play between Monáe and the cast of women, including actress and friend Tessa Thompson, that bridges the link between black queendom and queerdom.
"In personal ways, she opened up about things that she didn't before," says Emma Westenberg, the video's director who collaborated extensively with Monáe and her team on the making of "PYNK." "She saw that people came out to their own families because of that video and because of her being open. That is the best possible outcome you can have as a maker — to encourage and inspire people." For Westenberg, it also served as an opportunity to revel in her own womanhood as a director. "I'm so happy that I can be following my interests and developing myself as a person without people saying, 'Wait, aren't you supposed to be married by now? Aren't you supposed to have kids by now?' The role of a woman in society has grown so much broader. My mom and my grandma are so jealous. "
As pop's personification of black excellence, Beyoncé and Jay-Z flaunted their status by taking over the Louvre in "APES***." But the video, released in tandem with The Carters' surprise album drop of Everything Is Love in June, also offers a pointed critique of the white gaze. Even the title, "APES***," works as an intentional subversion of the historically racist trope likening black people to primates. The visual power of "APES***" lies in the extreme juxtaposition of black bodies filling up a classically white, colonialist-curated space with unadulterated movement and representation. Bey and Jay frame themselves against the backdrop of the Mona Lisa; dancers in every shade of black wind their hips in front of the painting of Emperor Napoleon and Empress Joséphine; Beyoncé thrashes wildly in front of the frozen sculpture of the winged greek goddess Nike.
"We just wanted to act a fool in such a beautiful space," says choreographer JaQuel Knight, who's consistently worked with Beyoncé since "Single Ladies," the video that ironically lost to Taylor Swift's "You Belong with Me" in the category of best female video at the VMAs in 2009. "Black culture is the new art, it's the new voice of now. From music to how we dance — the vibe and energy — everyone kind of wants a piece of it."
Filmed after-hours while preparing for the European leg of the On The Run II tour, the video's director, Ricky Saiz, only had two nights in the Louvre to pull it off. Knight collaborated with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, artistic director of Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium, to create the video's choreography, or "vibe pieces," as Knight prefers to call them. "I just kind of make sure everything stays as black and cultural and funky and fun and relevant and cool [as it should be]," he says.
"To see the contrast of these beautiful black people in such a white space — that's art right there. The beauty of just being there was so strong, so it really didn't take much as far as absorbing the space. The art speaks for itself. Bey and Jay, they're modern-day Mona Lisas. The dancers, their bodies and the shapes of these beautiful black women; it's just wow. It was like a homerun, you knew it was gonna win."
No matter who the big winners are at the 2018 VMAs, it's becoming impossible to ignore the chorus of voices and images collectively screaming out how much black lives and black culture and black liberation matter. But it's not entirely new, and VMA recognition is far from exhaustive, even for 2018. "I think that black artists have always been making huge visual statements," Westenberg says. The difference, she adds, is it feels like "people are finally listening, or seeing, or appreciating it."