Eminem and Arcade Fire headline the first YouTube Music Awards … but don’t hold that against them

Sunday was YouTube’s big night, their first annual (fingers crossed!) Video Awards Extravaganza. I use the word extravaganza in place of “show” because “show” implies some level of interest in entertaining an audience, something this thing did not seem all that concerned with. Hosted by Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts, and conceived by Spike Jonze, it’s a night that won’t soon be forgotten by the people who witnessed it.

As the show kicks off I see that I’m here with about 123,000 of my closest friends. Not quite boffo ratings, but even this year’s Grammy rating dropped by 28 percent … to 28 million viewers, but hey, who’s counting? Well, YouTube is. It’s right under the screen there. Let’s just move on.

We’re YouTube, man. We’re not a slave to your old award show conventions such as discernible sound and picture!

The show begins with a live video of Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife,” directed by Jonze, and starring the lovely Greta Gerwig and a bunch of children dancing. The show will be a series of these “live videos” as different directors create live stage performances to accompany each live musical performance. It’s an interesting take on the set pieces that more traditional awards shows are built around, one that has potential to meld the irreverence and DIY nature that informs the best of YouTube’s content. In the case of Arcade Fire, it works. I should have turned it off then.

As the program goes back to Reggie Watts and Jason Schwartzman, it can only described as chaotic. There’s no actual stage; Schwartzmann and Watts move from set piece to set piece by navigating a disinterested crowd a what appears to be a few thousand hipsters. There’s no script; both hosts carry note cards with bullet points – if you thought your average awards contained a lot of rambling, you haven’t seen anything. Oh, and the microphones aren’t really working.

The two introduce a performance that celebrates YouTube’s long, illustrious history in music over the past eight years. When the best parts of your resume include Gotye and Carly Rae Jepsen, maybe it’s better not to boast.

After the performance, Watts and Schwartzman run across Pier 36, climb a ladder to the next set piece, and are met by Rashida Jones, holding two real babies. She speaks off mic for a bit before handing the babies to the guys. Get it? Babies? Babies are totally funny because … um, I’m not sure. They attempt to announce the winner for Breakthough Artist of the Year over the horrified wails of the frightened babies and the regret on Jason Schwartzman’s face is clear as day.

The viewer numbers, which have since climbed up to 216,000, begin to drop. In my mind, I’m with them. Hopefully, a performance by Lady Gaga will right this ship. When they go to her behind the piano, she’s dressed like a teenager standing outside a 7/11 – and not in some sort of Liberace-meets-Cobain sort of way. She’s wearing a simple trucker cap, a flannel shirt … and no pants. Hey, she’s still Lady Gaga. She performs a remarkably powerful stripped down new ballad called “Dope,” and it’s pretty effective but I keep waiting for her to break into a Billy Joel cover.

The Best Response Video Award, which essentially means best cover song, goes to Lindsey Stirling for “Radioactive.” I’m not really sure who she is, but she seems genuinely excited to be there. Found one!

The viewership is down to 167,000 as Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler the Creator perform a song in a tiny pink box. It may be the lyrics, or it may be those pesky microphones, but at least half the song cuts out. The broadcast cuts between a few cameras, but with 30 people moshing in a tiny box it’s impossible to see what’s happening. We’re YouTube, man. We’re not a slave to your old award show conventions such as discernible sound and picture!

It’s time for the Best Innovation award, but if this is supposed to be an innovative take on an awards show, I’m beginning to doubt their credibility. DeStorm, who wins for “See Me Standing,” seems nearly as enthused as Stirling, so that’s nice to see. And there’s Stirling again, performing a live video that consists of her jet-packing in front of a green screen of a fifth-grader’s model of New York as her music blends the two most irritating sounds on the planet – a violin and dubstep. Apparently the guy that plays the nails on the chalkboard left the band citing creative differences.

youtube music awards 2013 Lindsey Stirling

Lindsey Stirling! You know! The one who did “Radioactive”!

The next award goes to the year’s Phenomenon, for the video that created a buzz and inspired multiple covers, or as YouTube calls them, “response videos.” The winner is revealed by a costumed girl in a laundry bin, who shouts the winner off mic (yet again). Reggie and Jason have to repeat it. And it goes to Taylor Swift. She is not in attendance because she has a good agent.

Instead, the award is received by a bunch of teenage girls that made response videos. Suddenly, Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire, takes one of the working mics and interrupts the girls’ speech, pulling a clever Kanye West on the not-Taylor Swifts. A valiant attempt Win, but even your affable sense of humor can’t save this mess. Grab a life jacket and save yourself, man!

I begin to wonder how something so public, with talented people such as Jonze, Schwartzman, and Watts could go so wrong. And I think for a moment that maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just not getting it. So I go on the Twitter machine to see what the cool kids are saying … and it’s a blood bath – a few choice examples:

The live video starring Michael Shannon and Vanessa Hudgens for Avicii’s song, “Wake Me Up” should be the highlight of the night. It’s written by Lena Dunham and directed by Jonze and it’s sort of engaging and amusing for the first few minutes – there’s a bizarro moment when Schwartzman stops the proceedings and all the actors freeze in place while the crowd is given a chance to choose how the piece ends: happily or tragically. It’s no contest, so the two main characters climb to a balcony and commit suicide by jumping into the crowd, which gets covered in red confetti blood. Clearly, they’ve been watching the show, too.

The award for Video of the Year goes to Girls’ Generation, a South Korean girl group that no one in the audience has ever heard of – seriously, to say there is a “smattering” of applause would be generous. The one girl that accepts the award says, “YouTube is my best friend. Is YouTube your best friend?” No, actually. Right now YouTube is like the worst person ever. YouTube and I are seriously on the outs.

The final award of the night, for Artist of the Year, goes to Eminem. Forget the fact that he hasn’t put out an album in three years. He’s performing right now… I said, “Right now!” (Crickets). Schwartzman and Watts kill two minutes while he makes his way to the … place he would perform, where normally there’d be a stage. Ladies and gentlemen, Eminem!

For the 163,000 viewers who stayed to the end, you’re all gluttons for punishment. Or you left your computer on while you went and got something to eat. Either way, it was a thrilling night. No one laughed, babies cried, and I’ll never sit through one of these again.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: