A closer look at the evolution and baked-in flaws of MTV’s twice resurrected Video Music Awards category.
By Sydney Urbanek
When MTV hosted its inaugural VMAs ceremony in 1984, the channel had created the first major awards show expressly concerned with recognizing artistic achievement in music videos. And while the annual broadcast has since then become known as much as a site of celebrity unpredictability — a launchpad for anything from a new feud to a new baby — the show remains a valuable (if mostly symbolic, given MTV’s infamous move away from music video programming) monument to the format and the artists behind it.MTV’s founders deserve plenty of credit for seeing a future in short-form music video work, creating the infrastructure and hype necessary for an ostensible marketing tool to become something a whole lot bigger. But the VMAs have struggled to be quite so forward-thinking when it comes to the longer visual projects coming out of the industry — even as major artists have pivoted en masse in recent years to producing and occasionally self-directing long-form content, and as the term “visual album” has entered the popular lexicon. Look no further than this year’s reintroduction of a dedicated long-form award, which producers have flirted with on and off for three decades but never fully committed to.
The Aug. 28 ceremony will see six nominees compete for best longform video, one of the VMAs’ many fan-voted awards. There’s Kacey Musgraves’s “post-divorce” project star-crossed (a Paramount+ exclusive), Taylor Swift’s romantic drama All Too Well: The Short Film, and the theatrically released horror-comedy Studio 666, starring the Foo Fighters. The other three nominees are live performance films tied to recent(-ish) albums — Olivia Rodrigo’s driving home 2 u (a SOUR film) and Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles (both Disney+ exclusives), and Madonna’s Madame X (another Paramount+ exclusive).
At a glance, the nominees range from 15 minutes to about two hours, from scripted to unscripted, and even from music-driven to music-sparse; Studio 666 is very much a narrative film starring musicians and not anything resembling a music or musical film, let alone a music video. (It’s also probably best not to think too hard about star-crossed and Madame X having both been produced by MTV Entertainment Studios.) So, how did we get here?
As with short-form music videos, long-form ones had already been an established industry practice for years when MTV first appeared on the scene in 1981. By then, artists ranging from the Bee Gees to David Bowie had experimented with stringing an album’s worth of videos together to create a longer film; the Beatles spent most of the 1960s releasing such projects theatrically. In 1979, Blondie had also released the less narrative-driven Eat to the Beat, a video album (the standard lingo until Beyoncé helped popularize “visual album”) featuring individual videos for each of that album’s 12 songs.
Though the early years of MTV coincided with the release of plenty of long-form projects worth recognizing in their full-length iterations — David Bowie’s Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, Eurythmics’ Savage, and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 all come to mind — the VMAs didn’t officially award this kind of work until 1991, at that point 10 years after MTV first planted its flag. The nominees for “best long form video,” however, were quite the jumble. There was Aerosmith’s Things That Go Pump in the Night, a video album for the band’s 10th studio album; Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection, a video compilation from her career up until that point; and two concert films — R.E.M.’s Tourfilm and Peter Gabriel’s PoV. The award ultimately went to Madonna’s visual equivalent of a greatest hits album.
But for unknown reasons, it then promptly went on no less than a 25-year hiatus — until making a sudden return in 2016 as “breakthrough long form video,” speculated by some to have been prompted by the release of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. That year saw the superstar’s film compete against a number of analogous projects: Justin Bieber’s PURPOSE: The Movement, combining videos for every track on Purpose; Chris Brown’s Royalty, eight serialized videos from his project of the same name; Florence + the Machine’s The Odyssey, a film companion to How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful; and Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighbourhood Trilogy, a narrative video series tied to his Blue Neighbourhood LP. The VMAs seemed to have refined their idea behind the category, clearly going narrower with their definition of “long form video” than they had in 1991.
Jesse Ignjatovic, executive producer of the 2016 show, explained to MTV News that year that the VMAs were “always trying to stay on the cusp and reflect culture and what artists are doing.” He added that long-form videos seemed to be “proliferating the music landscape more than the past,” suggesting that there were now enough of them to fill a whole category.
That wasn’t inaccurate, even if artists didn’t exactly stop making them between 1991 and 2016: the streaming era, especially YouTube, had created a lower-than-ever barrier to getting one into the eyes and ears of your fans. Over the course of the 2010s, they’d started to pop up at a noteworthy rate; Kanye West, Marina, Lana Del Rey, Lady Gaga, and (with her first self-billed “visual album” in 2013) Beyoncé, among others, all released projects visually narrativizing substantial chunks of albums — if not albums in their entirety — in the first half of the decade.
But following Lemonade’s 2016 win, the award once again disappeared — too bad for Tove Lo, Janelle Monáe, Solange, Machine Gun Kelly, or any of the other artists who made long-form videos in the years between then and now. And of course, it’s not like there’s ever a shortage of concert films in the industry, either; the absence of a long-form category for the past half-decade, then, was probably due more to an identity crisis on said award’s part than something like a lack of supply, or the fluctuating nature of VMA categories more generally.
Now that the award has returned after yet another rebrand, it appears that it’s regressed back to something closer to the VMAs’ initial 1991 approach. Whereas the show’s other categories tend to be segmented pretty specifically by genre (e.g. best Latin) and format (e.g. best collaboration), this one again pits wildly different projects against each other; the only thing that unites all six is that they’re not short-form videos. (Interestingly, however, All Too Well: The Short Film is competing elsewhere in the ceremony as a short-form video – including for the coveted video of the year – while “simple times,” a scene from star-crossed, is also up for best art direction.)
Aside from the logical question marks here, this sort of catch-all framework typically necessitates unfortunate cuts during the nomination process. One of the biggest surprises this year, for instance, was the omission of Halsey’s critically acclaimed film component to If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. In fact, with streamers relying so heavily on original music content these days — other contenders could have included The Beatles: Get Back on Disney+, The Weeknd x The Dawn FM Experience on Prime Video, or jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy on Netflix — there were likely enough projects released during this most recent eligibility period to sketch out at least a couple different long-form categories.
Which brings us to a more obvious point: while genre is a tricky and often debatable thing, more than half of the nominees for best longform video this year are… well… not videos. Even MTV itself classified driving home 2 u as a documentary ahead of the Movie & TV Awards in June, where the film took home best music documentary. So perhaps the messiness here is as much in the award’s name as in its make-up; if best longform video is indeed suffering from an identity crisis, why not follow the lead of so many other VMAs and simply go with “best longform” until it’s been sorted?
Despite this being a fan-voted category (as with the majority of VMAs since 2006), there’s no reason why it can’t still mirror and better respect the sort of visual innovation coming out of the industry in this cultural moment, when we have hour-long visual albums premiering in IMAX and pop stars giving talks about their work at Tribeca. The show might seriously consider a further restructure ahead of next year’s ceremony — if only to avoid the latent irony of their long-form honor carrying on as one of their most fleeting.