Hilary Hughes, Special for USA TODAY
NEW YORK - Internet superstars stepped out from behind the computer screen and onto the stage at Pier 36 Sunday night to make history at the first YouTube Music Awards.
Hosted by Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts and featuring live performances by Lady Gaga, Eminem and other pop and rock greats, YouTube set quite a challenge for itself in the show's first year: The event was live-streamed the world over, and the awards were entirely dependent on the participation of viewers. Unfortunately, it got distracted by its own gimmick, and the chaos overwhelmed the otherwise inspired performances and subsequent dance parties.
Unlike the Grammys or the MTV Video Music Awards, winners were voted on entirely by fans, with One Direction, Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj among the nominees. With director Spike Jonze at the creative helm of the ceremony, the YouTube Music Awards promised - and delivered - a volley of strange surprises, including the creation and broadcast of music videos with notable talents as the show unfolded. This wasn't your typical red-carpet affair with a few songs and dances thrown in between acceptance speeches, but a frenzied, disorganized (albeit spontaneous and fun) event that broke down boundaries between YouTube stars and their fans. The YouTube Music Awards sought to redefine expectations for a celebration of popular music, and instead fell short of revolutionizing them.
Confusion reigns: The general vibe is a confused one. Upon entering the main room at the awards, a handful of stages greet you, and many showgoers choose to sit down on the ground in front of these setups. A staffer walking around backstage mentions that Schwartzman has a different "set of directions" than everyone else, and that no one has any idea how the show will go - the idea is to be unscripted and spontaneous from start to finish.
Schwartzman and Jonze come out into the audience to greet the crowd, and the message is simple: The audience is going to fully participate in the show.
"I want you to know that not only are you watching the show, you're going to be a part of the videos," says Schwartzman. "If you feel like you're in the video, don't watch the show around you, watch the performance!"
Call-and-response: Arcade Fire hits the ground running with this emphasis on audience participation, walking the crowd through a call-and-response. Frontman Win Butler seems to be all about it: "If you tried this at the VMAs, you'd be (screwed)!"
So much for the fourth wall: Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) makes the first non-performer cameo of the night as the star of the "video" being filmed for Arcade Fire's live performance of Afterlife. Dancing her way through an apartment hallway into a grove of snowy trees, Gerwig is joined by Butler before taking off into the audience flanked by a group of tiny dancers, effectively shattering the fourth wall. This theme of breaking down expectations for music videos and awards shows is effective, so far, and one the audience embraces.
Unscripted: After A Brief History of Music, featuring Walk Off the Earth, brings us through Beyoncé's Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) and Psy's Gangnam Style, Rashida Jones hands off two babies to our bewildered hosts. Yes, babies. They announce the first award of the night, the YouTube breakthrough award, which goes to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. (The trophy is a red-and-white click icon.) "We spent about $5,000 on this music video and just had fun making this with our friends ..." says Macklemore, before laughing at the screaming tots in Schwartzman's and Watts' arms. "I can't believe we won these kids!"
Rickrolling: CDZA, the band behind YouTube's History of Music, thoroughly enjoyed the task of covering some of the more popular songs that exploded via the social network. "T-Pain was supposed to lead into a big reveal, and Rick Astley was supposed to Rickroll the world, but that didn't happen ... He said he was never gonna give us up, but he did!"
Let them eat cake: The winner of the response of the year award is in the ... cake? Our hosts are faced with the task of demolishing five cakes in order to find the category's pick. "This feels like Nickelodeon!" Watts cries before Schwartzman pulls the envelope from the crumbs. Lindsey Stirling and Pentatonix's cover of Imagine Dragons' Radioactive are the big, sugary winners here, and the hosts have to keep from getting frosting on the victor during her acceptance speech.
No boundaries: Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler the Creator take to a frenzied crowd in a tight space for Sasquatch, and though the thrashing, crowd-surfing crew seems into it, it's difficult not to cringe - if there really are no scripts or boundaries, who's to say an audience member won't get kicked in the teeth in the name of innovation?
A weighty win: DeStorm's See Me Standing is the voters' pick for the innovation of the year award, which DeStorm calls "the dopest paperweight ever" before passionately thanking the platform and his fans.
Backstage, DeStorm is elated. "I've been doing videos for like ever. This one means a lot to me. To be one of the winners at the first awards, it just felt good to be a nominee. ... It was actually a surprise for me!"
Who's a fellow YouTuber that DeStorm finds innovative? Fellow winners Lindsey Sterling and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. "I want to work with people who can take my craft to another level," he says.
You know this will end badly: The next live-music video experiment brings high Hollywood wattage to the stage - or DJ booth - for Avicii. Michael Shannon and Vanessa Hudgens star as a DJ and a girl who's ditching her ex-boyfriend for the booth, and a high-strung concert-goer puts her in a headlock before Wake Me Up revs up in the background.
Puzzling it out: "It was very nerve-wracking just because there were so many things that had to be right from so many people, like a giant jigsaw puzzle," Stirling says backstage after her video experiment. "In between my takes, I had to run from one side of the stage to the other while playing."
For Sterling, the YouTube win is huge, as she credits the network for being the first place to accept her as an artist. "I'm an artist that was fully born through YouTube," she says. "That was the only platform that gave me the chance to make art that I loved. ... It was the only place that accepted what I did."
It happens: Hudgens reveals that the Avicii video/short film didn't go according to plan. Apparently, they missed a sound cue and were left hanging for a second, but Hudgens rolled with it. "I love that about doing something live! It's live, (expletive) happens!" she says with a laugh.
"Trying to get everyone on the same page at the same moment, it's tough," she says of the quirks of a live show. "I survived! As I got up, I realized my earring fell off, and I was like, 'Classic chick-fight move!' "
And what did Hudgens think of Lady Gaga's performance? "It was very un-Lady Gaga! She's really raw and emotional and breathtaking."
Girls' Generation's Tiffany on the group's video-of-the-year win: "Being part of the nominees was an award in itself, but to win, speechless."
Girls' Generation beat out Lady Gaga, among others, for the title of the night, which was clearly a shock to the young singer. "It's surreal - she was sitting right in front of me. It's all thanks to the fans. I personally loved her video!"
So what'd you think?: How does Watts feel about the broadcast? Great, though a couple of moments were hair-raising. "It was hard to be reluctant to a degree, because things just happened, but ... I didn't want to break a baby!" he says of his least predictable moment. "When Rashida Jones hands you babies, you take them. You ask her where she got them from, but you take them."
He's particularly excited about looking back on the videos created here tonight, specifically Arcade Fire's "awesome and inspired" Afterlife.
The show's haphazard approach worked for him. "I'm used to that," he says. "That's the way I like to work. Jason was a bit more nervous, but he's a natural at being a natural."
Next year's plans: Is Schwartzman up for hosting the YouTube Music Awards again? Totally. "In my mind, it wouldn't be doing the second YouTube Awards, it'd be like we were doing it again for the first time!" he says.
VIDEO OF THE YEAR
Barack Obama vs Mitt Romney, Epic Rap Battles of History
Demi Lovato, Heart Attack
WINNER: Girls' Generation, I Got A Boy
Justin Bieber (featuring Nicki Minaj), Beauty and A Beat
Lady Gaga, Applause
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (featuring Mary Lambert), Same Love
Miley Cyrus, We Can't Stop
One Direction, Best Song Ever
Selena Gomez, Come & Get It
ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
RESPONSE OF THE YEAR
Boyce Avenue (featuring Fifth Harmony), Mirrors
Jayesslee, Gangnam Style
WINNER: Lindsey Stirling and Pentatonix, Radioactive
The Piano Guys, Titanium/Pavane
Walk Off the Earth (featuring KRNFX), I Knew You Were Trouble
WINNER: I Knew You Were Trouble
WINNER: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
INNOVATION OF THE YEAR
Anamanaguchi, Endless Fantasy
Atoms for Peace, Ingenue
Bat for Lashes, Lilies
WINNER: DeStorm, See Me Standing
Toro Y Moi, Say That