The best description I have for the MTV Video Music Awards that aired on August 27 is...lukewarm. There were definitely some standout moments, like Pink's speech and Heather Heyer's mother's appearance, but the pop culture felt unexpectedly stale. The jokes were corny, the performances lacklustre (aside from Logic's "1-800-273-8255"), and if I was cringing watching it all go down, I can't even begin to imagine what teens were thinking.
During the lead-up to the one event a year solely dedicated to celebrating the art form of music videos, I wondered what we were doing it all for. Would the highly-coveted demographic of Generation Z be tuning in? Do they even care about music videos?
"The last music video I watched was a 'Lil Dicky' music video that was on MTV because it was the only station that would come through in my hotel room," said Real Teen (TM) Chloe, a 17-year-old from Dallas who just unknowingly delivered a truly incredible burn.
"Somewhat," says Lauren, 15, from Connecticut. She said she "might watch a video if I like both the artist and song."
In fact, I asked a handful of teenagers whether or not they watched music videos, and their responses were not exactly enthusiastic.
"I wouldn't say I particularly care about music videos but I always do appreciate when an artist I like makes one," said Alexandra, 16, from Pennsylvania, noting that she did enjoy watching "classics" like Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," which came out in 2009.
Teens are engaging with music videos all the time — they just don't realize it.
Taylor Swift is a common answer when it comes to music videos teens remember actively watching — and we'll talk more about her later. Other than that, however, it's just happenstance.
"I feel like people really don't watch music videos that much," 19-year-old Megan, from California, added. "It's only when they're super hyped up. Like the music videos people cared about were 'Bad Blood' and... Lemonade. Sometimes a friend will be like 'watch this' if it's an artist they're super into, but they probably wouldn't post about it on social media."
So imagine my surprise when I spoke to Joseph Patel, the VP of Original Content at Vevo (the company that hosts pretty much all of your favourite artists' videos) and he hit me with this:
"Music videos are more prolific now than they’ve ever been in the history of mankind."
And before you call bullshit, Vevo has the stats to back it up. 61% of teens say that they are watching more online video than they were last year, and 73% say music videos are the best type of content for showing an artist's creative vision.
And that thing Megan mentioned about not posting about them on social media? Turns out 67% of teens are more likely to share music videos with their friends or on social media compared to other types.
How is that possible? How could I be hearing such wildly different reports about a question I thought would be pretty straightforward to answer? The answer lies in engagement, and the fact that "watching a music video" doesn't mean what it meant 10 years ago. Teens are engaging with music videos all the time — they just don't realise it. Of course, engagement covers the physical act of viewing a video, but the umbrella is actually much wider.
"There’s a next level engagement, what people are sharing, or commenting on, or talking about," Patel explains. "And then you have an even deeper level of engagement which is, people are...creating things out of that video, for example, memes."
Let's just look at the most recent music video to hit the internet, Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do," which inspired a pretty prolific meme that infiltrated the whole internet within an hour of the song's release.
What's more? This meme is referencing another music video, Beyoncé's "Formation," and starts a conversation that would be impossible without the visual element, and that visual comes directly from music videos.
"It’s not enough right now to release a song," Patel says. "You have to release a music video as well."
This is all part of a cycle Patel has observed with music videos, which is what makes them so essential to the shelf life of an artist's song.
"There’s the first wave of fans who maybe, as soon as the video drops, they’re going to go see it," he explains. "And there’s the percentage of people who will watch what their favorite artist drops within a couple of days of them dropping it, and then there’s the next wave when you see stills or memes or screengrabs of the video and their curiosity leads them to watch the video, and then there’s another layer of people that probably, by that time, they’ve seen enough screengrabs or GIFs on their Twitter feed to feel like they’ve seen the video even if they haven’t seen the video, and I still feel like that’s legitimate engagement. "
With teens growing up on the internet, and with music videos accessible on the internet, you have a perfect storm of content. While a video may now exist outside of the square box of your TV or its YouTube rectangle, its life as a thread of expanding and changing pop culture is just as (if not more) valuable to an artist when it comes to their art and the impression it makes on the audience.
So, what's next? Now that we know this, where do we go from here — especially if we want Gen Z to tune in? According to Patel, our best bet is to do nothing.
"I’m very big on artists just staying true to themselves," he says. "And I don’t think anyone can predict what teenagers like. I don’t think anyone has ever been successful [in predicting teens' tastes] in the history of time."
As the future of art, music, pop culture, and technology, teens have a lot on their shoulders, but that definitely doesn't dictate their decisions. Will they watch your music video, or tune into the VMAs? Maybe. Maybe not. But they'll definitely share a meme about it, and in 2017, that might just be all that matters.