The MTV Video Music Awards are taking place in Los Angeles on Sunday. Miley Cyrus is hosting, Kardashian in-law Kanye West will receive the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, and Taylor Swift heads the pack with ten nominations, mostly for her celebrity packed “Bad Blood” video. As always, this show is designed less to reward artistry and more to give gossip columnists and morning radio DJs something to talk about in-between wisecracks about how MTV doesn’t even show videos anymore. Like professional wrestling, the VMAs are a televised spectacle that’s frequently fun as long as you keep reminding yourself that none of it actually matters, no matter what Nicki Minaj thinks.
There’s one category that maybe matters a little bit, though. The Best Video With A Message category was introduced in 2011, and it was MTV’s vague way of acknowledging clips that tried to make a greater point than “Oh hey look at me I’m attractive and buy my album.” Lady Gaga won in 2011 for her unicorny “Born This Way” video, and subsequent awards have gone to Demi Lovato, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and Beyonce. It’s still a popularity contest, and conveniently it gives MTV a way to dole out multiple trophies to artists that won’t win the night’s biggest award. (Gaga and Beyonce lost to Kary Petty and Miley Cyrus in their respective years, for instance.)
There’s no “Same Love” or “Firework” among this year’s nominees, which might signal that this category might not be around much longer. Nevertheless, here’s a look at this year’s Socially Minded nominees:
Big Sean ft. Kanye West & John Legend, “One Man Can Change The World”
Song Popularity: #35 (and rising) on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart
Video Release Date: 6/19/15
Youtube Views (so far): 8,452,807
The Message: The video was shot in Detroit and honors Sean’s late grandmother. It’s a black-and-white look at gun violence and death, as well as the police presence in black neighborhoods. The video was directed by Andrew Hines and Jeff Powers.
Odds of Winning: Pretty good! MTV tends to prefer videos that are still current over those that were released a long time ago, and Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You” is also nominated in a different category.
Fun Fact: In addition to Kanye and John Legend, the song features uncredited vocals by Natasha Bedingfield, whose song “Unwritten” was pretty much inescapable in 2006.
Colbie Caillat, “Try”
Song Popularity: #4 in February on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart
Video Release Date: 7/8/14
Youtube Views (so far): 50,458,372
The Message: Taking the song’s message about being yourself very literally, director Roman White shows a variety of women removing makeup and letting their hair down. It’s well-meaning but it looks like a Dove commercial.
Odds of Winning: Probably not so good. The video’s thirteen months old, for one thing, and the song appeals more to older women than the Teen Wolf crowd. On the other hand, it’s the only video among the nominees that had any viral impact, and its Youtube view count is the highest among the bunch.
Fun Fact: It’s easier to put makeup on than take it off, so the video was shot in reverse, with the models gradually adding makeup and wigs over the course of the shoot.
Jennifer Hudson, “I Still Love You”
Song Popularity: It wasn’t
Video Release Date: 6/4/15
Youtube Views (so far): 1,934,132
The Message: It’s okay to be gay, and to get gay married even if your dad is a curmudgeon. Colbie Caillat’s video might have looked like a commercial but this one actually is a commercial, sponsored by the HRC and W Hotels, if you couldn’t tell.
Odds of Winning: That wedding looks super fun, but even dance clubs ignored JHud’s empowerment anthem, so it’s unlikely to win. On the other hand, the LOGO network was involved with the video rollout and LOGO is owned by the same parent company as MTV. So maybe!
Fun Fact: This video was co-directed by Tabitha Denholm, who made Of Monsters And Men’s stunning “Empire” video.
Rihanna, “American Oxygen”
Song Popularity: #78 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in June
Video Release Date: 4/16/15
Youtube Views: 49,118,929
The Message: America is complicated. For every leap forward there’s a crushing step backwards. It’s a video collage along the lines of Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” but interspersed with scenes of Rihanna looking gorgeous and standing on some steps in front of a flag.
Odds of Winning: Decent. It’s one of Rihanna’s least successful singles ever and it’s been dwarfed in popularity by “Bitch Better Have My Money”, but #BBHMM came out two days too late for consideration, so this is Ms. Fenty’s only shot at a moonman trophy this year.
Fun fact: Horror master Wes Craven’s son Jonathan is part of The Uprising Creative, the team that put this video together. Jonathan’s other credits include writing the screenplay for The Hills Have Eyes 2.
Wale, “The White Shoes”
Song Popularity: Not very
Video Release Date: 3/30/15
Youtube Views: 1,546,509
The Message: Rapper Wale dropped the video to “The White Shoes” the day before he released his Seinfeld-inspired The Album About Nothing. In the video a kid gets made fun of for his old sneakers, so he starts working and buys himself some nicer shoes. Then some kids beat him up and steal his shoes. The end.
Odds of Winning: Not good, unless MTV has a surprise Seinfeld cameo in the works.
Fun Fact: The video is allegedly about poverty and consumerism, but GQ spotted that Wale’s wearing a pair of $900 Yves Saint Laurent sneakers in the video.