MTV announced this year's crop of Video Music Award (VMA) nominees over Beats 1 yesterday morning. Pick a major artist who's put out music lately, no matter their label status or musical style, and they're likely represented somewhere: from Kanye and Rihanna to the Chemical Brothers and FKA twigs, you're bound to see something you like within the dense thicket of nominations.
That kind of breadth is nice, but this year's most interesting battle happens to be taking place in the night's marquee category. That's Video of the Year, where viewers are going to have to figure out their allegiances along lines of genre, production value, and personal strategy. (If that sounds complicated, that's because it is — whoever said pop fandom was easy?) Let's take a look at our five nominees and break down both the merit of their candidacies and the paths they'll take to victory.
Beyoncé, "7/11": At this point, doesn't it feel like Beyoncé has transcended the VMAs? MTV gave her the highest honor they've yet managed to invent last year, and let her perform for 20 uninterrupted minutes; she announced that she was having her first child during the ceremony four years ago, rubbing her belly for the world's benefit. Winning another Video of the Year trophy at this point would be like adding a tiny candle to a three-story, 50-layer wedding cake. "7/11" is a lot of fun, and it boosted sales of kale-themed sweatshirts by several thousand percent, but it doesn't further any sort of career narrative other than, "Beyoncé is still great! And more chill than you thought!" I don't know if that's enough.
Path to glory: One word: #BeyHive. Can't you see those ballot boxes getting flooded even if there isn't a ton of momentum behind this song?
Ed Sheeran, "Thinking Out Loud": This is probably the closest thing this category has to a rock song, though it's closer to Van Morrison's earthy, blue-eyed soul than anything you would traditionally associate with rock radio. Its biggest problem is that when talking about "Thinking Out Loud," no one ever says anything like, "Oh yeah — that's the one with the gorgeous video, the one with all the dancing." (The question of whether or not people are still talking about "Thinking Out Loud" at all can be addressed another time.) To win Video of the Year, a song needs to be inseparable from its clip. It should render the song more vibrant, and it should pop into your brain every time you hear it. I don't think that's true for "Thinking Out Loud."
Path to glory: The song's multigenerational appeal for romantics from 8 to 80 might draw in some bored parents to the VMA voting page, causing a very sweet, sincere upset from outside MTV's typical demo.
Kendrick Lamar, "Alright": This is the most ambitious and breathtaking video of the bunch, and it's the only one with any interest in any kind of broader social relevance. It's also our sole entrant from the world of hip-hop this year. (Pour one out for Drake and Nicki Minaj — we'll talk about the latter in a minute.) I think the fact that "Alright" is commenting on something bigger than its own existence — police brutality, institutional racism, taking solace in community — is its greatest asset as a candidate, especially in a year where its category rivals are focused on having fun. Here's a scenario I can see evolving over the next few weeks: groups of Twitter and Tumblr users intensely interested in both music and social justice, banding together and driving an organic campaign for an "Alright" victory. The VMAs are a frivolous affair all around, sure, but wouldn't that be a nice moment of validation? And I bet we'd get one hell of a speech from Kendrick.
Path to glory: "Alright" mobilizes a politically passionate base and rides a wave of appreciation for its sheer artistic audacity.
Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars, "Uptown Funk": Okay, this is my favorite of the bunch: it's pure fun, it oozes personality and color and wit, and it understands the unique skills of one Bruno Mars as an entertainer / force of nature. Unfortunately, it has to work against three major factors: fatigue, timing, and star power. "Uptown Funk" ruled the charts for a long time, and that reign took place at the wrong time in terms of VMA momentum. I love this song, and I still catch myself groaning when I hear it out and about just from having been drowned in it from January to April. And though Bruno is the face and voice of the track, Mark Ronson isn't the kind of name that drives voters to the virtual polls, especially up against people like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
Path to glory: Everyone remembers how they felt the first time they heard this song six months ago and votes for that feeling. Prince shows up to accept the award, and nobody complains because "Uptown Funk" is basically a Prince song in the first place.
Taylor Swift ft. Kendrick Lamar, "Bad Blood": Let's acknowledge off the top that "Blank Space" is superior to "Bad Blood" in every way, and it's criminal that an endless parade of celebrities was enough to win this a nod over a better song and a better video. Moving on: I admit that I have a hyper-specific vision for how this category is going to play out come August, and it has a lot to do with the second half of Mean Girls. Having misread Nicki Minaj's systemic complaints about the VMA nomination process and inserted herself into the story — thus obscuring Nicki's point entirely — on Twitter last night, Taylor has realized her destiny as pop's Cady Herron. She's the girl who once thought of herself as an outsider, having become the thing she claimed to hate: a manipulator, a paranoid ruler.
Path to glory: Taylor begins to realize the error of her ways, but the sheer force of the star power she's built up is too strong: she wins Video of the Year. She steps onto the VMA stage and looks out at the crowd. Instead of celebrating her win, she takes the opportunity to dismantle the concept entirely: she rails against the entrenched discrimination of the nomination process, the frivolousness of the whole charade. She breaks her Moonman into tiny pieces and gives them to Nicki, Katy Perry, and all of the other nominees. Calvin Harris graduates and attends Northwestern in the fall.
Unfortunately, you'll have to wait a while to find out the true victor: the Miley Cyrus-hosted VMAs are set to air August 30th on MTV.