“What are the AMAs?”
My sister asked me that last night when I was complaining about how my Twitter feed was overrun with tweets about the moorless awards show, and I honestly didn’t have a good answer, because really: What are the American Music Awards?
Some cynical thoughts I had before I began researching: They’re yet another manufactured music award show to let lagging superstars claim relevance. They’re a chance for advertisers to plaster your screen with irrelevant messaging. They’re another iron bar in the grand capitalistic prison we’ve built for ourselves. In reality, I wasn’t too far off. The American Music Awards were created in service to television and television only. Specifically, for the ABC network by Dick Clark.
To understand the basis for the American Music Awards, one need look no farther than a textbook on broadcasting. Programming for TV, Radio & The Internet: Strategy, Development & Evaluation was first published in 2005, and it lays out the way TV programming was eventually created to please networks or “buyers” instead of with viewers in mind:
The American Music Awards illustrates how the buyer-to-producer process worked and continues to work. In 1973, ABC’s 5-year contract to present the Grammy Awards expired. In the judgement of network executives, the rights fees and other requirements for a renewal were too demanding and they elected not to meet the conditions. Instead, they decided to compete with an awards show of their own but with a format more suitable for the viewer and less encumbered by the rituals and political necessities of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Grammy’s parent organization. ABC programmers asked Dick Clark to develop a format that would fulfill the goals of the show. Although he had never previously produced a prime-time special, Clark was selected because of his success with American Bandstand and his familiarity with the music scene. The American Music Awards pulled in significant ratings for many years.
As Variety points out, AMAs ratings dropped from last year but still gave ABC its highest-rated night since May and the Billboard Music Awards (an awards show that’s been around intermittently since 1989).
So, it’s not surprising that Jennifer Lopez dancing to this year’s hit songs seemed to be the highlight of a lackluster show; J. Lo dancing to a song you’ve danced to this year is the ideal perfunctory TV “event.” The fact that she hasn’t so much as put out a new song this year means nothing. For better or worse, winning an AMA doesn’t really mean anything. Nothing is passed down from on high–fans vote for their favorite artists and then tune in to watch the self-fulfilling prophecy unfold. One Direction won artist of the year, no surprise given the zealous world-building of their fan-base. Reviled pop interlopers Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor kissed, a “shocker” so hackneyed that it already happened once this year.
I didn’t watch the show, mostly because I don’t have a TV. (I’m not haughty about TV, just poor.) But also because I’m sick of this whole rigamarole; cutting to a shot of each pop star’s ex or newly-minted paramour during their performance, waiting for the scandalous kiss, watching because everyone else in my feed is. Or w writing blog posts about the events of the night because all the other music sites I compete with are. Or robotically waiting for the event that will become a moment of note, and drafting some bland copy about it. The AMAs are a copy of the Grammys, which was in itself an award that attempted to honor quality music like Frank Sinatra over the lowbrow “flash-in-the-pan” rock-and-roll of youth culture. And even the Grammys remain bogged down by a questionable member qualification system and voting process.
The AMAs didn’t originate because of a desire to highlight musicians or celebrate their art, it started because ABC network execs didn’t want to jump through hoops for the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences. This is the point where capitalism begins to feel more and more like a prison. We’re all stuck inside this creaky machine that’s whirring in order to pay people we mostly despise. When can we get off?