Here’s a fun fact about the MTV Video Music Awards: I adore them. If we’re talking about award shows with deserving honorees, the VMAs routinely reward the right artists at the right time. Past winners of the big title “Video of the Year” include some of the best clips of the past 30 years: Peter Gabriel‘s “Sledgehammer,” Sinead O’Connor‘s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Madonna‘s “Ray of Light,” Lauryn Hill‘s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and Lady Gaga‘s “Bad Romance.” Now that the 2013 nominees are here, it’s time to guess which clip deserves to join their ranks. Better yet, let’s do the moral thing and select which video should win. Here goes, ranked worst to first.
5. Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven”
I’m sorry to say this clocks in at #5 because it’s the most listenable, impressively sung radio hit on the tally. Problem is, the video gives us nothing that the song doesn’t already provide: It’s a party-worthy, shout-along anthem, and the video is — wait for it — a party-style concert with anthem-lovers shouting along. For good measure there are clips of Bruno throwing dice with his pals, which should impress Guys and Dolls fans in the house, but otherwise this video is an unassuming entry in the Bruno Mars video oeuvre. Props for the cinematography though, which is earthy and lush in a Janet Jackson “Got ‘Til Its Gone” way. But where’s the Joni cameo?
4. Taylor Swift, “I Knew You Were Trouble”
First of all, every other Taylor Swift song should be called “I Apparently Didn’t Know You Were Trouble.” Secondly, the video for “I Knew You Were Trouble” is only impressive in its collage treatment of the protagonist’s dissipated relationship. This is the five-minute pop version of “(500) Days of Summer,” with all the twee melodrama and poor-baby pouting that entails. Swift is far away from her country roots here, as she resembles a pink-streaked, honor roll cousin of Avril Lavigne and Paramore‘s Hayley Williams, and she falls to her knees in heartache nearly every time she gets to the line, “Now I’m lyin’ on the cold hard ground.” Harmlessly literal enough, but the slick dirtiness and dank blue haze of this clip are dated in precisely the wrong way, like the director is borrowing tricks from old Matchbox 20 and Vertical Horizon videos — or The Corrs‘ “Breathless,” to be specific. And terrifying in a 2000 way.
3. Justin Timberlake, “Suit & Tie”
I love a nervy black and white video whether we’re talking about Godley and Creme‘s “Cry” or Beyonce‘s “Single Ladies,” (or, you know, my favorite video ever, Madonna’s “Vogue”) because monotone starkness is — at the very least — fun to ogle. On JT’s “Suit and Tie,” we’re treated to more of the jiving popster’s R&B loverman act, but he also exhibits excellent dance skills and extemporaneous abilities with a mic stand. In its studied use of film noir lighting and shadows, “Suit & Tie” still manages to capture something spontaneous. That I love. I could do without the hokey blasts of cigar smoke and gratuitous lady objectification, but Justin Timberlake has always — always — had taste issues. After 10 years as a solo act, JT has made it abundantly clear that his idea of a great music video is a naughty ad for Armani Exchange. But still: Among well-clothiered JT clips, this is one of the better, saucier entires.
2. Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines”
I’ll say it: This song’s success is a surprise to me. It’s catchy, but it could’ve come out in 2006 alongside other seedy earworms like “SexyBack” and “Promiscuous,” no question. The video, however, is shockingly new: The pallid, salmon-tinged luster of Robin Thicke’s libido-driven vid is both appealingly unusual and sort of gross. And that’s awesome, because this song? Is sort of gross. You shouldn’t purr a line like “I know you want it” without realizing you sound like a mouthbreathing predator, and Robin Thicke is completely on board with his own ickiness. As topless dancers shimmy left and cavort right, he perfectly plays the role of a sleazy, high-rolling strip club denizen. The garish hashtags, signage about his “big d*ck,” and Robin’s own smug lip movements make this video simultaneously self-aware and unapologetically fratty. It ain’t innocent, but it’s somehow refreshing — like jumping into a pond and reveling in the cold scum.
1. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, “Thrift Shop”
Not hyperbole to say there’s no reason this shouldn’t win video of the year: 400 million views for an unknown artist? A surprisingly fresh take on the hipster haven of Goodwills and Out Of The Closet franchises? Hilarious lyrics and visuals? I love the small touches in this gigantic celebration, like the opening where a girl is cruising in a swivel chair (a thrift shop staple!), the downright jarring R. Kelly joke (risky!), and the entire wall of chintzy John F. Kennedy tapestries. So weird. And yet, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis really deserve Video of the Year props for “Same Love,” the frankest exploration of being a gay mainstream artist I’ve ever heard on radio. Since they can’t win the big honors for that video, I’ll settle for this jam, a singular and LOL-worthy achievement.