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YouTube's Music Awards Reveal The Secret, Obvious Shame of Social Media

This is a really obvious, great idea, and I commend whoever came up with it: YouTube, the place where everybody listens to music by default, has announced the first-ever YouTube Music Awards, a 90-minute live stream scheduled for November 3.

There are some other cool ideas, too--they're going to be "[making] live music videos throughout the night," among other concessions to the viral video format.

But the bulk of their announcement is devoted to the famous people who are going to be in it, as announced by the famous guy who's going to host it. That's the big deal, here, because it's an explicit reminder of something that's usually just implicit: For all the hype about the Social part of Social Media and its democratizing effects on culture, when it comes time to monetize these websites always reach for the celebrities.

All the social media success stories have had to deal with this, though they're at various stages in the process. Facebook, which reached critical mass first, is crawling with "social" ads and brands and pages, now; Twitter is just beginning to insist on telling its users what their favorite celebrities and brands are up to.

Even Tumblr, the weirdest and least-tamed of the big social networks, has ramped things up--anybody who's checked zir dashboard (zir is a gender-neutral pronoun meaning "A person with a Tumblr account") in the last month or so has been presented with at least one high-gloss GIF wall from some brand that A) half-gets Tumblr, B) has some extremely talented interns, and C) desperately wants to be perceived as edgy.

Social media was supposed to kill the monocultural celebrity, but as each of these platforms has gone mainstream they've realized, with mounting horror, that the only people who know how to reach their huge, mainstream audience are those very celebrities. (Granted I'm only imagining the mounting horror, but given the way these sites tend to blow up well before they've got a business model it seems like a reasonable guess.)

I can't blame them, either; having Ashton Kutcher around to talk about his lunch was a PR coup for Twitter, who'd had to deal with a persistent stereotype of Twitter as a place where normal people talk about their lunch.

But on YouTube, of all places, the focus on Real Celebrities somehow seems more perverse.

YouTube, more than any of the other social networks, takes the regular-guy-makes-good trope as its founding myth. When it interacts with Real Celebrity it's to remake a hit song in a surprising way (or in an unsurprising way, with a ukelele), or to autotune it into some other famous thing. It's the home of "Chocolate Rain," for god's sake.

Weezer's "Pork and Beans" video--which, yes, was made by Real Celebrities--is an unwittingly accurate depiction of how people saw YouTube in 2008, if not of what YouTube actually was.

But clumsy, bite-sized amateur hits won't get you all the way into the mainstream. Even the serendipitous pop culture mashups--PSY becoming a global superstar, or whatever--won't do it. Eventually even YouTube had to call in the Real Celebrities.

The Top 10 YouTube Videos of All Time, at this moment, are instructive. By my count, it's one prototypical viral video--"Charlie bit my finger - again!"--two weird PSY hybrids, and seven music videos ranging from internet-driven-cult-of-personality (Justin Bieber) to couldn't-possibly-be-more-1999 (Jennifer Lopez? Really?)

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I'm certainly not suggesting that the YouTube people dump Jason Schwartzman for the Numa Numa Guy. I'm not even sure there's a way of avoiding creeping professionalism--look at college sports, or the progressively more accomplished casts of American Idol. But it's strange that in the trailer for YouTube's coming-out party as a cultural force, the only genuinely viral success story is the YouTube play button.

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