Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Who Does MTV Hate The Most?

In light of last night's Nicki Minaj/Taylor Swift shitstorm I had nothing better to do that try to work out whether there was anything in it. Minaj hypothesises that the MTV Video Music Awards are prejudiced against black women. If this is correct we could expect to see them under-represented in nominations. To put my cards on the table, I don't know much about Nicki Minaj. I like Taylor Swift, but Bad Blood is rubbish and Blank Space should have been nominated instead.

Notes -

  • All data from wikipedia.
  • There was a point for every nomination from 2009 to the present, 2009 was chosen since it was the start of the Taylor Swift/Kanye thing that this is basically a continuation of.
  • All collaborations were listed as half a point each, with no distinction made as to who was the featured artist. If there were multiple collaborators, or members of a band, any demographic represented got half a point, regardless of proportions (E.g. Bad Blood got 0.5 for white woman, 0.5 for black man. The Pussycat Dolls got 0.5 for black woman, 0.5 for white woman).
  • I didn't make any effort to include other racial groups. There were almost no asians represented at all, but when there were I did not include them.
  • Hispanics (e.g. Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez) were listed as white, since this was already far too much effort anyway. Some years had a specific latino category, I ignored this, as well as the special categories in 2009 I didn't really understand.
  • There are specific male and female categories. I included these, since they balance out, and often had featured artists anyway. Likewise, hip hop, which was mostly black, and rock, which was mostly white, were included.
  • The Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, whatever that is, was included, despite not having nominations, only a winner.
  • There was one nominee who identifies as agender. I did not include her in the obvious category.
  • I imagine I counted slightly wrong, but not very wrong, and not wrong in any particlar direction.
  • Charli XCX was classed as white. 
  • Michael Jackson was classed as black. Ha.

Total Nominations


Percentage Nominations (rounded)


To quickly analyse the results - it is pretty undeniable that women receive fewer nominations than men. 60% of nominees were male, 40% were female. Equally, black artists received fewer nominations than white artists, 38% to 62%. The next question is whether there is an intersectional angle to this. Since there are fewer black nominees than white, and fewer female than male, we would expect that the least nominees would go to black women. A chi squared test can be used to determine whether two variables such as this are dependent or independent, that is, whether being a black woman is particularly likely to cause you to be not nominated, compared to simply being black and a woman. This hypothesis is not supported by the data at the p<0.05 level (p=0.063), but is not far off.

Minaj, however, was mainly complaining about not being nominated for the main award of the night, so I also took a look at this, this time over the last 10 years of nominations to get more data. In this category, women are no longer under-represented, the numbers are almost exactly 50:50. This, however, is due to an increase in the representation of white women compared to white men, black women stay at the same percentage as the were in nominations as a whole. Minaj, therefore, might have a point here; compared to the general nominations, in the main category the judges look more favourably on white women at the expense of white men, but not on black women at the expense of black men. A chi squared test again does not find that the variables are dependent (p=0.125), but the sample size is lower, so significance would be harder to come by.

Best Video Nominations


Best Video Nominations Percentages (rounded)


To compare our results to the general population*, it is obvious that women are underrepresented in the nominations as a whole. Black artists, however, seem to be over-represented. Only 13% of the US population are black, while 38% of those nominated were. Even black women as a group make up 14% of nominations, compared to likely around 7% of the general population. In spite of the female disadvantage, the advantage that comes from being black pushes them above the expected level. White men, meanwhile, are nominated at a similar frequency to their population in the US. There are several possible explanations for this. It is possible that through some sort of combination of genetic, environmental and cultural factors black musicians are on average objectively more talented, or at least more appealing to the general public. In this case the judges may be expressing statistical discrimination in favour of black artists. It is also possible the judges simply particularly like black artists, and therefore expressing taste based discrimination. Both these points also apply to female artists.

Is is possible, however, that the general US population is not the correct reference to use. It may be a better idea to compare nominations against all music artists who sold a certain number of records, or who got a certain number of youtube views. I cannot therefore rule out that the number of black female artists out of all successful artists is considerably higher than their number the general population and their representation in the VMA awards, and that they are being discriminated against by the judges.

If anyone wants my full figures, or is better at stats than me and fancies doing some cool stuff with it, I'll send them across.

*Not all nominees were from the USA, but most were, and most overseas nominees were from countries with a lower minority population.


Update: Since I can't get enough of this, I took a look at the winners as well, to see if this reveals any bias. It is possible, of course, that the judges are choosing winners in a way prejudiced in favour of a particular group. This data covers 2009-1014.

VMA Winners



Percentage of VMA Winners


The actual winners are more gender balanced than the nominees. Overall a similar number of men and women won awards, in spite of men getting more nominations. Once nominated, therefore, women have a much larger chance of winning the award than men (see below). It is therefore possible that women are discriminated against in deciding on nominees, but this is then redressed when deciding a winner. That is, lots of extra low quality male artists are nominated.

With regards race, black artists are less likely to win than white artists once nominated. This, however, is driven solely by a lower percentage of black men winning. Black women nominated for awards actually have the highest chance of winning out of all groups, though this is very similar to that of white women. The percentage of winners is still higher than their numbers in the general population, but that does suggest there could be some bias by judges against black male artists in deciding on a winner.

Percentage of Nominees Who Won




Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Gods Of The Photoshop Headings

Over the last few months, it has become increasingly fashionable in the circles I move in to talk about signalling, the way we communicate and advertise things about ourselves to the world, and whether this is honest or dishonest. Often this is applied to politics in a negative way, with people we disagree with labelled as ‘virtue signalling’, that is, using beliefs as clothes in order to portray themselves as a better person than they really are. This, however, seems to miss a crucial point, which is the distinction between costly and cheap signalling. A signal that is more costly is more credible, and this can be used for good if the incentives are right.

Take gay rights, for example, a person or corporation putting a rainbow flag on their logo in order to signal progressive virtue is incredibly cheap. It takes ten seconds, no effort, and is free. It is therefore not especially credible. Someone who doesn’t care at all about LGBT people could easily do the exact same thing for facebook likes, and these people add a lot of noise into the signal, hence accusations of pinkwashing. Going on a march is slightly more costly, it’s a few hours of your life down the drain. I’m more likely to believe this person genuinely cares. At the top end, someone who devotes large portions of their time to campaigning or volunteering will be more credible still, nobody who didn’t really care would be willing to pay that substantial cost. All these things may be considered virtue signalling, they show people of similar views to you that you are a good person, but the latter is clearly better. What matters are the incentives, if someone has to actually do good things in order to signal that they are good, that’s fine by me, even if they aren't doing it out of any inherent goodness of character.

Last summer, virtue signalling had the Ice Bucket Challenge. The reason this worked was that in order to show how good you were, you had to pay a price, both in terms of unpleasantness (the cold water) and money (the charity donation). The incentives were therefore well aligned, even if the only reason people were doing it was virtue signalling, good was done for a good cause (ish). Inevitably though, there were still a few ‘free riders’, it is likely that some had not actually paid the price. Many people understandably found this repugnant, essentially ‘stealing’ a costly signal, and in the process casting suspicion over everyone.

Rachel Dolezal upset people because what looked like credible signals turned out to have been very cheap. How are we meant to evaluate someone if they can simply claim to be black, put a bit of fake tan on and get an outrageous perm? She hasn’t paid the ‘price’ in terms of racial discrimination that many others felt was necessary to claim the label and the benefits she gained from it. Similarly, Caitlyn Jenner and other transwomen seem to upset many radical feminists. By saying gender is simply a matter of identity, which anyone can choose to apply to themselves, they believe it is cheapened. Regardless of any number of decades of inner turmoil, they feel without the perceived cost of growing up and living as a woman, it’s all worthless and far too easy to fake. Cruelly, they see her as noise in the system.


The backlash against airbrushing and photoshop in recent years is part of the same phenomenon. Being attractive and in shape is a credible signal of health, good diet, and genes. Even makeup can only work with what is there, and often shows serious amounts of skill. Photoshop breaks this relationship by cheapening it. What we see on the page or screen is no longer believable, the noise in the system is increased and it’s difficult to pick out truth. When everything is SO beautiful, nothing is SO beautiful.

In a world full of empty signals, it becomes difficult to judge anything. Instead we start looking for authenticity, where the signal to noise ratio is higher. In fact, we may come to value authenticity over and above the beauty we were looking for in the first place. One of the funniest news story of the last year was the Cindy Crawford photoshoot. Leaked ‘unretouched’ photos showed the model looking if anything even older than her 49 years, and were dutifully passed around social media. ‘Cindy Crawford is so beautiful’, goes the catechism, as we all try to prove we aren’t taken in by cheap modern myths.

It later turned out, as you’ve probably guessed, that the photos were themselves faked, edited to make her look older and wrinklier. We are so desperate for authenticity that we will take a pastiche of it over the gloss of the real world. So busy looking for something believable that we forget what it is that we want to believe. It’s the essence of hipsterdom, with its elegantly scruffy beards, knowingly shabby clothes and fake polaroid filters.

The very best trolling exploits potential noise in these signals. Godfrey Elfwick is probably the king here. His schtick is to parody the very worst type of slacktivist, signalling virtue by jumping on every passing bandwagon, as well as a few of his own, while never paying any costs in terms of time, effort, or money. At the heart of this is frustration, half of what our brain does is separate sensory signals from noise, without that it’s impossible to ever make informed decisions. The troll adds to the noise, and by doing so exposes just how cheap and flimsy these signals are, and how little they should be trusted generally.

Solution there, it seems to me, is more costly signalling. Giving What We Can, who are generally great, demand a lot of virtue from their members, pledging to donate at least 10% of their lifetime income to the best charitable causes. This is obviously a very costly signal of their commitment, and the charity publishes a list of the people who do it. Unfortunately it seems to be filling up with students, who presumably don't donate much, so this does cheapen the signal somewhat, but hopefully its rigour will be maintained. There's nothing wrong at all with ostentatious signalling, as long as you really have the virtue to back it up, and if we pay no attention to their costs, we select for the very worst kind of signals.

Since when was this more beautiful than this?