NEW YORK (AP) — When Chicago-based rock act Rise Against began writing a song about suicide among gay teens, the band's lead singer tried to block out the event that inspired the tune — the death of a gay friend.
"His loss was something big to me," said Tim McIlrath.
But the band members wanted to get out the message, so they made a gripping video for "Make It Stop (September's Children)" featuring three teens bullied and at the brink of suicide.
Now the video is competing in a new category at the MTV Video Music Awards: the best video with a message award. It highlights music videos sending messages of positivity and self-empowerment and raising awareness about social issues that affect today's youth.
"I hope that category sticks around and I hope it gives artists something to aim for," said McIlrath, who teamed with the It Gets Better Project for the music video.
MTV President Stephen Friedman says the new category is proving popular among voters this year.
"I have to tell you in the voting, this category catapulted. It was among the top three or four categories — millions and millions of people voted on this," Friedman said. "It shows not only an interest from the artist, but also more importantly for the audience."
Other nominees in the category include Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," Taylor Swift's "Mean," Katy Perry's "Firework," Pink's "(Expletive) Perfect," and Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie."
Friedman says he hopes "this will be an ongoing category from here on out."
McIlrath said he thought about writing "Make It Stop" when a gay fan told him she wasn't sure where the band stood on gay rights.
McIlrath says the song — and the MTV nomination — is helping raise their profile.
"We're not a band who really aims for the VMAs, I'll be honest. Like, we're not really a band that traffics on the Billboard chart and MTV and VMAs and that kind of thing, we never really relied on that," he said. "When the video came out, CNN called me and Fox had me on, NBC had me on, like these little news blips, and I've never even done that type of stuff before."
Dave Meyers, the music video director of the Pink and Perry videos nominated in the new category, said making a video with a message can be difficult.
"What's challenging for me is I don't want to seem like I'm talking down to the audience — that I'm not preaching the message, that I'm asking them to come on a ride that is not one-dimensional," he said. "Sometimes I think message-y videos can be too message-y."
Meyers, who has directed videos for Missy Elliott, Dave Matthews Band and Britney Spears, says taking home the moon man for the message award would be more gratifying than some of his other wins.
"After 15 years of nominations and countless wins, this actually has a lot of meaning to me," Meyers said. "This is MTV saying, 'We as an organization think these videos deserve special acknowledgment' versus a popularity contest, which is what a lot of the other categories tend to be."
The Perry, Eminem and Lady Gaga videos nominated for best video with a message are also up for other awards. Perry leads the pack with 10 nominations at Sunday's show, which will be held in Los Angeles.
Mesfin Fekadu covers entertainment for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/musicmesfin