The 1999 MTV Video Music Awards

What, you expected obscenities, naked butts and rock 'n' roll attitude? You should have been in the press tent.

Topics: MTV, Jennifer Lopez,

Backstage at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, rapper Lil’
Kim, wearing a purple wig and a mere fistful of
lavender sequins, was talking about art and its
responsibilities. She and fellow presenter Mary J. Blige had
just handed over the trophy for best hip-hop video to the
Beastie Boys, one of whom had made an impassioned
plea for musicians to make sure that the rapes and sexual
assaults at Woodstock ’99 never happen at a concert again.

“I was deeply touched by that … especially because it was a
man talking about keeping women safe,” Kim said. “Women have to look out
for each other.” Next question: Just how did you
get that pasty thingy to stay stuck over your nipple? “We use an adhesive
bonding … like, for hair and stuff,” she said, segueing seamlessly
from the political to the personal without batting a single false eyelash.
“We didn’t use Krazy Glue …”

So it went at the 16th Video Music Awards on Thursday night in Manhattan, where fashion and
politics and irony and rap and rock and Buddy Hackett came
together in one big pre-millennial wet kiss. The awards
themselves, of course, mean nothing. The annals tend to read like a “Where are they now?” casting call (paging Jenny McCarthy).
Take home an Oscar, and you spend the rest of your life as “Academy Award-winning-(your name here).”
Win a Moon Man, and you’re A-Ha.

But if the Oscars are all about honor, then the Video
Music Awards are all about spectacle. The Oscars are hushed
and reverential, freighted with gravitas. The VMAs are
backstage fistfights, bleeped blue language, Howard Stern’s
pimply bare bottom descending from the heavens and disgraced
kiddie TV star Pee Wee Herman mincing onstage to ask if
we’ve heard any good jokes lately. The 1999 show didn’t –
couldn’t — offer us any of those memorable moments. The
world has changed too much. Courtney Love’s cleaned up. Axl
Rose has calmed down. Siniad O’Connor’s been
ordained. Madonna’s presumably arranging play dates instead
of S&M photo shoots; the feel-my-pain of grunge has been
supplanted by the sugary pop of the Backstreet Boys. And
given that the Clinton presidency has survived the whole
nation knowing what he did with that cigar and That Woman, a guy
masturbating just doesn’t seem that perverted anymore.

The biggest shock of the night wasn’t Chris Rock’s barbs
or Lil’ Kim’s boobs or Renee Zellweger’s evident lack of underwear; it was
a newly brunet David Bowie taking the stage to introduce
Lauryn Hill, who was looking exactly like Courteney Cox.
Other than that, it was all about the love. Everything was “in the
house,” everything was “off the hook” and many things were both
at the same time, according to the stars. MTV balloters loved Lauryn Hill
and Ricky Martin, awarding them
five and four Moon Man trophies, respectively. (Among their other triumphs, Hill’s “Doo
Wop (That Thing)” won for best video, best
female video, best R&B video and best art direction;
Martin’s omnipresent “Livin’ La Vida Loca” won for best pop
video and best dance video.) Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith
loved their nephew Kyle so much they felt compelled
to deliver nonstop shout-outs to the 9-year-old birthday
boy, thus turning the red carpet into a real-time version of
your local radio station’s all-request and dedication hour. Martin loved him some Armani. This we learned after he
won the first award of the night, for best dance video, and
dispatched his choreographer to the pressroom. “What are you
wearing, Tina?” bellowed a reporter up front. “I’m wearing
Armani,” she said, “because Ricky wears Armani, and I’m with
Ricky.” Makes sense.

Pamela Anderson Lee loved formerly
estranged husband Tommy Lee, and wasn’t shy about sharing.
“Is it good to be back together again?” asked MTV News’
Chris Connelly during the pre-pre-show interviews. “It’s so
good,” gushed Pammy, clad in sequined pants, a corset and
a fuzzy pink Cat-in-the-Hat chapeau. “It’s all good.” The
press corps got excited when the Lees made their way
backstage. Finally, here was a chance to ask that old
chestnut — “Have you stopped beating your wife?” — and
have it actually apply. Trouble was, we never got to ask
anything. As soon as Pammy took the podium, moving in the tiny
stutter-steps that were all her skintight pants and hooker
heels would permit her and starting to talk about who’d
designed her get-up, Tommy dashed into the room, flung
open his trench coat and bared his naked body to the
Pamster’s approving eyes. “I’m too distracted!” she
announced, chasing her spouse offstage.
Puh-leeze … like nobody’s seen that before.

Everyone loved everyone else — except for host Chris Rock, who had nothing nice to say about anyone,
and said it all anyhow. Among the notable disses: New York’s Metropolitan Opera, site of this year’s ceremony: “I
may be the first black man to be on this stage without a
mop.” Jennifer Lopez: “She came in two limos: one for her,
one for her ass.” Kid Rock: “You see Kid Rock? He looks like
a substitute pimp!” Fatboy Slim: “Looks like White Boy
Retarded.” (“Better than Fratboy Slim,” quipped the artist
backstage.) The Backstreet Boys: “Didn’t you see New Kids on
the Block? Don’t you know how this movie ends?” No doubt
this was all meant to be edgy and ironic, but show me a man
who complains about everything and I won’t be impressed by
his sharply honed urban sensibilities — I’ll just
think he’s been spending too much time with my grandmother.

If you wanted real angst and real anger, you should have
hung out with the press corps covering the stars’ arrivals.
Corralled into a series of narrow gated holding pens beneath
threatening skies, toting cameras, crates, stepladders,
microphones and those little fuzzy purses that New York
girls have instead of pets; penned up for over an hour with
nary a star appearing: It wasn’t long before the assembled
reporters turned on each other. “These word people!” shouted
one photographer, gesturing at the writers blocking his view
of Christina Aguilera’s entourage. “Get ‘em out of here! Put
them way in the back! They’re only word people.” It got
ugly, as some of the word people used a few choice bits of
their vocabulary on him.

And then it started to rain. Hard.
The reporters retreated to the press tent, where we’d spend
the next three-plus hours engaged in what felt like a game
of Bizarro Jeopardy. With photographers screaming on one
side and TV sets blaring live feed from the other, it was
impossible to hear each other’s questions, so we had to
figure out what they were from the stars’ answers. In some
cases, that was easy: When somebody said, “In December,”
they were either talking about a new album or a new baby.
Likewise responses like “Armani,” “Versace” and “What really happened was, I walked her out to her car and kissed
her on the cheek and the next day the tabloids said we were
in love.” (That last was from Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath,
putting the lie to the rumors that there’s something going on
between him and Madonna.) But sometimes it was next to
impossible. “I’ll tell you the truth: I was taking a shit,”
said Eminem, in response to I have no idea what.

And on it went. Jay-Z said he’d be working on his acting skills in the
new millennium. “Anything I do,” he pledged through a
walnut-sized wad of bubblegum, “I want to do well.” Gavin
Rossdale says that his next video’s going to be based on
shao-lin Kung Fu. Opera moppet Charlotte Church says she’s
had movie offers but will be sticking with the singing for
now. Jay Mohr said he’d never appear on “Friends.” “Hell, no,”
he sneered. “I’m on funny shows.” Stone Cold Steve Austin
bemoaned his bad knees and beer belly. Wyclef Jean pleaded,
in a tone that sounded only half-joking, for someone to
please ask Lauryn Hill to take his phone calls. Mary J.
Blige disclosed that she’s still “looking for love in all
the wrong places, and you know what, I haven’t found it.”
(She does seem to have found a prolific tattoo artist, however.)

Tupac Shakur’s mother is publishing
a book of his poetry in time for Christmas; Biggie Smalls’
mother is working on a biography and a screenplay about her
slain son’s life; McGrath blames the carnage of Woodstock on
people who charge $4 for water; he also has his little dog’s
pawprint tattooed on his arm. And Ricky Martin? He’s doing
a lot of meditation and a lot of yoga. He’s wearing a lot of
Armani, which is sponsoring his next concert. “The one thing
I want to keep in touch with is my emotion,” he says
sincerely. Oh, and he’s hard at work on the video for “Shake
Your Bon Bon.” Amid this treacly gale of good feelings, it
fell to Will Smith to inject the tiniest dose of irony and
reality into the proceedings. Do you see yourself focusing
more on becoming a serious actor? a reporter asked. Smith
rolled his eyes. “What do you think I’ve been doing?” he
demanded. Did he mind only winning one award, for best male
video? “Im excited any time I can get on  as long as I
don’t have to sit there with the dumb face on for the whole
show.” And finally, was Chris Rock too harsh on poor Jennifer Lopez?
Smith considered. “He went at her ass a lot tonight,” he opined, “but she knows, and he knows, too, that
she’s got a beautiful thing going there.”

It was, as the music channel endlessly reminded us, the last
Video Music Awards of the millennium.

Jennifer Weiner is a novelist.

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