So what if MTV doesn't really play music videos anymore? At this point in the cable juggernaut's history, all the "The Real World" marathons in the world can't substitute for what MTV does best: big, empty spectacle, delivered with pomp, flash and knowing pop references to make the viewers at home feel like they're privy to some magnificent in joke.
Welcome to the 17th annual Video Music Awards.
During his pressroom appearance halfway through the broadcast, electronic musician Moby said there were two kinds of artists: good-looking kids who were popular in high school, like Ricky Martin, and the dorks who everyone hated. The second type, like him, retreated to their bedrooms and learned how to play instruments so they could make girls like them.
Moby might be right, but at this point, the popular kids are kicking ass.
Eminem, who you could argue is a high school runt exacting indiscriminate lyrical revenge in the name of losers everywhere, is the only exception. He won two-and-a-half awards, including one for best video and a shared award with Dr. Dre for "Forgot About Dre."
But the losers aren't supposed to grow into bigger assholes than the stupid jocks. Are they?
In the midst of this great high school soap opera, there was the typical senior-year foofaraw -- except for all the, you know, learning stuff. The cheerleaders delivered smutty dance routines, the rebels practiced a little delinquency and one class clown got hauled away in handcuffs.
I was there, kind of, taking it all down for the yearbook.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
For a massive live production like the VMAs -- which the press guy in charge said was being seen in 323 million homes in 139 countries with "a potential audience of 1 billion people" -- you need a thicket of security measures to keep fans from penetrating the hallowed starland backstage, chatting up Milla Jovovich for her phone number or, say, rushing the stage and climbing on sets during the performance.
This tiptop security is maintained mostly by big guys with walkie-talkies who work off a rainbow of badges that signify various privileges. A yellow one, like mine, meant that before the show started, when the stars were pulling up in limos and milling around near the entrance, you could stand in a pen with catty, ignorant journalists from all over the world. These journalists are, of course, too jaded to know the names of the people on the red carpet.
To be honest, I was one of them. I thought Britney Spears was a cleaner Christina Aguilera -- until later on in the show when Spears ripped off her dark pants and slapped her jiggling ass. I identified 'N Sync, but never did figure out the difference between 98 Degrees and, um, the other ones.
Can you blame me? It was nuts out there. The sidewalks around Radio City Music Hall were so crammed with people that to move half an inch you needed a police baton and a pit bull. On the opposite side of Sixth Avenue there was an inflatable man-on-the-moon statue and bleachers full of squealing girls who sounded like they were seeing the Beatles at Candlestick.
The band Papa Roach was performing that godawful meld of metal and rap on top of the Radio City marquee. And there was blue and silver confetti flying through the air. Meanwhile, some guy with a radio next to me kept saying things like, "Do you know where Keanu is?"
I noticed that Kid Rock's nose is bigger than you would think, that Aaliyah's gums are bright red and quite prominent, that Wyclef Jean is a press whore and that Michael Moore is fat and dirty.
The journalists, contained behind the fence, would try to snag performers for quick, bite-size interviews. They were invariably stupid. Sample question for Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst: "What's your favorite pasta?"
It was ziti. But moving on, those crazy Red Hot Chili Peppers (shorter than you would think) staged a scuffle for the cameras and accidentally doused a bodyguard with a bottle of water. He was not amused. U2's Bono and Larry Mullen Jr. didn't want to talk to anyone.
Award presenter Richard Hatch, the tubby ass man from "Survivor," claimed to be a Moby fan. The Blink 182 girlfriends looked like they could kick the band's ass. Jack Black, the actor and singer of novelty band Tenacious D, schlepped an acoustic guitar. (Doesn't he know that there are roadies for that kind of stuff?)
MTV News reporter Brian McFayden tried to chase down Aguilera. By the time he caught her, she was pulling off that celebrity trick of looking at once bored, tired and ridiculously skinny. Not that McFayden helped; he looked like the sixth member of 'N Sync. The gorgeous Romanian journalist next to me used to be a VJ on a music channel in Eastern Europe. She said they had a name for people like him: "Cookie."
Of course, all award shows are about fashion, and the look of the season seemed pretty punk -- albeit a sequined kind of punk. The Red Hots wore Mohawks. That silly pop star Pink looked like a bottle of Manic Panic magenta in a fur collar. R&B trio Destiny's Child, wearing silver-studded corsets, looked like bondage punks, or characters in a video game designed by a horny programmer.
Puffy and Jennifer Lopez both wore white. (After Labor Day!?!) Toni Braxton wore a long open coat. No, that's it: a long open coat. It must have been attached to her breasts with Velcro. Kid Rock went high class in a wife-beater and a vest. Rapper Lil' Kim wore some sort of orange plastic thing that made her look as if she'd been running naked and hit a temporary security fence at high speed.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
After everyone was off the carpet and in the building, the walkie-talkie people ushered us press people past the teenagers in their mall best back to our press tent. You see, we wouldn't even be let into the building. Press, like everyone at home, got to watch the broadcast on television.
Our perks were blacked-out commercials, enough candy to give Willy Wonka a sugar seizure and an occasional honest-to-God celebrity trotted out in front of us every 10 minutes or so. The only drawback was, of course, that whenever one of those celebrities was talking, all the sound went out on the TVs. That means, in a way, that if you watched last night, or if you see the reruns this weekend, you'll probably see more of the show than I did. All I can say is that I'm sorry for you.
The show was already running by the time we got back in the tent. Shawn and Marlon Wayans were halfway through a stand-up routine about the fight that broke out at the hip-hop award show sponsored by the Source earlier this week. The punch line was "black ass" and one of the interchangeable brothers illustrated it by showing off his ass cheeks.
Next, Janet Jackson performed an elaborate dance routine to "Doesn't Really Matter." Like most of the songs on the radio, the beats were skittery and the melody subdued.
Blink 182, whom I hate because I saw them solicit blow jobs from the stage at a show a few years ago, won best group video for "All the Small Things," their parody of boy band videos. Sure, they looked kind of adorable in their little T-shirts, but by the end of the show, I'd have another reason to hate them.
Before we in the press tent could hear the Blink speech our host explained that he would be tossing celebrities into our tank shortly. Our job was to ask dumb questions about fashion before the nice MTV guy yanked the person away from the podium.
We learned that wouldn't get Ricky Martin or Robert De Niro. We wouldn't get Spears or Aguilera or 'N Sync or Eminem or dozens of other big stars who really don't need a lot of press from online magazines or Hong Kong newspapers or Romanian teen magazines. We'd get a more complete picture later.
Onstage, professional wrestler the Rock joined Kid Rock. (Get it?) Jennifer Lopez got an award for best dance video. This might be a good time to bring up the seemingly arbitrary categories of the program. There's an award for best dance and best choreography. There's another for best video and then one for best direction. Inexplicably, there's an award for best hip-hop video and another for best rap video. I guess I won't even point out that the same 10 videos -- the only 10 videos that MTV played all year -- seemed to be up for all the awards.
The feed went back on. Bono and Mullen, who were older than just about anyone there, introduced Rage Against the Machine. The connection, I believe, was that Rage are an ostensibly political band and that U2 used to have political convictions a long time ago, back when their records were actually worth listening to. There were televisions all over the stage and Rage looked mighty angry.
Our feed got cut off when Lopez entered the room. The starstruck reporters actually clapped. It was embarrassing. Lopez talked about a movie she's making about painter Frida Kahlo. Someone asked her a question. "I like the bling-bling," she said. She stepped away from the podium and spun around. What am I supposed to say here? Boy, how 'bout that caboose!
The Rock came in next and answered questions about working out. And yes, as a matter of fact, he was wearing Gucci sunglasses, he said. (Yes, it really was this bad.) The Rock was one of the celebrities who sat in on the Republican Convention this summer, so one intrepid newshound asked him to talk about the event.
"The Bushes," he responded. "They smell what the Rock is cookin'."
I'm sure George W. is printing bumper stickers now.
Meanwhile, squeaky-voiced soulstress Macy Gray won the award for best new artist, even though her double platinum record came out more than a year ago. "I hate makin' videos," she squeaked into the microphone. She definitely wasn't one of the popular kids.
Platinum-haired Pepsi pitchman Sisqo followed Gray with a performance of -- guess what? -- "The Thong Song." He slid, he did a little breakdance move, he turned one-handed cartwheels. He performed as if the evening were his last performance on MTV. It was probably the right attitude. Next stop for Sisqo: "Where Are They Now?"
Next up, a Wayans skit riffing on Gray's video "I Try." Gray flipped off the hosts from the floor.
Aaliyah and "Try Again" won the award for best female video. In an Angelina Jolie moment, she brought her brother onstage and lavished him with praise.
Wyclef beat-boxed with Destiny's Child, then handed over the award for best male video to Eminem. The foul white rapper took the stage, promised that after showing up empty-handed last year he had actually written a speech. Digging through his pockets, he dumped a handful of pills all over the stage. I bet it seemed funnier to him the night before, when he was stoned.
In the first of a couple of Napster jokes, programmer Shawn Fanning, the kid who invented the file-sharing program, walked onstage to present Spears. He wore a Metallica T-shirt that "a friend let me borrow." He got a laugh.
Spears' medley performance started out like a Busby Berkeley fantasia. She wore dark clothing and a hat cocked sideways. Then, after massacring the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" and changing the line "how white my shirts can be" to "how tight my shirts can be," she ripped off her pants, exposing a sequined bikini and a pair of flesh-colored pants with a sequined crotch. Her dance routine looked as if it was choreographed in a strip joint. "I'm not that innocent," she belted. Middle-aged men and teenage boys of America reached for the remote -- and the hand lotion. No, it's not a pleasant thought, but neither was the sight of a teenage harlot slapping that fleshy butt.
Sisqo's acceptance speech for best hip-hop video contained two howlers: "I'd like to thank all the fans for voting," which was nice, except that the voting is done by 500 industry people; and "Hip-hop is the origin of music in my opinion."
Out in the tent, Napster's Fanning took the mike. "How much are you worth?" asked a bold reporter. Fanning shrugged. He answered two more inconsequential questions before he was whisked away.
'N Sync won an award for that song where they shake their fists.
Sisqo, in the press tent, carried on with his roll. How did he feel about putting America in the thong? (And we thought Monica Lewinsky was responsible.) "I wish I woulda got some money from Victoria's Secret," he said. He also said something about boy bands not being a joke, which I thought was funny.
We cut back in on Jim Carrey. He'd been gyrating and prancing, but I only caught something about him wanting to watch from home and eat chips on the couch. (Same here, Jim.) He went on to belittle director Ron Howard and introduce Eminem. "He scares me," Carrey says. "His lyrics are socially unacceptable."
I caught only part of Eminem's performance. It began out in the street, where he had dozens of look-alikes lined up in front of Radio City Music Hall. They all had cropped blond hair and all wore jeans and white T-shirts. I'm pretty sure this was a riff on the "don't try to act like me" themes of his record. It would have come out a lot better if he'd said something like, "Don't make fun of gay people and shred women for fun like I do."
As he started to rap the posse followed him into Radio City. He walked down the aisle rapping, stopping to grab his dick in front of Aaliyah and shake hands with "Total Request Live" host Carson Daly. He left in the verse about Aguilera giving Daly head.
Meanwhile, in the press tent, we had no audio. Macy Gray said this about her outfit: "It's the purple-plum, Afro, circles-on-the-pants look."
We also got L.L. Cool J, who plugged his new record as if it was his last. Don't call it a comeback.
He also had a few things to say about racism: "I don't think racism will ever stop me from taking a check," he said, followed by, "I love the music -- I don't do it for the money."
I was confused.
Chris Rock, in a floor-length pimp coat that was almost funny, gave the Red Hot Chili Peppers a video vanguard award, which looked like all of the other awards except that it was gold. Bass player Flea said a really sweet thing about his daughter, who has just started school, and said that he's thankful "for the gray hairs in my Mohawk." Sid Vicious rolled over in his grave.
Next up was the flip side of the earlier Napster gag. In a video, one of the Wayans is in a dorm room downloading Metallica songs on Napster. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich busts into the room and starts "borrowing" all the stuff in the dorm room, pasting Napster stickers to the walls, walking out with the guy's stereo, even slapping a Napster sticker on the guy's girlfriend's ass.
This was much, much funnier than that time Metallica was going to sue their fans for downloading their music.
Up at the podium to present best rap video, Moby pasted one of his Gore-Lieberman stickers below the microphone before giving the award to Dr. Dre for "Forgot About Dre." Accepting the award, Dre told his mother that he had picked up another statue for her trophy case.
Back in the press tent, the Moby interview shaped into the best visit of the night. First, he explained his sticker: "If you're involved in all of this shameless self-promotion, you might as well promote a good cause." (This was his way of saying that Calvin Klein wasn't paying him to install CK stickers that night.)
A journalist asked him what he liked better: British or American music. "If you're talking about this pabulum geared toward 12-year-olds, I hate it," he said.
Popular girl Aaliyah followed Moby in the press tent. She's making a vampire movie in Australia, she said. A journalist asked her if she wanted to practice biting his neck tonight. Astonishingly, no one groaned.
Meanwhile, Limp Bizkit won best rock video for "Break Stuff." As the band came onstage, the 30-foot-tall set piece above the podium, shaped like the crown of the Statute of Liberty, started swaying. Turned out Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford had scaled the thing and was swaying it back and forth like, um, some weirdo from the audience on drugs.
Durst of Limp Bizkit said something about being in "the world's most hated rock band." This is the same lame outlaw posturing Metallica specializes in. How unpopular can you be, Fred, if you're up onstage getting an award from Viacom?
Meanwhile, the crowd was yelling for Commerford to jump.
Durst and crew were upstaged. Durst turned to the microphone: "This guy's a pussy because he won't jump." It reminded me of Woodstock '99, where he told moshers who were beating up medics and tearing the clothes off women to not calm down too much.
The cameras cut away while the Wayans made fun of the as-yet-unidentified guy swaying on the set. Later, I heard from the press officer that security guards asked him to come down. When he refused, they yanked him off and sent him away with the cops -- in handcuffs.
One of the guys onstage with rapper Nelly, who took the stage next, wore a sequined umpire mask turned sideways on his head. Nelly's rap sounded like it included a shoutout to "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer. Well, that is too street for me. What is happening to hip-hop?
Destiny's Child won best R&B video for "Say My Name."
De Niro stumbled lines from the teleprompter and botched a joke about "The Thong Song." He looked huge.
I missed what "Survivor" star Richard Hatch had to say with professional wrestler Chyna. I was busy listening to red-haired rapper Eve tell me that she was inspired by "life."
But I did catch Durst hopping onstage for a duet with Aguilera, which was a joke, I think, or I thought until later, in the press tent, when he said that he did it because he wanted to get in her pants.
At about that time, I cut out to the portable toilets outside. There, radio talk show host Howard Stern, who is incredibly tall, was stumbling out of the can in a bathrobe. I asked someone in his posse if he was drunk. "It would seem that way," the guy said.
The jokes were getting lamer onstage. The night was almost over; the writers were running on fumes. Lil' Kim was onstage with Big Pussy, from "The Sopranos." (Get it?) Their teleprompter exchange went like this:
Kim: "Are you a singer?"
Pussy: "I'm a Soprano."
What was this? The Grammys?
'N Sync won the Viewer's Choice Award for the McDonald's song.
In the press tent, wrestler Chyna was explaining what a big Janet Jackson fan she was.
Rich, from "Survivor," followed her. He made a pitch for Gucci. He said he loved being naked. (Again.) Would he have done anything different on "Survivor"? "Are you kidding me?" he answered. He also made a plug for an obscure band named Boy on a Dolphin. He said that he would bring their 1993 CD "Words Inside" to a deserted island.
The Lil' Kim fashion hour was next. Here she is on her fence outfit: "It's plastic. It's futuristic. It's orange."
OK, so it looked like a futuristic fence.
Aguilera and Spears, holding hands, came out to award the final statuette for best video of the year. I'm a little unclear on how this went down -- Lil' Kim was still going on about fashion tips -- but Whitney Houston strutted out onstage singing something, which was a great awards show in joke.
Anyway, Eminem won for "The Real Slim Shady." He joked that he thought Aguilera and Spears were going to mix it up -- or attack him. He pulled out a list to start thanking people. He finally closed with some words for Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman and Bush to heed in the upcoming months: "Every time a relative sues me, every time a critic slams me, I sell another record."
Blink 182 finished the show with a level of class fitting the show itself. As they played, a group of dwarfs rode scooters, climbed wires and jumped on trampolines.
I suppose it was funny, in a humiliating, exploitative, "make fun of people who are different" kind of way.
Long live rock 'n' roll.