MTV awards the truly hip


IN ITS brief eight-year career, the "MTV Music Video Awards" has easily become the hippest of the many rock awards TV shows around.

The Grammys never quite figured out rock 'n' roll, let alone metal and rap; the American Music Awards are too locked into Top 40 success; the Billboard Music Awards are too tied into chart success; the International Rock Awards are too obscure to be as hip as they truly want to be.

Which leaves MTV.

Every artist wants his videos to be on MTV, so everybody wants to be at the MTV Awards show. Once again the roster of live performers from the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles is impressive, and on tonight's show (broadcast live at 9 p.m. on MTV) the lineup includes Prince, Paula Abdul, Van Halen, L.L. Cool J, Mariah Carey, Poison, Queensryche, Don Henley, Metallica and C+C Music Factory.

Beamed from Europe during their concert tours will be EMF and Guns N' Roses. Presenters include M.C. Hammer, James Brown, Cher, NWA, Billy Idol, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Cindy Crawford.

The one thing that will keep the MTV Awards from being completely hip: its host Arsenio Hall, who knows little about music and becomes more of a parody of his self-loving, unfunny self every year.

And, oh yes, there will be awards.

It's tough to tell what kind of year it's going to be, but I'm betting on a sweep by R.E.M. akin to the sweep a couple of years ago by INXS. After all, the venerable band has finally reached the No. 1 slot with its latest album "Out of Time"; its videos have always been at the forefront of creativity; they're a bunch of nice guys; they aren't touring (so they're not overexposed); and the band's name is made out of initials, just like INXS.

Besides, the group's video for "Losing My Religion" is leading the nominations with a total of eight nominations in separate categories: cinematography, direction, breakthrough video, editing, art direction, alternative video, group video and video of the year.

The "Losing My Religion" video, an alluring metaphysical lip-sync attempt, got plenty of airplay and was banned in other countries for its religious content. And a little controversy never hurts at the MTV Awards. Besides, in the best video of the year category, which often sets the tone for the awards, it's also the newest video among the six nominees -- an important thing to remember in a medium that thrives on the new.

If it had been nominated last year, Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart" would have been a winner; now it seems almost nostalgic to see its weird little retro psychedelics. Likewise, the C+C Music Factory was bold and impressive in January; now, the typographical design from their nominated "Gonna Make You Sweat" video has been beaten into the ground by the group's subsequent videos -- as well as its cola commercials.

As naughty and delicious as the Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" clip is, it still exploits the oldest cliche in rock videos: babes, babes, babes.

There's a similar sort of sexual fascination to Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," but on an artier plane -- if only because it was filmed in black and white. Still, time works against the track because it took over a year for the song to become a mesmerizing hit after it was released on an album.

Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity" is the token metal entry, but it demonstrates that old metal cliche: Make a ballad, get a hit.

R.E.M. wins almost by default. Therefore, here is the rest of some intrepid projections.

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