Never mind the cast of mega-star performers that ranged from Michael Jackson to Elton John to Nirvana; forget about the award winners that ran the gamut from Van Halen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Nirvana. What really made last night's Video Music Awards worth watching was the extent to which it marked MTV's descent into show-biz mediocrity.
This was where rock video truly lost its innocence.
We're not talking about innocence in the sexual sense. After all, rock videos have always been home for a whole range of bump-and-grind sexuality, and last night's show was no exception. From the hunky, bare-chested male dancers who pumped their pecs behind En Vogue during "Free Your Mind" to the frenzied gyrations (and flash of bare breast) that accompanied the Red Hot Chili Peppers' performance of "Give It Away," there were churning hormones everywhere you looked.
That was to be expected, though. What wasn't expected was the amount of hackneyed award-show behavior between the performance sequences. It was bad enough to see TV stars like John Corbett ("Northern Exposure") and Shannon Doherty ("Beverly Hills 90210") trading corny quips before announcing the Best Director award; but having to watch Annie Lennox and Peter Gabriel read stiffly from cue cards for the Best Group Video award was depressing beyond words.
Where did they think they were, the Grammys?
Award-wise, the broadcast was pleasantly broad-based. The evening's biggest winners were Van Halen (whose "Right Now" won Video of the Year, Best Direction and Best Editing), Nirvana (Best Alternative Video and Best New Artist in a Video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit") and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who won the Viewers' Choice award for "Under the Bridge" and the Breakthrough Video and Best Art Direction awards for "Give It Away.")
Eric Clapton's elegiac "Tears In Heaven" was voted Best Male Video. Annie Lennox's "Why" gave her Best Female Video.
Prince & The New Power Generation won Best Dance for "Cream."
The Best Metal-Hard Rock award was taken by Metallica for "Enter Sandman." Best Group was U2 for "Even Better Than the Real Thing."
Who were the losers? Bobby Brown, for one. Brought on to perform his current single, "Humpin' Around," Brown hardly sang at all, barking tunelessly as if all that humpin' had left him out of breath. But he did have wind enough at song's end to shout, "MTV, peace!" and a profane phrase that was bleeped just a tad too late.
He was not the only bleeping star onstage. Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar accepted his group's Video of the Year honors by declaring, "This is reality," and then adding his appreciation with profanity.
Dana Carvey's debut as host was a mixed blessing overall, since he leaned far too heavily on tired "Saturday Night Live" schtick like the Church Lady, Garth Algar (of "Wayne's World" fame) and his Bush impression. Far funnier were pre-taped bits like David Spade's receptionist-from-hell routine (for instance, blandly telling Ringo Starr, "I'm sorry, Bingo, but I don't see your name here. . . .").
For most honorees, the best thing about the show was the opportunity to play on live television. Unfortunately, things weren't always as exciting for those of us at home. Although Pearl Jam offered a hard-rocking and heartfelt performance, and the Black Crowes came across as funky and fun, Michael Jackson's obviously pre-taped performance of "Black or White" seemed more Memorex than live, while not even a cameo by Elton John could enliven Guns N' Roses' turgid "November Rain."
What is it about live TV that brings out the worst in rock musicians? Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, for example, peppered his rendition of "Lithium" with a host of ad-libbed lyrics ("I'm a retard" was one of the milder rhymes). Later, after the Red Hot Chili Peppers won the Breakthrough Video award, bassist Flea leaped up onto the podium and gyrated his hips as singer Anthony Kiedis mimed the sort of act not usually seen on prime-time TV.
"This show is officially PG-13," cracked Carvey afterward.
MTV WINNERS (APPEARED ONLY IN THE EVENING SUN)
VIDEO OF THE YEAR: Van Halen, "Right Now"
MALE: Eric Clapton, "Tears in Heaven"
FEMALE: Annie Lennox, "Why"
GROUP: U2, "Even Better Than the Real Thing"
NEW ARTIST: Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
RAP: Arrested Development, "Tennessee"
DANCE: Prince & The New Power Generation, "Cream"
METAL-HARD ROCK: Metallica, "Enter Sandman"
ALTERNATIVE: Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
VIDEO FROM FILM: Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody"
DIRECTION: Van Halen, "Right Now"
CHOREOGRAPHY: En Vogue, "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)"
SPECIAL EFFECTS: U2, "Even Better Than the Real Thing"
ART DIRECTION: Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Give It Away"
EDITING: Van Halen, "Right Now"
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Guns N' Roses, "November Rain."
BREAKTHROUGH: Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Give It Away"
MICHAEL JACKSON VIDEO VANGUARD AWARD: Guns N' Roses
VIEWERS' CHOICE: Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Under the Bridge"
MTV AUSTRALIA: Diesel, "Man Alive"
MTV INTERNACIONAL: El General, "Muevelo"
MTV EUROPE: The Cure, "Friday I'm in Love"