Remember when the MTV Video Music Awards defined the cutting edge in musical taste and television spectacle?
It seems so long ago now -- especially after watching last night's 1995 Video Music Awards broadcast.
It was a good night for TLC, which won Best Video of the Year, Best R&B; Video and the Viewer's Choice award, and it was a fair night for Weezer, which won Best Alternative Music Video and the Best Direction in a Video award. But that was as close as anyone came to sweeping the VMA's. (On camera, anyway; seven of the 19 awards were not announced during the broadcast, for reasons nobody bothered explaining.)
There was little in the way of onstage scandal. Sure, a few words were bleeped, but there was no unplanned nudity, no wacky onstage antics, nothing. Best Rap Video winner Dr. Dre wound up thanking God and "My moms," while even Courtney Love of Hole kept on her best behavior.
But there was Michael Jackson.
Jackson opened the show with a 15-minute performance that was part self-glorification, part self-indulgence, and more than a little self-defeating. It opened with a clever editing trick that made it seem as if he had just stepped out of the "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" video. From there, the lip-synched greatest hits medley seemed, well, inevitable; yet somehow Jackson made it seem more like a recitation of past successes than a reminder of why we liked him.
At times, his attempts to recapture past glories were embarrassing, as in the "Billie Jean" sequence, when he quite clearly tried to evoke the magic of his Motown Special appearance.
Sure, he danced divinely, but the only thing startling about his moonwalk this time around was the obviously taped applause that greeted his moves.
That's not to say he didn't take chances. The centerpiece of Jackson's appearance was a long, Broadway-style number with
a dozen black-suited male dancers. It wasn't built around a big hit (or even a song many fans would have recognized), and it didn't make a whole lot of sense. But it was daring, and that seemed enough for Janet, who smiled approvingly from her seat.
Finally, he launched into a canned rendition of his current single, "You Are Not Alone." Nor was he, as by the end of the song the stage was jammed with hand-clapping gospel singers and dozens of cute kids, four of whom got to flank Michael for the finale.
Even Lisa Marie looked appalled.
Still, Michael Jackson was hardly the only guy onstage whose act fell flat. Host Dennis Miller performed as if he were trying to prove that Dana Carvey wasn't the lamest "Saturday Night Live" alumnus to act as emcee.
All attitude and no wit, Miller sneered at rock stars, politicians and show-biz types as if telling bad jokes somehow made him the better man. Maybe it did, but it didn't make him funny.
"I was just traveling with Bob Dole and the Fascist-palooza tour . . ." was typical of his sourpuss patter, and generated almost as many laughs as Jackson's dance routines.
Apart from Rod Stewart, who came out in spectacles and joked about still not being able to see the TelePrompTer, the guest presenters were even less amusing. In fact, the funniest line all night was inadvertent, as Drew Barrymore -- a stunner in her classic black gown -- remembered how Video Vanguard Award winners R.E.M. burst onto the scene some 14 years ago. And you're how old, Ms. Barrymore? (She's 20, folks.)
R.E.M. more than made up for such show-biz silliness, though. Singer Michael Stipe accepted the Video Vanguard Award with a shrug, saying simply, "We've made a whole lot of videos that don't, you know, don't [stink]."
They also gave a live performance that didn't stink, raging through a new tune with such confidence and elan that the audience cheered as if they'd just heard an old favorite.
Live music, ironically enough, turned out to be the show's salvation. Alanis Morissette performed with enough energy and conviction to suggest that her run on the charts is only just beginning; Green Day, which played "live" from Stockholm (even though it would have been 4:30 in the morning there), proved it still had few tricks up its sleeve by unveiling a spunky new tune called "Stuck with Me"; and Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish paused in mid-song to thank R.E.M., "because if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be a band."
Granted, it wasn't all gold. TLC offered a hit-laden medley that said more about their dancing than their musical ability, and Bon Jovi went to Times Square to mug "Helter Skelter." (Did they think they were still at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?)
But the absolute nadir, musically, had to have been the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Although the group's rhythm section was as authoritative as ever, Anthony Kiedis' singing was so far off pitch it seemed like he was dabbling in atonal funk. Somebody, get that man a good monitor!
Here are the winners in MTV's Video Music Awards:
Best Video of the Year: TLC, "Waterfalls"
Viewer's Choice Video of the Year: TLC, "Waterfalls"
Best Male Video: Tom Petty, "You Don't Know How It Feels"
Best Female Video: Madonna, "Take a Bow"
Best Rap Video: Dr. Dre, "Keep Their Heads Ringin' "
Best Dance Video: Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, "Scream"
Best Hard Rock Video: White Zombie, "More Human Than Human"
Best Alternative Music Video: Weezer, "Buddy Holly"
Best New Artist In a Video: Hootie & the Blowfish, "Hold My Hand"
Best Video from a Film: Seal, "Kiss from a Rose" (from the movie soundtrack to "Batman Forever")
Best R&B; Video: TLC, "Waterfalls"
Best Direction in a Video: Weezer, "Buddy Holly" (Spike Jonze, director)