Most acts on TV live in mortal fear of being "too hip for the room" -- that is, working off cultural references most squares wouldn't get.
That's not an issue on MTV. Much of what gets airtime on MTV may sail right over the heads of average Americans (especially if they're over the age of 25), but within its own rarefied frame of reference, it's almost impossible to be too hip for MTV.
But Lord knows, the Video Music Awards broadcast last night tried.
With comedian Chris Rock as host, airing live from New York's Metropolitan Opera House (!), and featuring performances by Nine Inch Nails, Lauryn Hill, the Backstreet Boys, Eminem with Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Kid Rock, the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards was everything that award shows usually aren't -- entertaining, unpredictable, provocative ... and frequently unquotable in a family newspaper.
Would any other show refer to Latin pop idol Ricky Martin (who won five awards) as "the Puerto Rican Al B. Sure"? Could any other show find common ground between Buddy Hackett and "The Blair Witch Project"? Where else would Madonna parody her own career with a bevy of drag queens?
Need we even mention Diana Ross and Li'l Kim's nearly bare left breast?
Of course not. But that's because other award shows have normal hosts, while the VMAs had Chris Rock. Totally unflappable and completely irreverent, Rock rocked the Video Music Awards, upstaging many of the musical acts and most of the winners.
Hey, what other emcees would even dream of referring to 'N Sync as "The Spice Boys"?
OK, so many of his jokes were too racy to be repeated here. So what? It's not like many of the winners had anything quotable to say. Ricky Martin, who won for Best Dance Video and Best Pop Video, among others, dutifully thanked all the people who helped him up the ladder to fame. Lauryn Hill who won Video of the Year and three other awards, thanked God, her family, and her collaborators. Will Smith, who won for Best Male Video, thanked his wife, Baltimorean Jada Pinkett.
Fortunately, the MTV VMAs were less about "Who won?" than "Who did what onstage?" And the onstage doings were plenty wacky.
On the one hand, there was Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook, who turned "Praise You" into a glitteringly amateurish send-up of MTV production numbers. Between Cook's deadpan fakery at the piano and his dancers' choreography, the number proved a welcome relief from the typical professionally polished mindlessness.
There was also more teen spirit than a season's worth of pep rallies, what with performances by Britney Spears, 'N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys. Most offered more dancing than singing -- live singing, anyway. "Why did they even have mics on?" asked Rock after Spears and 'N Sync did their thing..
Happily, most of the music offered by the VMAs was all-the-way-live. Lauryn Hill and her crack backing band did a medley of "Lost Ones" and "Everything Is Everything" that did much to explain why she won for both Best Female Video and Best R&B; Video.
But it was Kid Rock (no relation to the host) who most memorably rocked the joint. Not only did he bring out veteran rappers Run-D.M.C. to join his band, Twisted Brown Trucker, in a medley of "King of Rock" and "Rock Box," but he topped off a supercharged version of his own "Bawitdaba" with an all-star run through "Walk This Way," featuring Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.
It was like a five minute history of everything that has made MTV matter to millions of kids, and a five minute lesson in how live music can be made vital on TV. Here's hoping the rest of the industry was taking notes.
And some winners are ...
Winners in some categories at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards last night:
Best video: Lauryn Hill, "Doo Wop (That Thing)"
Male video: Will Smith, "Miami"
Female video: Lauryn Hill, "Doo Wop (That Thing)"
Group video: TLC, "No Scrubs"
Rap video: Jay-Z featuring Ja & Amil-lion, "Can I Get A ..." R&B; video: Lauryn Hill, "Doo Wop (That Thing)"
Hip hop video: Beastie Boys, "Intergalactic"
Best direction: Fatboy Slim, "Praise You"
Dance video: Ricky Martin, "Livin' La Vida Loca"
Rock video: Korn, "Freak on a Leash"
Pop video: Ricky Martin, "Livin' La Vida Loca"
New artist: Eminem, "My Name Is"
Video from a film: Madonna, "Beautiful Stranger"
Breakthrough video: Fatboy Slim, "Praise You"
Viewer's choice: Backstreet Boys, "I Want it That Way"