Can it be? MTV is showing its age


NEW YORK -- Perhaps you were disturbed when Michael Jackson made out with Lisa Marie. Maybe you were on the verge of vomit when Howard Stern flew in with exposed derriere.

Every year, there's one MTV Video Music Awards moment, canned or sincere, that lingers no matter how diligently we may attempt to forget it.

This year, the cringe-o-meter soared early. During the pre-show, Britney Spears sat uncomfortably close to a leering Mick Jagger, and just the proximity of the rock fossil and the rodent-like pop princess made me feel dirty. Both weird and disgusting, it was a seemingly uncalculated moment of pure rock 'n' roll perversion. Not bad.

The VMAs are still capable of shocking, but this year's installment was relatively ho-hum -- for those over 12, at least. At the Metropolitan Opera House, where Pavarotti and Sutherland sing, where Mozart, Verdi and Puccini are performed, VMA host Jamie Foxx made Michael Jackson pedophile jokes, and Spears fondled a big fat snake.

But there were no Andrew Dice Clay controversies, no instances of Courtney Love hurling random objects at Madonna. (No Madonna at all! Sniff.) As if any of these things were really that shocking in the first place. MTV has long specialized in building semi-risque fluff up to epic proportions, repeating these moments endlessly on everything from MTV News clips to "Best of ... " specials.

Now, to emphasize only the show's offensive, derivative and negative aspects would be rather fuddy-duddy of me. The show did have its emotional and educational moments. There was a touching (if overlong) tribute to deceased diva-to-be Aaliyah. I, for one, learned that Nelly and Nelly Furtado are not the same person. And MTV demonstrated its largess -- or rather, its growing fondness for allowing any idiot onto the once coolly detached network -- letting the winners of some lame contest present an award.

What started out 18 years ago as the anti-awards show has morphed into the most conventional of statuette ceremonies, complete with red-carpet fashion commentary and a length (almost four hours) to rival the most yawn-inducing Oscar night. The VMAs have become one of the awards shows, and it makes sense. Like the channel itself, the show can't carry the flag of youthful non-conformity forever.

No one can say there wasn't anything for the oldsters. Vintage VJs Kurt Loder, Chris Connelly and John Norris were there. U2, the Ramones and Christopher Walken added a dose of old-school cool. And there were these highlights:

* Dog Eat Daly: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (who should have been host of the show) made some dirty comments about Carson Daly's manhood to the VJ's smug little face.

* Aguilera, Interrupted: Andy Dick, as his grotesque pop-tart alter-ego Daphne Aguilera, did an appalling yet amusing musical number, then hurtled into the audience to berate Christina Aguilera. Lady Marmalade was visibly disturbed. Good.

* Then there was the magical Michael Jackson moment. But more on that later.

Whether the VMAs -- and MTV -- are what they once were may be debatable. But there is truth in turnout, and the kids are still flocking like seagulls to the VMAs. Fans strained to see past (or get past) swarms of police officers controlling them as far as 10 streets away.

"If it had lost its edge, people wouldn't be here like this," said Jim Brown, 21. The New Jersey resident is tired of twentysomethings who talk down today's MTV. He maintains that there's no difference between the fuss made last year when Spears emerged in sparkly flesh-colored underwear and the one in 1984 when Madonna did her writhe 'n' roll Like A Virgin number. The only reason it's considered less substantial, he says, is because "it was after the fact."

But for Upper West Side resident Priyanka Chaudhuri, 22, "It makes me feel so old, and it kind of depresses me."

Now that's a fact.

It's uncomfortable to outgrow MTV, to see one's longtime channel-cum-lifestyle catering to masses of moneyed adolescents who know nothing of Men Without Hats or Aha, who wouldn't know Martha Quinn if she ran through a Korn video naked. Anyone over 35 may see all this as trivial pop-culture tripe. It may be, but it's our tripe, and we hold it dear. MTV has always rotted our brains, but at least we were down with the decay.

One moment at this year's show truly defined the generational rift.

Even though I firmly believe 'N Sync is a tribe of mutants from the Planet Ick, I have to admit that its Warhol- and Lichtenstein-inspired "Pop" number was among the best set pieces ever on the show. And when Michael Jackson emerged to join them, it was like the collision of two pop cultures -- with 'N Sync coming out on top.

Sure, the crowd rose in deference to the King of Pop, but he wasn't the one picking up Moon Man after Moon Man, or setting naive teenybopper hearts aflame.

The man may have no nose. But he's Michael Jackson, for heaven's sake!

What a drag it is getting old.

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