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POP BEAT

Sex, Drag and Rock 'n' Roll : Despite the Usual Provocateurs, 10th Annual MTV Awards Are Mostly Sedate

September 04, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Macho Madonna opened the telecast in a tux, straddled by a gal in a teddy. Host Christian Slater confessed he'd had a teen-age crush on ladylike dude Steve Tyler. And once and future cross-dressers RuPaul and Milton Berle were paired as presenters and ended up getting in a bizarre catfight.

Yes, it was a landmark year for drag at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, broadcast from the Universal Amphitheatre on Thursday.

Or was it really just a landmark drag?

This was the year the network had promised a more irreverent, tongue-in-cheek telecast. Instead--Madonna's and RuPaul's best or worst efforts at gender-bending provocation aside--the show seemed comparatively sedate by past MTV standards.

The preponderance of bland hosting and presenting spots, and big stars trotting out last year's big hit for the umpteenth run-through, was such that at times you almost might've absent-mindedly mistaken the affair for--shudders!--the Grammys or American Music Awards.

Not to exaggerate too greatly: MTV's Video Music Awards show remains in this, its 10th year, still a good deal more fun than any other annual musical trotting of the trophies. But this won't be remembered as one of the better packages MTV has offered the discerning Butt-heads of America.

The trouble started with host Slater, a real nonentity of an emcee. Though he was earlier reported working with comedy writers, Slater ultimately played it straight and opted to tell a sum total of about three jokes (which may explain why the show actually came in ahead of schedule).

At least Slater's workmanlike approach wasn't as painful as past hosts Arsenio Hall's or Dana Carvey's strained ad-libs, but if this is a guy who--as per MTV--exemplifies "rock 'n' roll attitude," rock 'n' roll may be in bigger trouble than we figured.

And while Sting, Aerosmith, Naughty by Nature, the Spin Doctors and Lenny Kravitz all have much to recommend them, the Top 40 calling cards they dutifully resurrected in by-the-book renditions carried zero next-day buzz quotient.

At least Pearl Jam came through with something a bit more surprising--a feisty unreleased number, "Animal," which segued swimmingly into a duet of Eddie Vedder and unannounced guest Neil Young on the latter's "Rockin' in the Free World," which was the hands-down highlight of the three-hour broadcast.

Pearl Jam's genuinely chilling "Jeremy" video won in all four of its nominated categories, including best video. Elaborating on its true-life teen suicide theme, Vedder told the audience, "If not for music, I think I would have shot myself in front of the classroom (too). It's what kept me alive."

(Barely, perhaps: Nursing a beer and slamming his mike stand against the stage, mumbling all George C. Scott-like about his disdain for competition while grudgingly accepting trophies and vaguely, blearily insulting interviewer Kurt Loder afterward, the talented Vedder was not looking well at all.)

En Vogue was the night's other multiple winner, with three awards for "Free Your Mind," but the ladies weren't on hand to further demonstrate their runway progressivism.

Madonna and Janet Jackson were around, though, bookending the show to surprisingly anti-climactic effect in both instances. Madonna did her latest variation on the Marlene Dietrich/lesbian chic thing with an excerpt from her "Girlie Show" European tour, in which she, dressed up as the habitue of a men's club, takes turns caressing, taunting and being taunted by a leggy girlie. The sweetest taboo? Not.

Jackson's number--a lip-sync medley of hits from her latest album--made use of similarly quasi-sadistic, if more drill-team-like, choreography. Its chief cold motif was Jackson repeatedly grabbing a hairless male dancer by the naked noggin and shoving him around, demonstrating her real notion of "Control" once and for bald.

The promised appearance by U2 turned out to be just the Edge, solo, plugged in and seated, doing his monotonal "Numb" rap--an appropriate halftime commentary--in front of the usual numbing Zoo TV monitors.

This wasn't revelatory, but it had some bite--as did R.E.M.'s medley of the sweet anti-suicide ballad "Everybody Hurts" and a funked up "Drive," fronted by Michael Stipe in a goatee and theatrical eyebrows seemingly borrowed from Walter Huston's Scratch via "The Devil and Daniel Webster."

Absolutely the weirdest chemistry came between dance music upstart RuPaul and Uncle Miltie, who should have been a perfect co-presenting couple but instead did everything but brawl at the podium.

"You know, RuPaul, I used to wear gowns, too," said Berle. "And now you wear diapers," quipped tasteless RuPaul, better known this evening as RudePaul. "You wanna ad lib, let me check my brains and we'll start even," retorted a ticked Berle. (Later, Slater hailed Berle as the coolest guy ever, which had the suspicious appearance of damage control.)

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