NEW YORK — They were all here Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, all the artists who have kept music fans glued to their Discmans and televisions and Napster programs during the past year: Blink 182, D'Angelo, Eminem, 'N Sync, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Limp Bizkit, Ricky Martin, Christina Aguilera, Macy Gray, Toni Braxton, Destiny's Child, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears. . . . Not to mention some old standbys: Sting, Janet Jackson. . . .
Welcome to the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, a celebration of the best in music video and, just as important, the worst in hair, clothes and behavior. Remember from shows past . . . Diana Ross tweaking Lil' Kim's pastied left breast? Prince's glittering, gyrating bare butt? And this was onstage.
Offstage, on the red carpet entering Radio City and in the press room, the stars continued to walk the tricky line between embracing self-promotion and disdaining it, all before a forest of cameras and an army of new and old media scribes. Often they did both at the same time.
And so they arrived in a flotilla of black-and-white stretch limos, stepping onto the carpet in a blaze of artificial light and a hail of shouted questions, in a city already gridlocked with world leaders attending the millennium summit at the United Nations, a few blocks away. The town apparently was big enough for Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst and Iranian president Mohammed Khatami.
The evening was kicked off by the band Papa Roach playing atop the Radio City marquee and, down below, a guy walking down a blocked-off Avenue of the Americas carrying a guitar and wearing a Stetson, a pair of jockey shorts, and nothing else. He was hustled off by a cop and handcuffed.
Meanwhile, by the red carpet, the press was having a terrible time figuring out who the performers and celebrities were, which speaks to the gap between mainstream media and popular music, especially rap and hip-hop. One reporter said, "I asked someone in the crowd, 'When are the Temptations getting here?' " (Never.)
Another reporter, referring to a man dressed in black with a white collar, asked, "Who's the priest?" (Run, of the rap group Run-DMC.)
Fashion was a big topic, of course. There was lots of spiky red hair and a fair amount of skin. Toni Braxton came by wearing an open jacket with nothing on underneath, which she kept tugging on nervously. She refused reporters' entreaties to open it. Lil' Kim, who is, indeed, little, arrived in what she later called "a futuristic, plastic--it's orange," meaning she was trussed up in thongs. She was the first to acknowledge that it didn't hold a candle to last year's get-up.
"That purple pasty is famous," she said. "You know how many offers I got to buy that thing?"
Both onstage and off, perhaps the most arresting performer of the evening was Macy Gray, winner of the best new artist in video.
Gray was like some kind of mad '70s apparition, something Quentin Tarantino might dream up, towering in her "purple plum Afro circle in the pants look," as she put it. Her manner was dreamy, almost daft, chewing gum and rolling her head as if she were lacking elementary motor skills, but there was something sly beneath that behavior and that hair. After all, she said to the audience that her co-presenter, LL Cool J, promised to take off his shirt if she mentioned his new album one more time. He promised no such thing.
The Cerebral Nerd Award went to the shaven-headed Moby, who appeared in a red suit, red tie and red shirt, and confessed, "I feel like a buffoon." When he was onstage as a presenter, he pasted a Gore-Lieberman sticker on the podium, which elicited a tepid response from the audience, as if they didn't know what it meant. Oh, there's an election going on?
"As a matter of fact, I was a little disappointed," Moby, the dance world star who is one of the most acclaimed figures in contemporary music, said of the audience's reaction. "If you're going to promote something, you might as well promote a worthy cause."
Regarding musical matters, he was asked if he preferred American or British music, to which he replied pointedly, "It depends on what kind of American music. If you're talking about the pabulum that's geared toward 12-year-olds, I can't stand it."
Moby was asked about Napster, the program that allows Internet users to download music without paying for it. He sidestepped the issue, saying the technology hasn't been perfected enough to assess its impact.
Clearly, Napster was on many minds. MTV tried to preempt controversy by presenting Napster's Shawn Fanning in a jokey way onstage, wearing a Metallica T-shirt (Metallica sued Napster). But when Fanning appeared before the press afterward, he was promptly whisked away before he could open his mouth.
Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, which won best rock video, was also asked about Napster. He, too, didn't have much to say about it, but it was the only matter he didn't have much to say about. Of Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford, who disrupted Durst's acceptance speech by climbing up a stage structure, he said, "I hope he gets his head checked."
Perhaps the weirdest exchange backstage--and that's saying something--came when Chyna, an amazon from the World Wrestling Federation dressed like Wonder Woman, said in answer to a question about her original ambitions: "I wanted to get into government service, the Secret Service."
Then, when asked about her scripted tussle with her co-presenter, "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch, she said, "When I bent over to [punch] Richard [in the groin], my pants split open." She stepped out from behind a podium to demonstrate for the press, but thought better of it.