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Milking a Controversy for All It Was Worth . . . And Then Some


I say, put Eminem (or, if he prefers, Marshall Mathers) on an island with Richard Hatch, the gay schemer from the first installment of CBS' "Survivor," and let them discuss gay rights. Call it "Survivor: The Cultural Outback."

There was supposed to be great tension surrounding Eminem's performing with Elton John, the pop star and gay activist, and then winning awards at this year's Grammys for music whose lyrics have been deemed violent and at times homophobic. MSNBC, using the "controversy" to fill air time, had a reporter covering the protests outside Staples Center before the telecast began. And on the pre-Grammy arrivals lines, Melissa Etheridge, the lesbian pop star, must've been asked 600 times whether she thought Eminem should be banished from public view. Etheridge, a real gamer, kept reminding the talking heads about the 1st Amendment, the same document that gives TV personalities the freedom to hold a microphone and speak into it.

CBS, in an apparent nod to those upset that Eminem would be lionized on its airwaves, agreed to run three different public service announcements during the telecast--two anti-domestic violence spots and one anti-hate testimonial from Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming teen slain in 1998. The network, of course, was far more interested in plugging "Survivor: The Australian Outback," and promoting tolerance and cooperation through tribal councils and confidentiality agreements.

But in the end, while John and Eminem made a kind of cultural history, performing an Eminem single called "Stan," a literate rap about a deranged fan, there really didn't seem to be much gas in the tank of this social uproar.

In its place, one had to search for other diversions. Comedian Jon Stewart, subbing in as host for Whoopi Goldberg, who canceled late due to a heart condition, came out and delivered a monologue that took only a few minutes to arrive at a joke about Sean "Puffy" Combs. "We don't know whether or not he will be convicted," Stewart said of the rapper currently on trial in New York on weapons charges, "but I'm sure Sean would want everyone to know that it's an honor just to be indicted."

Stewart, whose regular job is host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," never really seemed to hit a groove; for much of the evening, he looked bedraggled, like a guy who'd had to change planes three times just to get to Staples Center.

Performance-wise, the show kicked off with promise: Madonna fondling a limousine (she was performing her hit song "Music"). She was followed by the boy band 'N Sync and the girl group Destiny's Child (bodies by Mattel). There was also Shelby Lynne, Sheryl Crow, Dolly Parton, Moby, Blue Man Group, Paul Simon--all of it a prelude to the main event.

First, Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, came out to give a homily about our misplaced outrage over Eminem's art, given popular music's long, boundary-pushing heritage.

Cue Eminem and Elton, who performed "Stan" and then embraced afterward. It was, dare wesay, an uplifting moment (not too manly, not too fey). But the appropriate dramatic climax (Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" for album of the year) was foiled when the aging Steely Dan won the night's final award, taking the honors for "Two Against Nature."

And finally, a word about synergy: Since the Grammys were on CBS, a unit of Viacom Inc., the network couldn't resist product placement opportunities. If you were scoring at home, there was Ray Romano of the CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," Kevin James of the sitcom "King of Queens" and Bette Midler of "Bette." Pre-show interviews, broadcast to local affiliates, were conducted by Leah Remini of the CBS sitcom "King of Queens," Tony Danza of the CBS drama "Family Law," Shawnee Smith of the CBS sitcom "Becker." (What, no Tyne Daly of "Judging Amy"? No Don Johnson of "Nash Bridges"?)

Among these conversationalists, it was Remini, clearly, who had attended classes at the University of E! school of broadcasting.

Remini to Gwen Stefani, lead singer of No Doubt: "Gwen, I love you. 'Cause I'm a lyric girl. I listen to lyrics."

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