The 2006 MTV Video Music Awards are over, and I feel a little dirty, as one does after a party that seemed pretty fun the night before. But that's nothing new. For most of its 22 years, the music channel's annual fete has been a wicked pleasure at best, mocking the very principles of the awards shows it emulates. And this year, with music's most intriguing acts scattered across the genres, making generalities about current culture impossible, the VMA Awards had very little of what's made it occasionally thrilling: the passion of a star rising to her next level, or the intrigue of one style or artist emerging to rule us all.
Judging simply by the ballot, rock should have been the night's juggernaut, but even when the youthful band Panic! At the Disco won Video of the Year, no larger feeling of triumph filled the room. Only singer Davey Havok from the post-punk band AFI showed any sense of community. Accepting the award for Best Rock Video, he expressed genuine excitement at meeting his presenter, graying eminence Lou Reed (who was dressed as if he'd just jitneyed in from the Hamptons and, pleading for more rock on MTV, seemed he hasn't been watching much lately). Snoop Dogg expressed love for his young competitors in the Best Rap Video category, won by the deserving Chamillionaire, but his elegantly rhymed introduction held more self-admiration than anything else.
This year's election process, which allowed viewers to vote in most categories for the first time, influenced the seeming randomness of the winner's list. Surprisingly, no artist won more than once in any major category; favorites such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Christina Aguilera walked away empty-handed. This unpredictability makes sense when you think of how the public usually votes. Fan clubs probably hedged their bets on particular awards for their favorites, and the network's broad viewership averaged out, reflecting a year when no one style has dominated the charts.
Its random, Top 40 style diversity allows MTV to represent the broadest swath of the mainstream (minus country, without rhyme or reason), but it makes the network a strange home for an awards show.
How can you present award winners, even publicly elected ones, without hinting that one artist might be more gifted, or exciting, or something, than another? The VMAs' solution, for years, has been to coat everything in friendly mockery. This year's new host, Jack Black, took this tendency to a new level, constantly playing bait-and-switch with his own enthusiasm. He donned his usual hard-rock persona (and a gold lame suit), but the only emotion that seemed sincere was his admiration for "house band" the Raconteurs. His over-the-top comments (augmented by Sarah Silverman, queen of the deadpan) implicitly derided viewers who feel invested in who wins: This is how dumb you look showing your love, his behavior implied.
When nothing's taken seriously in this way, divisive ideas like tribalism fail. At the VMAs, this meant that recently incarcerated hard-core rapper Lil' Kim, stripping out of an orange prison jumper, could delight in honoring milquetoast Brit balladeer James Blunt. Tough soul rocker Pink accepted a statue for her "Stupid Girls" video from Nick Lachey and Nicole Richie, though that video fiercely lampooned Lachey's ex-wife, Jessica Simpson, and Richie's ex-pal Paris Hilton. Everyone cheered for everything, no matter whether the champion was a burlesque troupe (Pussycat Dolls, Best Dance video) or a metal-core band (Avenged Sevenfold, Best New Artist in a Video).
Notions of quality disappear too. The VMAs' most committed performances (by the tightly choreographed Beyonce, the magnetic rapper T.I. and earnest bands the Killers and All American Rejects) soon faded into the background of clever quips and careful poses. Sweeping gestures felt overstaged; when Panic! At the Disco entered in Mad Hatter outfits to dance with baroque Goth ladies, they evoked early David Bowie without any of the risk that great performer can still project. Performing her ballad "Hurt," Aguilera seemed more like a candidate for "Phantom of the Opera" than a great new soul voice. Al Gore, offering part of his "Inconvenient Truth" PowerPoint in an odd episode of social uplift, did his best to be jovial, but his Justin Timberlake joke had more impact than his somber words.
Only the small asides represented the VMA broadcast at its sassy best, when artists take chances they'd never take on other shows. Youtube darlings OK Go came off as sweet and genuine performing their famous "treadmill dance" in person. And the Raconteurs provided several high points, jamming with Reed and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and, most unexpectedly, independent film god Jim Jarmusch.
"Internet killed the video star!" sneered Jack White, changing the words to the Buggles song that had launched MTV a quarter century ago. This evening, though, the Internet wasn't the culprit. Pop itself, in its current state of dispassionate eclecticism, was.