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Tearing down the walls at the VMAs

The MTV Video Music Awards prove to be all about how the human survives within a multiplatform reality.

September 09, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

At one point during the Sunday night broadcast of the 25th annual MTV Video Music Awards, the action apparently switched from Paramount Studios to the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip, where the rock band Paramore's performance was inciting a riot. Not really, though: Singer Hayley Williams and her boys were ripping it up in a simulated nightclub directly adjacent to the award ceremony's main stage. "Nothing is as it seems," said the night's host, comic Russell Brand. Get it? Just like in the movies!

This gimmick at this most unrepentantly contrived of awards shows was to play up the artifice of the screen image, whether of the blockbuster film variety or more like something seen on a cellphone. Holding the event at a film studio allowed for this approach, though the move could also be viewed as a cost-saving measure, given that MTV and Paramount are properties of the Viacom media conglomerate.

Throughout the evening, stars played their hits on sets that morphed as the music progressed. The Jonas Brothers sat on a New York City stoop to play an acoustic version of "Lovebug," then jumped up as the row houses came apart around them and went electric, surrounded by screaming fans. Pink smashed some windows, action-heroine style, during her turn. T.I. took his lady shopping on a fake Rodeo Drive before joining Rihanna back on the main stage to perform "Livin' My Life."

Meant to be spectacular, these "live music videos" did make for better musical highlights than the show's had in the last few years. The night's producers chose well in tapping talents who could handle the distractions of quick-changing sets. Nobody fell down, and the music wasn't completely swallowed by the special effects.

Other performances were less complicated, but still steeped in fantasy. Rihanna's opening number had her adopting a well-worn style for R&B divas -- the sci-fi wild woman, a la Tina Turner in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" -- in a somewhat silly staging of "Disturbia." Closing the night, Kanye West updated the image of Oz's Tin Man, a plastic heart beating on his chest as he sang his rockish new ballad, "Love Lockdown." Christina Aguilera played the android during her medley.

Gravitating toward space opera motifs, the musical aspects of the VMAs unwittingly spoke to a larger reality: the increasingly cyborgian nature of pop itself. Like those half-mortal machines, mainstream pop stars now must not only be a musician and a dancer and a fashion icon but make sounds that sound good as ring tones, within video games and behind the heavy petting on "Gossip Girl."

To sound right on all of those formats, songs must be high-tech. But listeners still want something personal in the mix. They're still drawn to the mischief in Lil Wayne's drawl and even to Kid Rock's bellowing rasp -- though neither artist was very well served by the duet they shared Sunday. (Wayne did fine on his own featured number, sharing the spotlight with his pal T-Pain and an utterly extraneous Leona Lewis.)

This year's VMAs were all about how the human survives within a multiplatform reality. Artists acted out the perennial distractions of modern life: Miley Cyrus pretended to miss her entrance cue because she was playing the video game Rock Band, while a very pregnant Ashlee Simpson interrupted her onstage banter with her husband, Pete Wentz, to send text messages.

That's why the triumph of Britney Spears, whose merely adequate clip for "Piece of Me" earned three trophies, including video of the year, made perfect sense. As a star who wasn't very good at any single pop skill but somehow excellent at doing them all at once, Britney helped usher in the multiplatform era. Her return to form gives hope to an entertainment industry increasingly uncertain about how to produce major stars.

But MTV and the music business it still nominally supports (not like you'll see the videos that won awards aired frequently on the network) shouldn't totally give up on the left-field bet with more singular appeal. Two elements of this year's show proved it still has its merits.

First was Brand's genuinely startling turn as host. His frank, confrontational banter made some audience members visibly uncomfortable, especially when he pleaded that Americans elect Barack Obama and, later, teased the Jonas Brothers about their public vows of chastity. That last line of humor even caused the boys' fellow famous virgin, "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks, to interrupt her presenter moment and huffily declare, "Not every guy or girl wants to be a slut!" Good television about real issues: That never happens on award shows.

In a smaller victory, Tokio Hotel won in the viewer-determined best new artist category. This quartet of German baby goth-rockers isn't that great, but besting television phenoms Cyrus and Sparks, Nashville darling Taylor Swift and manufactured bad girl Katy Perry, they confirmed that pop fans still have a soft spot for the strange kids. And that's encouraging, even if those kids might have some circuitry hidden under their skin.


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