Eminem got booed, Pink got buzzed, and Axl and company brought the house down at Thursday night’s MTV Video Music Awards, broadcast live from New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. I was lucky enough to be there in the flesh for all the ghastly goings on. (Annoying the MTV press guy for weeks on end does pay off sometimes.) But while the 19th annual spectacle didn’t disappoint those viewers looking for bizarre getups, feuding celebs, and barely clad starlets, a post-9-11 patriotism pervaded the telecast, forcing even those of us flabbergasted that Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen might be on stage with the White Stripes, to take a step back from the lunacy and remember real life.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band opened the show with a poignant rendition of “The Rising,” from the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, tacitly dedicating the performance to the victims of the September 11th tragedy. But host Jimmy Fallon never let the show reach the plaintiveness of an Uma-Oprah moment. Immediately following Springsteen, Fallon, backed by a choir, took to the stage at Radio City for dead-on parodies of Enrique Iglesias, Best New Artist Avril Lavigne, Dave Matthews, the White Stripes, and Nelly. The performance culminated with a surprise appearance by James Brown, who introduced a leathered-up Britney Spears to present a confused Michael Jackson with a cake in celebration of his 44th birthday. In her speech, Spears referred to Jackson as “the artist of the millennium,” leading Jackson to believe, mistakenly, that he was receiving an award.
Other highlights of the show included Pink’s slurred “I’m too drunk for this” admission during her Best Female Video acceptance speech; the first ever solo performance by ‘NSync’s Justin Timberlake, who sounded an awful lot like the King of Pop used to, high-pitched squeals and all; the Hives and the Vines in a “battle of the bands”; and Eminem, while accepting the award for Best Male Video, threatening to beat up a certain bald, bespectacled deejay. “I will hit a man with glasses,” he warned Moby, whom he publicly skewered in “Without Me.” Ironically, it was another object of Eminem’s odium who presented him with the prize, Christina Aguilera — who wins the award for the night’s trashiest ensemble. Asked by a reporter to comment on the feud, Fallon said, “Some people don’t like each other. I didn’t like my neighbor in college. I will hit a man with Ramen noodle soup.”
The evening’s climax didn’t come until the very end, when Fallon, who’d impishly taunted viewers earlier to have a little “Patience” while waiting on the last act, introduced Guns N’ Roses (or rather, Axl and Dizzy backed by a whole bunch of new guys), who performed a medley of songs, including “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City.” Axl screamed and scurried about the stage like he used to when he and Slash shared an “Appetite for Destruction”; this delighted mature viewers but left much of MTV’s new target audience — those who think the Backstreet Boys are old — thinking the 40something’s antics were a bit sad.
Though it was the revamped GNR who rocked the house, it was a politician who brought the audience to its feet. Bronx native J-Lo joined a surprise guest, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, on stage to honor the indefatigable spirit of NYC. They then introduced Sheryl Crow, who performed her song, “Safe and Sound,” while images of the city — the people, the subways, the skyscrapers, the NYPD — were displayed on screens behind her. Poised and professional, Crow was the perfect choice, her scratchy yet perpetually strong voice combining with pictures of a battered city to convey hope and resilience.
While the awards are often secondary to the crazy scene that unfolds each time the red carpet is unfurled, the VMAs is still an awards show after all is said and done, and dole out awards it did, with the belligerent Eminem at the top of the heap, garnering four of the acclaimed moon men, including Best Video of the Year. The White Stripes came in second with their Lego-come-to-life “Fell in Love With a Girl” video grabbing three. Pink and No Doubt each went away with two. Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere” clinched the coveted Viewer’s Choice Award. Britney Spears continued her Susan Lucci-like losing streak, sauntering down the red carpet, ignoring fans and press alike, and looking less dominatrix than Village People.
When the show was over, the stars quickly exited the venerated venue, scampering off to party hearty at one club or another. As usual, they were celebrating the night’s wins and losses, as well as fashion hits and misses. Of the evening’s many peculiarities, none was more striking than Brittany Murphy gushing that her 8 Mile costar (and rumored paramour) Eminem is “an exceptional human being,” just minutes after he threatened to open a can of whoop-ass on a fellow artist. (Then again, her shock at discovering her tongue was blue, a side effect of her Listerine breath strips, made those of us in the press tent question whether or not she’d been Pink’s drinking buddy.) Most different this year, was the fact that the stars were not solely preoccupied with loving themselves, but also commemorating the down-but-not-out U.S. of A. in a way that only MTV could inspire — with sound and vision.