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Television

MTV Killed the Video Star: The MTV Video Music Awards

The overall effect from watching this year's MTV VMAs was club drug vertigo -- but with none of the fun of the club or the drugs.

You'd be hard pressed to imagine a network that has experienced more brand drift, or less generously, tasteless brand freefall, than MTV. What started as an upstart cable channel that played music videos, some of which actually rose to the level of art, has now become little more than storyboarded Myspace exhibitionism, milking tween market dollars with one hand and robbing their dignity with the other.

What's more, MTV hasn't even the slightest remnant of cool cache to cash in. The internet dominates the discovery of new music, videos, and cutting-edge artists, while MTV simply regurgitates 10 videos from Best Buy's heavy rotation in-between episodes of The Hills.

Holding the awards in Vegas only accentuates the irony-deaf proclivities of MTV's creative team. Sure, Vegas has experienced a minor renaissance among the young Hollywood set for its close proximity to California and its historic reputation for keeping mum about the haunted hooker burial grounds. Yet what happens in Vegas is probably now on someone's camera phone.

50 Cent at the 2007 MTV VMAs
(Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)

With lackluster performances and structural epilepsy, the show's only saving grace was its merciful brevity. That poor Britney Spears already needs a rehabilitating moment in her, um, 'career', says much about how quickly we consume and expel our junk food celebrities. It's not just that our attention spans' have become fissured into fractions, but also that the TMZ-ification of culture has surfaced so many of our ugly resentments of the people we emptily adore: the envy, the schadenfreude, and the fact that Britney is most known, these days, for pooper scooping with couture.

Sadly, her resurrection performance at this event was, to say the least, dire. I've never seen such vacant sexuality or deadening dance moves. Reprising her staged bi-curiosity with Madonna, Britney offered herself as the stiff mannequin-object of desire for a throng of leather-clad, teased hair, Goldfrapp back-up dancers. Britney has already bottom-scavenged her life so thoroughly that there's little titillation in watching the striptease of someone already strip-mined. Of course, because US culture is basically psychotic, most of the commentary will revolve around the absolutely sick notion that Spears is "fat", a dysmorphic perception that ensures that future generations of young women will mangle their bodies, much like imploding approximations of Egon Schiele paintings.

Paris Hilton at the 2007 MTV VMAs
(Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)

The rise of the Internet also helped to create the crass, minute-by-minute demythification of celebrity that Britney suffers, and the tabloid mentality has spread. Whereas gossip used to be a step above porn in the grocery check out lane, the impulse to grab that dirty hearsay about the anointed while standing in the checkout line (or online) has become, for some, too hard to resist. Reality television altered the equation by several levels of immersion. Now, virtually all celebrity will be tabloidized. We watched Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee baby talk in post-coital bliss and we watched Britney's life under a microscope; at this close of a look, the sleek sex kitten fantasy began to show as a flawed human.

Celebrities' images have always had precarious shelf lives, and artists who build their careers too heavily on image alone have always had to reinvent themselves to keep the public allured and mystified. But artists can no longer control either their images or the publics' access to their lives.

MTV seemed to have some sort of peripheral understanding of the shifting sands of their money-maker -- pop celebrity -- and frenetically experimented to keep the idea of the VMA fresh and vital, even as it seems all the more garishly meaningless. There was no official "host" at this event; that duty bounced around from party suite to DJ Booth to the "main" stage, which was central only in its physical position, not in its importance. Artists performed outside the central area, on their own glittering stages throughout the room. Rhianna and Chris Brown both charismatically performed their songs, but with the collapse of stage and audience, the atmosphere felt more like a strip club where the performers are exclusivity bent to the desires of the audience and the exchange is antiseptically commercial: cash for ass.

Rihanna at the 2007 MTV VMAs
(Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)

One of the minor benefits of entering a bulimic cycle in pop culture consumption comes from the hasty discharge of one trick ponies. Sarah Silverman has far too long been sickeningly praised for the "courage" of helping us all laugh at events like the holocaust, homelessness, and AIDS. God Bless her. Thankfully, her introduction to the VMA managed to deflect much of the discomfort and embarrassment felt for Britney onto Silverman, who makes a living out of having no shame. The shock shtick has lost it's jolting ability in part because the entire Gawker Media universe, like Silverman, believes in nothing other than stylish nihilism:

"I was talking to Cee-Lo backstage," said Silverman, "and I asked him, 'When you were growing up in Atlanta, did you encounter any racism?' And he said something really interesting. He said, 'I'm Kanye West.' And that was a little bit embarrassing. But he let me off the hook, he said don't worry about it. He said, 'Don't worry, all Jews look the same to me, too.' Which obviously is ridiculous because Jews are like snowflakes…everyone is different."

Pete Wentz at the 2007 MTV VMAs
(Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)

Silverman closed the set with a line about diarrhea, proving yet again that's she's clearly too subtextually intellectual for uptight people like me to fathom. Like Britney, Silverman doesn't understand that adolescent obsession with obscenity can be just as dulling as pornographic overexposure. She is not a commanding performer and couldn't dominate the square footage of a restroom stall. In the vastness of the Palms Casino Resort, Silverman receded with each crashing line, until the spotlit speck eventually shuffled ingloriously backstage.

To be fair (even to those who don't deserve it), the structure of the show allowed no one to have anything so singular as 'a moment'. It's almost as if the set designers took the pried-eye montage assault from A Clockwork Orange and tried to translate that into an award show. It's possible that some of those live, non-lip synched numbers could have been the evening highlights, but MTV couldn't be bothered with something so passé as a whole song. We'd get a few moments of rockin' out faces, some "we're having soooooo much fun" expressions from the vixens behind the velvet rope, but then immediately cut back to an award, another band playing, or another shot of the omnipresent Herbal Essences logo. The camera's harried rush to nowhere was exemplified by stairwell shots of Kanye West, clearly rushed, rapping his way into the casino suite where he would perform live amid the perfectly posed throngs.

Kanye West at the 2007 MTV VMAs
(Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)

Amidst the fusillade of party footage even the nomination screens got broken into a bee's eye view of several video images showing at once, some with text that scrolled like frantically advancing Atari space invaders. The overall effect was club drug vertigo -- with none of the fun of the club or the drugs. Even the presenters and winners openly disdained the questionable honor of showing up at this hyper-kinetic non-event. Shia LaBeouf and Jamie Foxx put the awards second to a chance to pitch their new movies, as if the only purpose of presenting is to take that moment in the spotlight to advertise your own brand. Tommy Lee and Kid Rock apparently got into a fight off camera and had to be escorted from the venue. That added touch of class was the frosting to what ultimately amounted to pop music's most overblown, over-hyped, and far too sugary cake.

Reviewing the VMA and doing the heavy lifting of inserting a narrative arc onto a collapse of cameos and micro-cut carnage ultimately begs the broader question of why this show even exists. Here, videos are no longer the subject of scrutiny, nor recognized for their art form. Instead, we have awards like the VMA's "Quadruple Threat of the Year", given to the artist best able to cross-market themselves into film and other unrelated product. Perhaps that's the ultimate purpose of the VMA: it's a ceremony to celebrate people who have completed the dehumanization process from artist to brand to mere product. What a sexy graveyard!

Though a nomination for Justice and Peter, Bjorn and John showed that at least someone in the Viacom offices surfs a blog or two, MTV can't possibly be said to be intimately connected to the pulse of American music culture, let alone a music culture that has gone gloriously global. Rather, this is a dying ritual for those of us who'd just like to see performers ace their craft and hear music that connects us to our emotional interiors. As much as I feel cold indifference to his music, I couldn't help but nod along as Timberlake accepted his Quadruple Threat award with the admonition, "I want to challenge MTV to play more videos."

Maroon 5 at the 2007 MTV VMAs (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)

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