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"WILD YEARS-THE MUSIC & MYTH OF TOM WAITS" BY JAY S. JACOBS

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MTV Video Music Awards

Rock (Paramount-2003)

Hip-Pop (Paramount-2003)

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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 21, 2006.

As always, Chris Rock says it best. While hosting the MTV Awards in 1997, he observes that a good video can lead you to like a bad song. And that’s pretty much what this MTV Awards collection -- saluting this hip, attitudinal underdog of awards shows -- should be all about, but is not.

When the MTV Awards were first introduced back in the early 1980s, they were really something to see. The pretense and formality of standardized, overlong awards pageants were thrown out the window in exchange for shabby attendees, unorthodox categories and a hard-partying atmosphere. It was more about the vibe than the video, and the annual awards show became a hootable destination for those in the pop-culture know as well as the young superfans.

In this half-baked and less-than-stellar compilation of live performances during a smattering of relatively recent MTV Awards shows, you won’t see what Chris Rock is talking about. There is absolutely no emphasis on music videos here, which could be just fine, but the live performances often don’t make up for what we don’t see. 

You also won’t see the “unrehearsed” hijinx from the flavor-of-the-month pop stars that have given the MTV Awards its forced sense of spontaneity and its hip and happening brand (once it became an institution). All you get in this wildly wrapped but simple package is the video stars stopping by to share a song or two.

For instance, the confusion that is Brittany Spears (and a large snake) performing “I’m A Slave 4 U” in a big way, with an army of overly enthusiastic dancers and a big lip synch, seems less worthy now than it may have seemed in the center of its originally intense white heat. And Jamiroquai, bopping around the stage to “Virtual Insanity,” shows us – live – how to be cool and offbeat in a nineties kind of way; the lead singer covers the stage with youthful vigor and also wears a very large hat (but there are no hats off to the video).

Not surprisingly, this collection, divided into “rock” and “hip-pop” (not hip-hop!) is aimed at the kids. Don’t expect to boogie down Memory Lane with Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper and David Lee Roth (or any other artists who originally forged this music channel and the awards themselves). The only nostalgia MTV will throw at you goes as far back as 1990.

Watching a clip from that year, you’ll be amazed how time has not only flown, but crashed and burned: force yourself to sit through “Suicide Blonde” by INXS (The hair! The clothes! The stage energy!).

Also, try not to feel like the oldest person in the room when you witness MC Hammer welcome in the nineties with his genie pants and his cast of thousands (the decade, sadly, won’t welcome him) as he warns us, over and over and over again, “U Can’t Touch This.”

Your retrospective will consist mainly of hip-hop artists losing their baggy pants and flashing their bling-bling (“Nineteen-Naughty-Three, y’all!” yells Naughty by Nature as they rap the monotonous “HEY! HO!” of “Hip Hop Hooray.”).

As well, strongly consider the fact that Marilyn Manson is now a golden oldie, as seen in a 1997 clip doing his anti-Christian thing. In the cold light of “afterward,” he seems so obviously outrageously (and self-consciously) market savvy as he leads your children to Satan that you don’t know if it’s an act or the chillingly real thing. Here’s how he asks us to feel him: he questions beauty while wearing lingerie that is usually reserved for ladies. It’s all kind of razzmatazz; appropriate enough, since Satan’s main talent is the power to confuse.

Continuing in the “those were the days” mode, watch the angst-ridden youth of 1995, almost not in the mood to party due to their post-ironic misery and cynicism. A group called Silverchair ape Kurt Colbain, singing a hit tune called “Tomorrow” on top of Radio City Music Hall.  This is above a huge, police-protected, angst-ridden turnout on the Avenue of the Americas. Again, as Chris Rock would say, “here today, gone today,” but the concept of fifteen minutes of fame is quite remarkable when you actually see the time clock running out. 

We have to leave it to Brian Setzer and his band to bring the party back to life again (in 1998), as he revives the swing era with “Jump, Jive and Wail.” This fad (unfortunately, that’s exactly what it was – a fad) should have come along sooner and stayed longer. The fun seemed so pure, so joyous and smart, that other acts, awash in misery and calculation, paled in comparison. And the embodiment (emphasis on “body”) of MTV, Shakira, really sells us a song called “Objection Tango” in 2002, by shaking it.

In retrospect, the hosting decisions seemed a bit hasty. As hip as Dennis Miller may have seemed in 1995, he flew too close to the sun and just a bit above the kids’ dyed-blonde heads: “I was just traveling with Bob Dole on the Fascist-Palooza tour,” he smirked. Or: “People in the mosh pit – calm down or I’m gonna bring John Tesh out here.”  And Dana Carvey (1992) appears as Bush 41, spouting off for-history’s-sake-only topical references, like G&R (Guns and Roses) and Metallica. The joke: George Bush talking about rock and roll is ironic.

Equally ironic is anybody in the auditorium over the age of twenty-one, but there they are (most likely TV executives trying to impress their dates), trying hard to look both hep and detached at the same time.

A few completely non-related extras are thrown into the mix, like a moment from The 2001 MTV Latin Music Awards (just when Latin music was spicy hot). And never accuse MTV of not teaching us a thing or two: we get to “Learn to Scratch” with Rob Swift of the X-ecutioners (he informs us of the “bare bones basics of turn-tableism,” which originated in the Bronx, and that “from the baby scratch, all the other scratches are born.”).

We also learn how to compose a hit tune by a couple of modern-day Brill-Building types (Sturken and Rogers), who are responsible for the pop pablum we hear on the current Top 40 (yes, blame them). And finally, we are asked to enjoy an actual music video, called “They Say Vision,” by an artist named Res. Fine, but why?

The finale to end all finales comes with Blink 182, rocking out to “All the Small Things” while dwarfs (apparently non-union) are dangled from the ceiling of the stage, awash in fireworks. Politically correct it is not, which is fine, but cringe-inducing it is.

Let’s face it, though. MTV is nothing if not a freak show, appealing to the young suckers who are born every minute, manipulating your young ass for a quick buck, hanging your stupid self from the ceiling and dangling you like a fool.

As Archie Bunker would say, “sounds like New Year’s Eve in a nuthouse.”

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 21, 2006.