MTV hypefest turns into snoozer

August 30, 2002


"You think this show is entertaining?" the notoriously harsh "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell asked midway through the MTV Video Music Awards Thursday night.

"The host is pathetic! The show is pathetic! The audience is pathetic!"

It was supposed to be a joke, but Cowell's assessment of the 19th annual VMAs was, if anything, a bit too kind.

MTV's famously self-congratulatory hypefest can never be taken seriously as an awards show (I hate to disillusion you, kids, but it's all rigged by the network suits). Yet the show is usually an entertaining three hours of television.

Not so this year, as the awards were broadcast live (albeit with some weird tape effect that made it look as if it was shot on film) from Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

Host Jimmy Fallon was shallow, obvious and unfunny. The running skits picturing MTV's trophy moon man as various household products got tired instantly.

Many of the presenters had single-digit IQ's (Britney Spears, the Olson Twins, the jerks from "Jackass"). But worst of all, most of the musical performances were a snooze.

"MTV is the front bumper of American popular culture as it's happening," presenter David Lee Roth claimed. But MTV has rarely seemed as tired or out of step as it did on Thursday night.

The rock underground is healthier and more exciting than it has been since the mid-'90s, from Detroit's White Stripes to New York's Strokes to Sweden's Hives. But MTV remains focused on wretched rap-rock (Linkin Park claimed best rock video for "In the End"), lame teen-pop (Avril Lavigne won best new artist, and No Doubt claimed best pop and best group videos), and weak mainstream hip-hop (injustice of the year: Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule beating out both Missy Elliott and Outkast for best hip-hop video).

Performance-wise, the show at least started with real music (no lip-synching) as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band continued the promotional blitz for "The Rising," performing live in the rain in front of the Hayden Planetarium in Central Park.

But other performances, including those by Eminem, P. Diddy, Shakira and the much-touted solo debut by 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake, were canned and airless.

Meanwhile, Sheryl Crow (complete with massive string section) was melodramatic and absurdly somber. And the surprise show closer--the long-awaited return of Guns N' Roses--was one of the all-time anticlimaxes.

The sparks were too few and far between (among them, Pink accepting the best female video award by declaring, "I'm too drunk for this"), and most of them came from artists who get more time on MTV2 than MTV proper (the hard-rocking Hives definitely won their "battle of the bands" against the derivative Vines, who predictably aped Nirvana by throwing their instruments around at the end of the song).

In a show filled with low points, the lowest may have been Triumph the Insult Dog's crack about R. Kelly and the Olsen Twins.

As for newsworthy moments, at some point in the future, we may officially point to the 2002 VMAs as the spot where Eminem officially became passe. The crowd loudly booed the blond bad boy as he picked up his award for best male video and used the moment to insult "Moby girl" and inform us that he would hit a man with glasses.

This was sort of the musical equivalent of Vin Diesel trying trying to pick a fight with Stitch's pal Lilo. What on earth was the point?

In the end, awards presenter Lisa Marie Presley topped even Cowell in telling MTV what real music lovers think of the corporate music channel these days. To quote the T-shirt of King's daughter: "BITE ME."