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Celebs! Music! Antics! (and some awards)

The trophy is a silly Moonman. Treasured memories include girl-on-girl kisses, a flying Fartman and the bobbling of a pasty-covered breast. Where other shows confer honors and respect, this one relishes gaffes, guffaws and giggles. Forget “The envelope, please.” It’s time to push the envelope. MTV’s Video Music Awards is among the most irreverent of awards shows. Which may be precisely why it matters.

“It’s pop music; how seriously can you take it?” said MTV news correspondent Kurt Loder. “It’s not Martin Heidegger or something. There’s a lot of empty pomp associated with other shows, like the Oscars and even the Golden Globes. We don’t like to get bogged down in fake sentiment; we keep it light.”

The Grammys have long been considered music’s top honor. But for many celebrity watchers, especially those too young to be yuppies, the VMAs are the ultimate arbiters of cool.

“We like to say that the VMAs are our Oscars,” said Shirley Halperin, music editor of Us Weekly. She is in town for the week with a squad of eight reporters. ‘It has everyone that we cover regularly. And the rock ‘n’ roll vibe makes it a better party.”

As you’ve probably heard, the VMAs come to Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena at 8 tonight, the first time the touted trophy gala has played outside New York City or Los Angeles. It will also be the first time the show has aired on a Sunday – prime programming time.

It has been a strange, medium-length trip for the Moonman (who is modeled after an early MTV promo spot). The VMAs started as a rather small affair 21 years ago. But the show has become the signature event of the channel that, for more than two decades, has shaped the pop-music landscape more than any other medium – at least until file-sharing software came along.

“It’s an event artists and labels look forward to and plan schedules and tours around,” MTV President Van Toffler said. “It’s become one of the most unpredictable events in all of television. From Michael Jackson kissing Lisa Marie Presley to Madonna kissing Britney Spears, it’s created some memorable moments. The biggest challenge for us is: How do we outdo what we’ve done in prior years? We put combustible elements together and see what happens.”

Hours, days, months and years after the red carpet has been rolled up, people don’t talk about the Video Music Awards winners or even the musical numbers. They remember the “shockers,” outrageous stunts and statements, some scripted, some not:

– The member of Rage Against the Machine who stormed and scaled the set.

– Snoop Dogg arriving with women on leashes.

– Courtney Love, Courtney Love, Courtney Love.

The big question about tonight’s show: Who will do what to whom? It was MTV, after all, that produced the Super Bowl half-time show earlier this year in which Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson’s bodice.

Usually, the big surprise at the VMAs is at the very beginning – or at the very end.

“There are certain expectations for our show. You expect the unexpected,” said Tina Exarhos, MTV executive vice president of marketing. ‘It’s really hard to top yourself. There’s year after year of, ‘Now what’s going to happen?’ That’s how we differentiate ourselves.”

The publicity stunts can be good for show business. At the VMAs, that old saying – “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” – is applicable.

“It means a lot more to perform than it does to win,” said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard magazine. “Most people don’t remember weeks later who won. More than any other show, what counts is face time on camera. If someone makes an outrageous acceptance speech, that has an effect.”

The Grammys historically have the most impact on sales, Mayfield said. But the VMAs are catching up.

“As the show has matured and gotten a larger audience, its impact now is on a par with the broadcast awards show,” Mayfield said.

Last year, Us devoted 28 pages to the VMAs; they anticipate similar coverage this year.

The show’s wattage this year may be a little dimmer, though, as Us faves Timberlake and Spears are not expected to show.

“That leaves room for someone like Jessica Simpson to elevate one notch,” Halperin said.

“The VMAs provide content for weeks to come and actually lay out what trends are going to be for the fall, up until December, in terms of fashion and big records,” she said.

Of course, awards shows aren’t for everyone. As head of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash is the businessman with the most VMA nominations (11), mainly for Jay-Z and Kanye West. But he’s nonchalant about tonight’s event. “It’s about time,” he said. “There’s been a lot of resistance to our movement.

“I appreciate people paying homage, but if I cried every time they didn’t, I’d be in a lot of pain.”

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