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MTV's music focus too little, too late

With an emphasis on the visual over the audio, MTV from its inception has never been “about the music.” But after seeing interest in its signature trophy show wane in recent years, the network put the spotlight where it belongs for a music awards show: on the concert stage. The result of this brainstorm, and a few other format changes to its Video Music Awards? The most watchable show in many a Moon Man outing. Even if that isn’t saying much.

And this despite opening with an onstage career suicide by Britney Spears. More on that later.

The 2007 VMAs were host-free, moved to Las Vegas and pared from a bloated three-plus hours to a swift-moving two and change. The number of award categories was slashed from almost two dozen last year to 11, including three “professional” races that were not announced during the show. Three new categories were invented, including the silly Quadruple Threat of the Year Award, which embodies MTV’s mixed-up priorities; among the criteria for said honor were singer, dancer, social activist, clothing line.

Justin Timberlake won that quad nod, and MTV brass might have winced at how he punctuated his brief acceptance speech.

“I want to challenge MTV to play more videos,” he said. After winning another award later, Timberlake ran with the plea: “We don’t want to see the Simpsons on reality television. Play more videos!” This after commending the “new generation” of artists in music and half-whining that he knows he is “getting older.”

At 26.

But the real innovation — if that’s the right word — of this year’s show was the four “party suites” where acts performed truly intimate shows for well-oiled crowds. Not only did the tight quarters make for a more personal performance, but some of the acts offered genre-bending collaborations: Cee-Lo and Serj Tankian sang with Foo Fighters, and Rihanna and Lil’ Wayne joined Fall Out Boy. For his part, Kanye West kept his party rollin’ out onto the balcony — where helicopter shots showed a dark night sky during what should have been pre-dusk Vegas time if it was indeed live. Busted, MTV.

Indeed, there were the usual VMA lowlights, including Sarah Silverman’s cricket-inducing stand-up, plenty of awkward presenter banter, Hamish Hamilton’s frenetic direction and an interminable ending number from Timbaland, Nelly Furtado and the night’s big winner, Timberlake. And Miss South Carolina Teen USA’s 15 minutes ended abruptly with an amateur’s line reading of scripted missteps near the end.

But there were enough entertaining performances to rescue the 2007 VMAs from the abyss of the past few years — though many from the suites were teaser-length to promote their viewing in full on MTV.com. Chris Brown fairly stole the show with a Michael Jackson-Charlie Chaplin tribute during “Wall to Wall.” His athletic, loose-limbed dance routine — including hopping from table to star-seated table down front — easily was the jewel of the evening and drew riotous applause from the hard-to-please crowd. Alicia Keys added a typically classy number, which fed into a strong cover of George Michael’s “Freedom.”

Of course, everything was downhill — watercooler- and blogosphere-wise — after Spears’ public humiliation that opened the show. Undressed in a black bra-panties-‘n’-fishnet outfit (hers was the only excess skin onstage among the many dancers), she half-heartedly lip-synced her new faux-funky single. Spears danced like her boot soles were made of glue and looked ill at ease and generally disinterested. The alternately dumbfounded and laughing on-camera reactions of the stars in the crowd said it all. Put some money away, Brit.

But the show overall was bearable because of its focus on the music over bling, skin and acrimony (despite a likely staged off-camera tussle between Pamela Anderson ex-men Kid Rock and Tommy Lee). Even 50 Cent behaved himself when he and “rival” rapper West coldly introduced the Most Earthshattering Collaboration Award. West was nominated for five awards and went home with bupkis, probably just so MTV could stir him up again and hope for some on-camera fireworks. No such luck.

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