Correction to This Article
This column misidentified the network that televises the Golden Globe awards. That show is broadcast by NBC.

Not enough entertaining surprises at MTV's Music Video Awards

Lady Gaga won big at this year's VMAs, but the reunion between Kanye West and Taylor Swift stole the show.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Can you lampoon a culture when the culture contains its own self-lampooning -- when it comes at you with a big "just kidding" grin on its face? The MTV Video Music Awards now advertises itself basically the way the Golden Globes are promoted on CBS: Tune in and see somebody make a complete fool of himself or commit near-career-suicide. It's a little like making a gag reel of outtakes before you make the movie, just in case nothing goes wrong during production.

This year at the Vammies, not enough did.

"I kept waiting for something surprising, but it never happened," said a good friend, reviewing the show neatly in 10 words. The producers tried; how they tried. They hired the smutty comic Chelsea Handler to host, and censored her relatively little (she encouraged all the "celebrities" in the hall to "be on your worst behavior"); they had Lindsay Lohan do a slightly self-mocking cameo in a corridor; and they had tween dream Justin Bieber perform "live" out in front of the theater, backed by eight (or 80?) dancers who, as usual, did all the work.

It apparently doesn't bother MTV's less-than-demanding audience that MTV hardly ever shows videos anymore, yet keeps on with this annual rite of ersatz excess that celebrates the supposed best videos of the year. (MTV's programming department has turned to producing or acquiring often arresting oddball documentaries and reality shows.) But the show probably makes a tidy bundle each year and, in addition, gives MTV a nice platform from which to promote all its other programming.

At some point in the past few years, lacking any relevance to the music world (though not, of course, to the music business), the VMAs became all about fashion: fashion-as-culture, sight-as-sound, style-as-substance (that again?), decor and couture and those other Frenchy terms for stuff that belongs on the outermost peripheries of even pop culture. This year, the motif for the program became Lady Gaga and her bespoke fashion ensembles including, as everyone has heard by now, a dress made of meat.

Earlier, The Gog wore what looked like three tons of black parachute silk -- so heavy, she said, that she couldn't walk in it and had to be carried to the stage by burly ushers.

Maybe that's what viewers are expected to relish, in the realm of the "surprise": Oh what will that goofy Gaga wear next? She is such a caution!

Last year, the producers lucked out when Kanye West went a little nutty in the head and interrupted an acceptance speech by Taylor Swift to say a few words on behalf of Beyoncé, who he said should have won the prize in little Swift's mitt.

This year, Swift tried to continue milking the incident by singing an original song that appears to have been a gesture of forgiveness to West -- all in all, a pretty pathetic excuse for a big shocker to discuss around the water cooler, and nothing approaching a tasty dish to set before the queen. No, no, the "surprises" have to get better than that.

One way to tell people with actual talent from mere freaks and flashes-in-the-pan on the show is by gauging the level of disgust on their faces when they realize they're part of it. Ellen DeGeneres looked mortified when trotted out to present the first award. Johnny Knoxville and the cast of MTV's "Jackass" looked ashamed, and it takes a lot to shame that crew. Even Bieber looked anxious to exit the stage, and not sure how to go about it, after being given the viewer-voted Best New Artist award.

Of course there are always the set and lighting effects to redeem the program for the more sensory-minded viewer. This year's set looked on first glance like something left over from "Logan's Run," a sci-fi flop of the '70s -- but wait, didn't last year's set look left over from "Logan's Run," too? Residents of, and regular visitors to, Los Angeles must have eventually figured out what the big white-curved arches were supposed to evoke: that kooky "outer space" restaurant building that sits on giant alien feet in front of Los Angeles International Airport.

It was a long time ago -- 1981 -- that Penelope Spheeris made a documentary about the L.A. punk scene and titled it "The Decline of Western Civilization." Instead of shunning this kind of decline-and-fall association, the music business embraced it. A probably uncountable number of videos have been made with trendy apocalyptic themes, and self-consciously "decadent" affairs like the MTV awards are staged as celebrations of decay and dissipation.

Most of the commercials appeared to be aimed at teenage girls -- perhaps including the three or more runs for the new "Free Credit Report-dot-com" spot (a new band with a disingenuous lead singer has replaced the previous band with the ingenuous lead singer). Here we have the banking and credit card industries at their most cynical and sadistic. Having tortured many a consumer into emotional meltdown with credit card capers, the same companies now make money from credit rejects; they manage to profit from a "service" that tells you that you aren't fit to carry one of their credit cards.

That's one part of the so-called decadence of MTV that seems real; recruiting kids into Credit Hell with cute musical come-ons. One might ask, "How can these people look at themselves in the morning?" except it would seem just as hard for them to look at themselves at night, even all dressed up for the MTV awards. Perhaps Western civilization is in a post-decline phase, or maybe the decline is just taking a really long time, like the Roman Empire's did.

The Romans had gladiators and Christian-hungry lions and that sort of thing. We have MTV. There were maybe 30 entertaining moments that could be carved out of MTV's three-hour show, about the yearly average. But the rest was strictly microscope material, something to be studied and dissected while scratching one's head and wondering what comes next -- and recalling Gore Vidal's immortal prognosis, "Having no talent is no longer enough."

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