Give some credit to MTV: At least they know how to laugh at themselves. Last night's Second Annual MTV Video Music Awards opened with a tableau from "The Wall" and a wisp of Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," a gleeful slam at what some critics call empty-vee.
Of course, credit's not the issue. This was a cash show, one long commercial interrupted by advertisements and host Eddie Murphy's street commentary.
There wasn't much suspense. The MTV Video Music Awards are exactly that: Only videos shown on the network are eligible. Not surprisingly, the whole affair doesn't mean anything. It's just an excuse for make-believe Oscars and the legitimacy they confer. Director/musician Kevin Godley tried to spark a little controversy by using his induction into the Video Vanguard to slam the stagnation and overkill of the current video scene. "That's money talking, easy money. It's safe, it's expedient, but it's not exciting, and that's what video should be all about." Tepid applause followed.
Ditto for the show. Last night's production was uniformly sloppy and badly paced, akin to a community access cable show, albeit in a very rich community. The live performances tended to mimic the videos whenever possible, and the sharpest moments were the advertisements and MTV's own graphics, the funniest usually serving as intros to the various categories. Unfortunately, in showing off its technical bravado, MTV engaged in overkill.
MTV's hipper-than-thou stance turned everything into a joke or an aside. This was jukebox jury duty, and if there were quite a few empty seats at Radio City Music Hall and if everyone there looked as if he'd rather be in Philadelphia, there were enough names to ensure overnight demographic delivery. Still, no one showed up to accept the Most Experimental Video award, not even in proxy (the winner was Zbigniew Rybczinski, the Oscar-winning Polish film maker).
Murphy got away with what the networks would have called blue murder, but he also scored some points, especially in recounting how he had been roped into hosting the show.
The comedian has an album of songs coming out, you see. "So now I'm here kissing MTV's ass, like most of you," Murphy said, and the laughter was telling, as was the lethargic applause and the seeming disinterest of just about everyone at the music hall who wasn't in the employ of MTV.
Later in the show, Murphy made what looked like an unscheduled trip from the stage to the mezzanine in the company of Morris Day and Glen Frey. The cameras dutifully followed while Murphy's loose spirits and good humor (he ended up cruising the ladies' room) provided the only light moments in the evening. The other came at the end of the show when Murphy set out in search of a cohost to relieve him of the terrible duty. He found Jim Smith -- in the street outside Radio City Music Hall. It was wonderfully bizarre.
Between congratulating itself and parading its nincompoop veejays out to show just how much more nincompoopish most rock stars are (nobody could pronounce Rybczinski's name, which proved embarrassing when he won a second award, and Julian Lennon did a terrible impression of Billy Crystal's impression of Fernando Lamas), MTV forgot to make anyone care that Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" won four awards (for best video, cinematography, production and direction), that 'Till Tuesday beat out Sade and Julian Lennon for best new video artist, or that USA for Africa won the best group video and viewer's choice awards.
The live performances were, for the most part, dreadfully average. Though grounded in the best intentions, the pairing of Daryl Hall and John Oates with soul veterans Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin is quickly becoming one of the most tiresome experiments in pop. These guys are actually beginning to ruin some good memories, particularly with their embarrassing off-key harmonies.
Bob Geldof, the mastermind behind the conspiracy of conscience that produced Band-Aid and Live Aid, was honored as rock's man of the year. His acceptance speech refocused the issue of hunger and activism and was much too good for the show it was heard on.