Article 1994-09-08 New York City, NY

On MTV, One Sure Winner

At the MTV Video Music Awards, MTV always wins. The annual telecast celebrates MTV above all: its power to muster stars, its air of hipness, its hold on the squealing teen-age masses, its endless chain of self-reference. MTV promotes the video clips, the video clips promote the performers, the performers promote MTV.

For the 11th annual awards show, telecast live from Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night, MTV reveled in its ability to disrupt midtown traffic and crowd the sidewalks. Pitched to a younger audience and with a news booth prominently displayed on the street, the telecast enjoyed a more hysterical public response than the Grammy Awards broadcasts from the same theater.

MTV's awards are intended to reinforce the channel's psychological (though not actual) monopoly on music video. The winners are chosen from only those video clips shown on MTV, which is rather like having ABC give its own Emmy Awards. But few spectators are primarily curious about who wins; the show depends on its music and on whatever outrageousness the writers, costumers and celebrities will bring.

On that score, this year's awards were a dud. The planned ingredients were trashy talk from the host, Roseanne (formerly Roseanne Barr), a few production numbers and whatever antics the musicians came up with. The show started with a tabloid-perfect opening cameo: the first public appearance in this country of "Mr. and Mrs. Michael Jackson." Mr. Jackson said, "Just think, nobody thought this would last," and turned to kiss his new wife, Lisa-Marie Presley.

There was also a moment of MTV's quintessential high-school humor as Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani intoned that it was an honor to have the awards in New York City. As he gazed earnestly into the camera, Kennedy, an MTV video jockey, was at his side, licking her microphone suggestively. Late in the show, Kennedy also provoked an exchange of lewd boasts with Roseanne, and Aerosmith and Madonna traded leers.

But there was none of the near-nudity and little of the outlandishness that have often made the show an enjoyable parody of more legitimate awards pageants. For most of the program, MTV backed away from its self-described place on popular music's cutting edge. The program was dominated by the Rolling Stones, the only band invited to play two songs, and other staples of classic-rock radio like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, who was the inexplicable recipient of a "Video Vanguard" award. He then performed "Last Dance With Mary Jane," a lugubrious Neil Young imitation.

Aerosmith, formed in 1970, won the best video and other major awards for "Cryin'," an old-fashioned soul ballad with a video clip about young romance. R.E.M., formed in 1980, was given the "breakthrough video" award. Salt 'n' Pepa, a female rap group, was the only younger act to win multiple awards, including ones for rhythm-and-blues and choreography.

Punky alternative-rock groups did perform: Smashing Pumpkins, hoarse and disheveled; Green Day, energetic but brief, and the Beastie Boys, wearing matching gray suits. But they were shut out of the awards, which suggested a resurgence of the old arena-rock mainstream. Once MTV's emphasis on telegenic youthful glamour threatened to displace rock's aging generations; this year, the channel has apparently repented.

As awards shows do, this one bounced around, from Salt 'n' Pepa's lusty aerobics to the romantic harmonies of Boyz II Men to a production number by the Leningrad Cowboys, a Russian group wearing bright yellow striped jackets and anti-gravity hairdos. They sang Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" accompanied by a uniformed army choir and orchestra.

But for its last half, the show was death-haunted. A memorial tribute film showed Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in April, casting bread upon the waters. The rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, who won an award, staged his own funeral, with mourners wailing over his coffin, before he rapped "Murder Was the Case." Mr. Springsteen sang "Streets of Philadelphia," from the film about a lawyer with AIDS; Stone Temple Pilots sang "Pretty Penny," about a woman who is dead or vanished.

By the end of the program, not even the appearance of Madonna — hair marcelled, dressed in an Esther Williams-like outfit — could lighten things up. She arrived with David Letterman, staging a public reconciliation after their on-air battle on "The Late Show." There she was, pop's bad girl, proving that she, too, could be accepted by a man in a suit. The rebellion is in mourning or on hold; the show must go on.

By Jon Pareles via The New York Times.
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