"Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest show on Earth is about to begin," cooed Madonna at the beginning of the Video Music Awards last night. Of course, she wasn't really referring to the MTV broadcast -- she was just setting up a song, after all -- but it's a fair bet that everyone at MTV took the line as a compliment.
And why shouldn't they have? Even though last night's broadcast didn't have any of the jaw-dropping surprises of years past, the 10th installment of MTV's celebrity-packed celebration of self was still pretty good as awards shows go.
It helped that, for the most part, the best bands won. The big winner was Pearl Jam, which walked off with four awards (including Best Video, Best Group Video, Best Direction in a Group Video and Best Metal/Hard Rock Video), while En Vogue strutted off with three (Best Dance Video, Best R&B Video and Best Choreography in a Video).
Madonna took two awards (Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography), and so did Peter Gabriel (Best Editing and Best Special Effects). Lenny Kravitz was Best Male, k.d. lang was Best Female, Arrested Development won rap honors, Nirvana took the nod in alternative music, and Stone Temple Pilots were named Best New Artist in a Video.
Winning wasn't everything, though -- particularly given the level of the show's live performances. Unlike previous broadcasts, which found MTV striving to match the celebrity clout of other awards shows, this year's show put the emphasis on the music. So instead of the usual assortment of lame jokes and awkward cameos, what we got were some of the hottest performances ever seen on music television.
Start with Madonna, who donned top-hat and tails for a gender-bending rendition of "Bye-Bye Baby" that sneak-previewed her forthcoming "Girlie Show" tour. It was catchy, it was kinky, but it was far from the show's hottest performance.
That distinction belonged to Pearl Jam, which followed a fiery performance of an unnamed song from their forthcoming album with a raucous and ragged rendition of "Rockin' in the Free World," which included a guitar-cranking cameo by Neil Young. Rarely has televised rock and roll seemed so dangerous or transcendent.
Still, the competition was close. R.E.M. made a too-rare appearance, offering a quiet, French horn-spiked version of "Everybody Hurts" before abruptly launching into a funky, energetic reading of "Drive" that surely left fans hankering for a tour.
Lenny Kravitz brought along Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones for a driving run through "Are You Gonna Go My Way." Janet Jackson offered a (probably lip-synched) medley of songs from her latest album while showing more midriff than anyone in Madonna's "Girlie Show." And Soul Asylum imported Peter Buck and Victoria Williams for a tender, tuneful presentation of "Runaway Train."
This wasn't just a celebration of music or the year's best videos, though -- it was also a celebration of MTV. This was the 10th Annual Video Music Awards, remember, and "The Most Trusted Name in Music Television" (as one promo put it) spared no effort to underscore its media clout.
Each award presentation, for example, was preceded by a taped montage that had some of the biggest names in television announcing the award category. Like Angela Lansbury plugging the Best Rap Video. Or Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy" introducing another category with the words, "What is Best New Artist?" Or William Shatner, in full "Rescue 911" glower, saying, "Suddenly, tragedy struck when the best dance video broke free and toppled into the crowd."
Perhaps the most telling was a mock QVC segment advertising the "Spaceman Statue" for only $15.95 (value $100). Could that really be the standard MTV mark-up?
Yet for all the glitz, MTV never crossed the line from cool to corn. Host Christian Slater was creditably low-key, delivering the scripted jokes with minimal fuss and maximum impact, and -- even better -- kept things moving so briskly that the show finished a full 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
Amazingly, there were no bleeped comments from the winners, and few moments anyone would consider tasteless. OK, there was Beavis and Butt-Head, whose show MTV promotes as "the stupidest, vulgarest, most pointless show on television" and who, naturally, announced the winners in the Best Metal/Hard Rock category.
At least, that was the plan. But it took some prodding on the part of their handlers.
Voice off-camera: "C'mon guys, you're on."
Butt-Head: "Urine? Huh-huh, huh-huh, huh-huh."
Then there was this witty exchange between Milton Berle, the first father of television drag, and RuPaul, the reigning queen . . . er, king.
"I would like to compliment RuPaul," said Uncle Miltie. "I love that gown."
"You should," snapped Ru. "It's one of yours."
"I'm beginning to feel like a straight man," deadpanned Mr. Berle.