MTV zooms in on what matters Awards: The videos, not the famous names, are what moves the voters as yearly gig shows its maturity.

September 04, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the MTV Video Music Awards is that they have actually come to mean something.

At first, the VMA show was little more than an exercise in self-promotion, an excuse for MTV to hold its own awards show. There would be bands playing, movie stars saying "and the winner is" and innumerable chances for MTV to show what a force it had become in the entertainment world. The shows were entertaining, sure, but they were more about star power than video artistry.

That's not the case this year, however. Although it'd be absurd to suggest that MTV has toned down the hype -- not even the death of Princess Diana slowed the pace of pre-broadcast promotion last weekend -- the show's focus is in the right place. So despite the promised presence of Puff Daddy, U2 and the Rolling Stones at tonight's 1997 Video Music Awards broadcast (airing live at 8 p.m. on MTV), the emphasis is going to be on the nominees, a group that includes such not-so-big names as Jamiroquai, Beck, Paula Cole and Erykah Badu.

Compare that to the days when Michael Jackson and Madonna were nominated simply because they were superstars, and you'll have a sense of just how far MTV has come. This year's ballot not only downplays a number of MTV favorites (among them, Aerosmith, Fiona Apple and Hanson, with merely one nomination each), but outright ignores several others, including such million-sellers as U2, Metallica and Live.

By contrast, the year's most-nominated artist is Jamiroquai, the funky British quintet whose "Virtual Insanity" clip is up for 10 awards, includ-

ing Best Video, Best New Artist, Breakthrough Video and the Viewer's Choice Award.

Why Jamiroquai? Partly because the jazzy, soulful "Virtual Insanity" is a catchy little tune, but mainly because the video boasts one of the most dazzling feats of on-screen choreography since Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling. In the clip, it looks as if front man Jason Kay is in a room with a moving floor, dancing to the song while dodging furniture.

It's a stunning bit of artifice, one that continues to amaze even after you learn the trick (it's the walls and camera that move, not the floor). Even better, the video's disorienting perspective ties in nicely with the lyric's prediction of a topsy-turvy future. In a field full of fluff and big-budget gimmickry, it stands tall.

Even so, "Virtual Insanity" was not my top choice for Video of the Year, a field that also includes Beck's "The New Pollution," Jewel's "You Were Meant for Me," Nine Inch Nails' "The Perfect Drug" and No Doubt's "Don't Speak." Voters are expected to rank the candidates from one to five, and my ballot (yes, I am one of those faceless minions who vote the winners in each year), "Virtual Insanity" was at No. 3 behind "The New Pollution" ,, and "The Perfect Drug."

Part of the reason had to do with the fact that, stunning though it is, "Virtual Insanity" is essentially a one-trick video, whereas the others offered a much richer array of images. "The New Pollution," for instance, plays off everything from the cheesy choreography of '60s variety shows to the mock-robotic appearance of mid-'80s Kraftwerk -- all the while poking sly fun at the look-ma-we're-lip-synching nature of music video.

But for sustained mood and visual beauty, none of the nominees tops Nine Inch Nails' "The Perfect Drug." Shot almost entirely in sickly greens, grays and blues, its dreamlike images reek of decadence and dissipation. Ostensibly an evocation of absinthe addiction in fin de siecle New Orleans, it manages to be both beautiful and disturbing, matching the itchy desire of the music as closely as the lyrics do.

Tellingly, "Virtual Insanity," "The Perfect Drug" and "The New Pollution" figure heavily in the technical categories, including Best Direction (where all three are nominated, along with Missy Elliot's "The Rain" and Smashing Pumpkins' "The End Is the Beginning Is the End"), Best Art Direction (where the three are joined by Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People"), and Best Editing (where Beck and Jamiroquai compete against Smashing Pumpkins and The Wallflowers' "One Headlight").

In the general categories, I'm hoping to see Beck's "Midnight Cowboy" tribute, "Devils Haircut," edge out Babyface's "Everytime I Close My Eyes," R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" and Will Smith's "Men in Black" for Best Male Video, and Erykah Badu's witty "On And On" should take the Best Female Video award over Meredith Brooks' "Bitch," Toni Braxton's "Un-Break My Heart," Paula Cole's "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" and Jewel's "You Were Meant for Me."

On the Best Group Video front, I'd take the Dave Matthews Band's luscious, pastoral "Crash Into Me" over Blur's "Song 2," Counting Crows' "A Long December," No Doubt's "Don't Speak" and The Wallflowers' "One Headlight." And in the hard-to-choose Breakthrough Video category, my choice would be Radiohead's eerily animated "Paranoid Android" over The Chemical Brothers' "Setting Sun," Daft Punk's "Da Funk," Missy Elliot's "The Rain" and Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity."

Year's best

What: "14th Annual MTV Video Music Awards"

When: 8 to 11 tonight

Where: MTV

Host: Chris Rock

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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