Awards without attitude Videos: What with no-surprise winners and little to shock us, MTV's big night was hardly worth staying up for. Except, of course, for the spoofs by host Ben Stiller.

September 11, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Never mind the rock stars. Overlook the movie stars. Forget about the winners. No matter what the stars did at MTV's Video Music Awards last night, they had a hard time outshining host Ben Stiller.

OK, so Madonna won six awards, while Prodigy, Will Smith and Aerosmith took home two each. So the Dave Matthews Band did a smooth, sassy version of "Stay," and the Beastie Boys gave an old-school performance of "Intergalactic." That was cool, but not cool enough.

No, what mattered by the end of the 15th Annual Video Music Awards broadcast were the moments that were unlike any of the other VMA shows. The moments that were laugh-out-loud funny. The moments that belonged to Stiller.

It wasn't that he told great jokes or delivered any killer ad libs. Quite the contrary. By normal standards, he barely played host at all, sticking to the script and doing virtually no stand-up.

But the short films he made, lampooning both the stars and the music industry, were hysterical in ways the VMAs rarely are. From the opening bit, in which Stiller portrayed Trent McJivver, "the sixth Backstreet Boy," to the parody of MTV's "FANatic," in which Bruce Springsteen turns out to be the world's biggest fan of Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs ("This is a joke, right?" asks an incredulous Combs), Stiller simultaneously celebrated and sent up the MTV aesthetic.

Especially funny was the way Stiller lampooned factoid-spewing VJ Matt Pinfield. After his "Pinfield" offered a hyper-hyphenated compliment to rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, Snoop drawled: "You talk too much. You givin' me a headache."

Haven't many MTViewers thought the same?

Those bits alone will make it worth watching the inevitable hours and hours of award-show reruns.

Too bad the rest of the show wasn't as entertaining. Between half-hearted live performances and less-than-shocking award winners, the bulk of the broadcast was tame, safe and predictable.

Natalie Imbruglia won for Best New Artist ("Thank you," she burbled. "I'm a very happy bunny!"). Puff Daddy won the Viewers' Choice award. Aerosmith's chart-topping "I Don't Want Miss a Thing" was named Best Video from a Film. Green Day took the Alternative Music award, and the Backstreet Boys won in the Best Group category.

Yawn.

It may have been that MTV has finally become mainstream enough to no longer be shocking. Certainly, most of the celebrity appearances were professional and perfunctory, offering nothing more controversial than thanks to God and their record companies.

To that end, the Beastie Boys' acceptance for this year's Video Vanguard award was a breath of fresh air. Taking a break from the usual platitudes, Beastie Adam Yauch took a moment to address U.S. policy in the Middle East -- specifically the missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan. Urging the government to seek more nonviolent approaches to problem-solving, he also spoke out against racism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Unlike most of the award recipients, Yauch got a big ovation from the star-packed crowd.

Wyclef Jean took a similar tack while accepting his award for Best R&B Video. Acknowledging how happy he was to have had a song on the soundtrack to "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," he at the same time lambasted the movie for making an AIDS joke about his native Haiti.

Aside from that bit of consciousness-raising, much of the evening's entertainment was flat and predictable. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston shared the stage to announce the Best Male Video award (Will Smith won) and walked out wearing identical dresses. But instead of the expected catfight, what we got was dialogue that merely fizzled.

"Nice dress," hissed Carey.

"They told me it was one of a kind," countered Houston.

"ZZZZZ," answered the audience.

Nor were the musical performances much better. Madonna started off strong, offering a version of "Shanti/Ashtangi" to the accompaniment of Hindu-style dancers. But when Lenny Kravitz strolled on stage and the band kicked into "Ray of Light," the performance went straight downhill. Shedding her demure black dress for nearly translucent white tank-T and black jeans, Madonna looked great but sounded terrible, as her voice was strained and her pitch unsure.

It may have been good karma, but it was bad music.

At least it was easier on the eyes than Marilyn Manson's performance of "The Dope Show," which found Manson's band re-creating the Ziggy Stardust look of the video while Manson himself turned up in an outfit that included prosthetic breasts. If only he could have given the same treatment to his rear

Brandy and Monica turned "The Boy Is Mine" into an exercise in one-upwomanship, Pras and Wyclef Jean made "Ghetto Supa- star" an excuse for stage-diving, and Hole proved they can't do live what they do in the studio.

Maybe that's why MTV plays videos more than often than it does live music.

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