It’s not often that a 71-year-old is up for six awards at the MTV Video Music Awards. Johnny Cash’s poignant “Hurt,” a cover of the Nine Inch Nails tune, managed to score nods in the Video of the Year, Best Male Video, and Best Direction in a Video categories as well as three technical categories, including Best Cinematography, the only award it won. (Curiously, MTV opted to relegate the Best Direction award to the pre-show, while Best Choreography was presented in all its bootylicious glory.) It’s not surprising Cash was shafted: “Hurt” was never played on the MTV mother station, and he was up against some of today’s hottest artists, three of which (Beyoncé, Coldplay, and Justin Timberlake) took home three statues apiece. But what does it mean that the video was even acknowledged at all? Surely it’s one of the saddest, most striking clips of the year, but what about Sigur Rós’s frighteningly relevant “Vaka (Untitled #1)”? What about Queens of the Stone Age’s groundbreaking “Go with the Flow”? The clip lost the Breakthrough Video moon man to Coldplay’s slightly overrated “The Scientist” (which employs the same gimmicky backward technique as Pharcyde’s “Drop” and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise,” but with a hollow punchline).
So what went right? Three-time host Chris Rock was almost as funny as last time, and Avril Lavigne, who clearly had no idea where she was or who Duran Duran is, helped Kelly Osbourne surprise the reformed ’80s Britpop band with the MTV Lifetime Achievement Award. Missy Elliott, who’s been nominated 17 times but has never won, finally got her props for the inventive “Work It,” co-directed by Elliott and Dave Meyers. The clip won Video of the Year and Best Hip-Hop Video. Christina Aguilera, whose “Dirrty” was disssed, seemed winded during her performance of the non-hit but sufficiently trashed it up with Dave Navarro on “Fighter.” Beyoncé got her groove on with a line of Rocket-esque backup dancers for her twin hits “Baby Boy” and “Crazy In Love,” but note to Mom: Please lay off the big bows and shiny fabrics. VMA staples Metallica closed out the show with a medley of MTV hits past and present (Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the White Stripes’s “Seven Nation Army,” among others) before breaking out into a song from their new album, St. Anger.
But all of that was upstaged by—who else?—Madonna. The reigning queen of MTV added another notch to her boy-toy belt of greatest VMA performances. The first, of course, was her performance of “Like A Virgin” at the inaugural ceremony 20 years ago (we’ll get back to that in a minute), and the second was an elaborate interpretation of her hit “Vogue” in 1990: Madonna and company (her dancers and longtime backup singers, hot off of her Blond Ambition Tour) were dressed in Victorian garb, lip-syncing to the track, and flashing their bloomers. Not only did “Vogue” find Madonna at one of her many creative peaks, but it raised the bar for VMA stage performances and for pop music performance in general. While Madonna is one of the few pop singers who usually refuses to lip-sync, pomp overshadowed vocal technique on that night, but no one seemed to care.
The same can be said for her opening performance at this year’s VMAs. Like her very first VMA performance in 1984, a bride emerged from a giant wedding cake singing “Like a Virgin.” Judging by the first few squeaky notes, it could very well have been Madonna circa 1984, but after a few not-so-innocent (and not-so-sexy) bars, the bride lifted her veil, revealing a well-publicized non-virgin, Britney Spears. Soon a dirrtier bride, a dark-haired Christina Aguilera, began to warble through the song’s chorus. The pair rolled around the stage in vintage Madonna style, which in and of itself was a sight to behold. Of course, the “groom” would soon take the cake (for those who hadn’t been tipped off already, both Beyoncé and Jay-Z spilled the beans during the VMA pre-show). Dressed in a black top hat and tuxedo, Madonna began to sing “Hollywood,” the second single from her latest album, American Life. The trio strutted the stage arm-in-arm before bringing the spectacle to a climax with two open mouth kisses. (Cue shot of Justin Timberlake, not sure what to make of his famous ex and his current touring partner swapping spit with the most famous woman in the world.)
Madonna rarely shares the stage with other stars, and for it to be Britney and Christina—who have been compared to and who cite Madonna as a primary influence—was nothing short of surreal. (Rumors abound that J. Lo was to have originally appeared in Christina’s place, in which case Madonna would have been the best singer on the stage that night.) Add to that an appearance by Madonna’s new Gap pal, Missy Elliott, who has been pegged as one of the greatest video artists since the Material Girl herself, and you’ve got a PR coup of diva proportions. It raises the question: Who thought this shit up? According to Fight the Good Fight Ministries, Satan did. A post on the nonprofit Christian organization’s website chided MTV for “leading millions of impressionable youth down the greased pole to hell.” The group claims that Satan is using a “legion of demonic beings” (Madonna, Britney, and Christina, no doubt) to “promote musical terrorism” (read: lesbianism). Of course, like terrorism itself, what would a Christian website be without a little propaganda and fear? The group exhorts: “God’s word warns that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God but will be sentenced to the lake of fire.” Quite honestly, I would much rather be in the lake of fire with Madonna and Christina than up in heaven with these nut-jobs.
It’s been close to a decade since a public appearance by Madonna has caused such a firestorm of controversy. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution apologized to its readers for printing a thumbnail-sized image of Madonna kissing Britney on their front page after a slew of complaints. The newspaper compared the “mistake” to the paper’s printing of violent images from the war in Iraq several months ago. Of course, Madonna’s message is always about more than just sex. The performance ended with the four women defiantly shouting the musical bridge from “Hollywood”: “Music stations always play the same songs, we’re bored with the concept of right and wrong!” It’s difficult not to view the lyric—along with Madonna’s sneering “Flip the station, change the channel”—as a timely indictment of both radio and MTV itself, who have virtually ignored Madonna’s single and video. Still, the performance proves once and for all what the M in MTV really stands for.