It's not altogether impossible to accentuate the positive about the Video Music Awards extravaganza that MTV threw together in Miami on Sunday night -- after all, absolutely no sock puppets were harmed in its creation.
Beyond that small favor to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, however, this year's VMAs offered up nary a moment to get worked up about. Whether you blame the grit-free setting (the most pastel-painted section of America's most pastel-dependent burg), the pressure of turning twenty-one and needing to put on a grown-up face or writers who managed to make Dave Chappelle sound like a modern-day Pauly Shore, the telecast almost made one pine for the balls-out spontaneity of a Tony Awards show.
Organizers sent up the "This Is the Year of Hip-Hop" flare some months back, so it was hardly surprising that OutKast and Jay-Z were the dominant forces, each taking home four moon men -- Jay's haul being headlined by Best Rap Video and the Atlanta duo's by Best Video. Big Boi and Andre 3000 even deigned to, so to speak, sing for their supper, closing the show with a four-song mini-set that -- unlike most of the evening's other performances -- managed to reconcile liveliness and musicality.
Usher, on the other hand, provided the evening's most telling science lesson when he paced the stage, mike in hand, as a man-made monsoon raged around him. The lesson? It's virtually impossible to be electrocuted while lip-syncing.
Unfortunately, no one in a position of power was kind enough to extend pre-recorded life preservers to Chaka Khan (whose caterwauling during her Kanye West duet probably had the Windy City MC wondering why he was the one who had his jaw wired shut) or Hoobastank frontman Doug Robb (who took on "The Reason" with all the gusto -- and pitch-perfection -- of Ozzy Osbourne doing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game").
This being The Year of Hip-Hop, the Hoobas only got to do about seventy-three seconds of that ubiquitous tune as part of a medley given over to nominees in a category known as . . . what was it again? . . . oh, yeah. Rock. They were joined by Yellowcard (the emo generation's Electric Light Orchestra) and Jet, who ended up taking home top honors in the Best Rock Video category for "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?"
Comparatively little time was spent actually handing out awards this time around, which was just as well, given the almost universal vapidity of acceptance speeches -- most of which were given over to thanking stylists and under-assistant stylists. The show's three hours didn't afford enough time to televise Franz Ferdinand's Best Breakthrough Video win, but those who tuned in early did get to see skateboarder Tony Hawk accept his statue for Best Video Game Soundtrack -- an interesting state of affairs, since he created neither the music nor the video in question.
Head-scratchers abounded over the course of the evening. Fat Joe, demonstrating his acuity as a musicologist, took great pains to tell viewers that his Hector Lavoe T-shirt was intended to let them know about one of "the living legends" of salsa. Lavoe, unfortunately, wasn't there to appreciate the gesture, having died in 1993. Paris Hilton showed the same awareness about her own burgeoning musical career: When MTV stalwart Kurt Loder asked what her forthcoming album was going to be like, she replied, "It's coming out in January."
With that kind of advance warning, perhaps Mary-Kate Olsen could whip up a counter-punch in order to give next year's VMAs a little more -- shall we say -- beef.
The 2004 MTV Video Music Awards winners:
Video of the Year: OutKast, "Hey Ya!"
Best Pop Video: No Doubt, "It's My Life"
Best Rap Video: Jay-Z, "99 Problems"
Best Female Video: Beyonce, "Naughty Girl"
Best Male Video: Usher (feat. Lil Jon and Ludacris), "Yeah!"
Best R&B Video: Alicia Keys, "If I Ain't Got You"
Best Rock Video: Jet, "Are You Gonna Be My Girl"
Best Soundtrack From a Video Game: "Tony Hawk's Underground"
Best Hip-Hop Video: OutKast, "Hey Ya!"
Best Group Video: No Doubt, "It's My Life"
Best Dance Video: Usher (feat. Lil Jon and Ludacris), "Yeah!"
Best New Artist: Maroon 5, "This Love"
MTV2 Award: Yellowcard, "Ocean Avenue"
Viewer's Choice: Linkin Park, "Breaking the Habit"
Best Choreography: Black Eyed Peas, "Hey Mama"
Breakthrough Video: Franz Ferdinand, "Take Me Out"
Best Direction: Jay-Z, "99 Problems" (directed by Mark Romanek)
Best Special Effects: OutKast, "Hey Ya!"
Best Art Direction: OutKast, "Hey Ya!"
Best Editing: Jay-Z, "99 Problems"
Best Cinematography: Jay-Z, "99 Problems"