History and Revisionist Reality at the 2003 VMAs
What’s that flinty taste in our mouth? Why, it’s the unforgiving barrel of the Mossberg 12 gauge jammed between our teeth. The shooter’s face is distorted – garish, hyper-real images flicker unabated eighteen inches away, just above the chamber. Bursts of red, washed-out orange, and otherworldly, shimmering gray reflect in blue steel; frames fly by faster and faster, each one unique, yet oddly, opaquely the same. Is this our life flashing before our eyes? Can’t be. We were never voted off anything. What was that shot? A rose on a tray, women wiping tears from their hardened eyes? That never happened to us. What’s P. Diddy saying? Wait, we don’t even KNOW P. Diddy! Then the images falter, fade to black. And we see it. A thin fiber optic cable leads from the Mossberg’s double action trigger to a frosted glass office door marked ‘Reality Television – New Season.’ The wire terminates in the keyhole of a silver knob. And that knob is turning.
Celebrating twenty years as an arbiter of what’s wrong and wronger, MTV’s 2003 Video Music Awards harbored a sick fascination with rose-colored history and televised reality. Celebrities were presented as friends, their couplings cooed about with backstory assumed, so that the show’s opening lip lock soap opera was framed as an ex-boy band beau bombshell. Likewise, the inhabitants of reality television were presented as representatives of the real real. Upon arriving at Radio City with her actual, breathing brother in tow, media water tredder Kelly Clarkson was asked, “You guys are from Texas…right?” The inflection suggested how truly far away Texas is from ‘TRL.’ Another network drone chatted with Jun, a contestant on CBS’ latest “Big Brother” go-round, who’d evidently won the opportunity to break her cloistered existence with a trip to the VMAs. Fabulously attired and standing on the slithering red carpet, she certainly looked the part. But her three-second interview was telling. The MTV guy framed her as an everywoman who’d somehow piloted her pumpkin carriage behind enemy lines. “You can stay,” his dancing eyes told the unescorted Jun. “But don’t get any ideas about afterparties or hotel lobbies. After the show, your ass is back in that house.” After two decades-plus, the network is comfortable in its role as a foundation to further the careers of six or so celebrities, while punk’ing the public with viewer’s choice awards and dangled carrots of inclusion. “This is the Real World now,” it says. “And sure, we’re all your friends inside here. But you’re not getting in without a screen test.”
DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT
Did you hear? The latest “Survivor” isn’t going to allow its goofs to bring bathing suits. Speaking of goofs, Fox found enough recovered coma patients to return “Joe Millionaire” to the air. MTV’s own reality couple, ostensible pop stars Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, dutifully wore their scarlet letter of indentured servitude, shilling for some sort of VMA quiz show during breaks at this year’s show. Watching them riff awkwardly with the wide-eyed plebes pulled from the audience was some of the best reality TV of the year. Lachey’s pasted, white-stripped rictus was painful, the look of a man who’d made a terrible mistake. “Take me with you,” his eyes screamed at the plump, regular girl opposite his Barbarella-like wife. “I just want a steak sandwich! With mustard! Anything! Just get me the fuck out of here!” It was like watching a celebrity marriage version of Johnny Got His Gun. The event’s top-line attendees – not required to solidify their star power with a Antonio/Melanie-style union – were free of such doubts. MTV’s most blessed children were, in order of costume change, 50 Cent; Beyoncé Knowles; Christina Aguilera; Missy Elliot; Eminem; and Justin Timberlake, whose clothier must’ve gotten lost, since he kept the same suit on all night. These six people received the bulk not only of the nominations, but of face time and simple mentions. I guess it’s not altogether surprising for MTV to feature the same half-dozen videos in each category. That’s about how many clips the network actually plays in a year. And that’s the reality of the situation.
While “Extreme Makeover” played opposite on ABC, MTV sponsored the resurfacing of Britney Spears by casting her in the role of 20th anniversary Madonna. Of course, the act was predated by oft-flouted assertions of the Not Yet a Woman Girl as the new Material Girl; here would be her first reinvention, without all of that vogueing. But Britney’s comeback and coochy coochy kiss was sat on by Aguilera’s considerable junk in the trunk, drowned out by the arrival of first chair second fiddle Madonna, and deflated by the notion that it was all a way to get a reaction shot out of her ex, Justin Timberlake. She became a well-endowed human mic stand, a pawn in MTV’s plan to get more face time for Justin, Christina, and Missy (who was excluded from the make-out session). Britney disappeared down the rabbit hole after the open; here’s hoping she went to the Rum House on 47th and got drunk with the old guys, like a real person should once in a lifetime.
Continuing to bruise the throat of history with its wraithlike grip, MTV pried open the sarcophagus and pulled out Duran Duran. Looking like “Queer Eye”‘s Fab Five in thirty years, or a group of Crypt Keepers with hair extensions, the aging new romantic combo was honored with a lifetime achievement award by presenters Kelly Osbourne and Avril Lavigne. “The VMAs didn’t even exist when Duran Duran started making videos,” the Brits quipped. Neither did Avril Lavigne, who was no doubt pissed that shape-shifting Dancehaller Sean Paul had supplanted her as the pre-show’s musical act. It was a perfect moment of the old meeting a new that was already old. Maybe the MTV braintrust planned it that way, maybe it didn’t. It certainly didn’t plan for the taped Duran retrospective to sputter, causing Osbourne’s big mouth (well, big everything) to replace even more music video programming. Reality TV smites Music TV yet again, and I STILL haven’t seen that infamous “Girls on Film” boob shot. History repeats itself.
THE WHITE MOUSE IS NO LONGER DANGEROUS
Besides its rigid roster of favorite artists, there was one other musician whose video made waves at the 2003 VMAs. This year, Johnny Cash reinvented Trent Reznor’s harrowing heroin passion play “Hurt” as the unflinching story of one man’s examination of an unfulfilled life, and the ultimate reality of death. Broadcast from the eerie green space between Mars and Earth, director Mark Romanek’s clip captures the realness of celebrity’s afterimage in the broken history of a shuttered star map museum. The video was nominated six times, most notably (and deservedly) for Video of the Year. Vying with – are you ready? – Eminem, Justin Timberlake, 50 Cent, and ringer Jon Mayer, JC lost out to JT. In his acceptance, Timberlake channeled history again. “I’m from Tennessee, and my grandfather raised me on Johnny Cash. This award should really go to him, and I think we should all give him a big hand.” Cash wasn’t there; a stomach ailment had prevented the 71-year old singer from attending. But on a night that became ahistorical in its zeal for its own past, and further damnable for embracing surreal culture over genuine music culture of any sort, the reality of Cash’s continued relevancy in such a ring of fire was truly remarkable. The Man in Black might be old, but he’s got enough angry strength to help us turn that Mossberg’s barrel around.