Apparently New York City isn’t big enough for both MTV and the RNC. Ceding Manhattan to the invading army of potato-headed donkey punchers, the network moved its annual Video Music Awards promotional event to Miami’s American Airlines Arena. The move made sense logistically, even if the Page Six stories of hotel bar meetings between, say, Petey Pablo and Senator Sam Brownback would’ve been hilarious. But it was also a reminder of how far south the popular music axis has shifted. Crunk dominated this year’s VMAs from the window to the wall, Outkast continued to clean up (deservedly) for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and rock music was viewed only as a nuisance, represented by performances from a few tepid middlers, but best consumed in condensed form. See KRAVITZ, Lenny.
The show began with a montage of boat arrivals. Xzibit was certifiably pimp’d, his approximately 800 ft. jet boat adorned with Dolphins cheerleaders, but P. Diddy’s arrival at the prow of another enormous landing craft was a little curious, as the erstwhile Puff Daddy’s own career seems somewhat rudderless. The boats kept floating in as the pockets of John Norris’ cargo pants grew larger. LL, Jay-Z, etc. And yet, the whooshing cameras didn’t capture the landfall of, say, Jet, or even the SS Hoobastank. These combos had enjoyed nearly Usherian levels of visibility over the last few months; they were even slated to perform at the event. Why no love for their arrival? It’s simple. Just as scissors will always beat paper, crunk trumps rock. The former features chalices, and midgets around necks, and dipping low. It generates the power that runs the clubs in South Beach. The latter is boring by contrast. Rock, in MTV’s view, is now just a clearinghouse for vintage T-shirts.
And Hoobastank, Jet, and violin-toting pop-punkers (!) Yellowcard aren’t really even rock, of course. Doug Robb’s AC/DC tee? Fashion, not fact. But their racket was nevertheless important, since it meant a reprieve from Usher’s smug acceptance speeches and the VMAs’ constant, inexplicable close-ups of Bruce Willis. (A quick check of the movie channels during one of the shows’ more boring stretches revealed Willis as the Jackal, calmly blowing off Jack Black’s arm with an enormous servo-powered machine gun.) Still, Jet might as well have been Brinsley Schwarz next to their two medley mates. Hoobastank’s atrocious, multi-million selling single “The Reason” is an amalgam of every high school rock band’s one original song. Plodding and saccharine, but with a lead guitar line that sounds cool to dorks and plenty of wailing for their resident dreamboat lead singer, the song’s a get-laid-quick pyramid scheme for clueless twelfth graders. Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue,” meanwhile, is what the Ataris’ take on “Girls of Summer” was last summer – simplistic, overproduced sugar punk punctuated by ridiculous pogoing. Oh, and there’s that violin guy, who’s actually less essential than every member of Sugar Ray not named McGrath.
Ladies and gentlemen, Lil Jon. His oversized “Crunk” tank top matching his “Lil Jon”-branded warm-up suit, the goof troop ATLien with the chalice and the dreads hopped around like a dirty south version of Flavor Flav while Ludacris laid down another prototypically cheeky, wordy cool rhyme in Usher’s “Yeah.” We just can’t get enough crunk these days, can we? In fact, the chatter coming from expert-level think tanks has the style’s ascendancy to “Direct Effect” and “TRL” daily play converting tired husks of entertainment into wonders of party-loving, crunkified engineering. Jazz, for example, deserves a platinum grill makeover. In the months to come, Lake Wobegon will also become a hotbed of crunk. This transformation will be the legacy of the 2004 Video Music Awards; it will encourage Pier One to begin selling gilded carafes.
MTV made Jay-Z’s allegedly impending retirement from the rap game look like the introduction of a Google-sized IPO. Amidst reaction shots too numerous to name and proud smiles at his girl B’s unending stream of victory laps, there was actually a Shawn Carter montage that included a stat-sheet-style rundown of his musical and financial accomplishments. And proving that he really is one of the best rappers alive, the video and audio clips of Jay’s Rick Rubin collabo “99 Problems” were the most powerfully rock thing of the entire night. But that doesn’t forgive the network’s seizing on his torch pass as a vehicle for manufactured drama. (Upon seeing the Hova tribute, status whore P. Diddy made his suddenly reemerged hanger-on Ma$e go get him a submarine sandwich and a Fanta.)
Ex-hot pants enthusiast Christina Aguilera is suddenly blonde, and even somewhat cute again. However, Shakira’s still hotter. While the former’s performance extravaganza with Nelly in tow was certainly decent, the latter’s understatedly smoldering turn on the presenter steps was way, way better. How lucky we are that Shakira’s breasts are small and humble, so that we don’t confuse them with mountains.
In the case of the incredibly dueling daughters, John Kerry’s willowy and long-limbed offspring appeared on the show’s spindly silver stage to encourage the young vote, flanked by a video message from the Prez’s own terrible twosome. The sentiment of the stunt was admirable, especially when linked with the bold convention and voting themes of Outkast’s finale performance. But it was strange to hear the incessant booing during the Kerry daughters’ brief speech. Maybe the boos were coming from the infamous crunk lobby, who’s angry at both political parties for introducing quiet stereo legislation. Or perhaps the boos were for poor, milquetoastian Jessica Simpson, who floated over the crowd soon after in a Holly Hobby UFO, trying desperately to inject her Lawrence Welk Show tones with some brassy sexuality. Nice try, sister, but you got served. At least ol’ Bruce Willis seemed to like it.
Thus, there were no forced controversies at this year’s VMAs, no girl on girl kisses, no boobs bared, no swears uttered, no Russian starlets in their underpants. There wasn’t even any Britney, who was probably too busy weighing competing posing offers from Swank and Club International. Disturbingly young harpy JoJo introduced a fleet of tarted up Olympians who seemed awkward in their street clothes. Their dazed looks might’ve come from the knowledge that they were the only human beings inside American Airlines Arena not hawking an album or getting paid with pizza to scream on cue. Usher did ramble for a minute about some sort of perceived feued with Justin Timberlake, but it was about as interesting as the Gap’s lame and Lenny’d up new ad campaign. Even Dave Chappelle was largely muzzled, making jokes about what he was GOING to say on live TV, but instead offering a weak gag revolving around Jay-Z’s retirement. Strong performances by Big Boi, Andre 3000, and Kanye West (backed by an Aretha-sized Chaka Khan) were also marred by jagged edits that dropped out their entire audio. As contrived as MTV’s award show “scandals” and “surprises” have always been, that they were nixed in favor of straightforward consumerism is insulting, and decidedly un-crunk.
Oh, and the Polyphonic Spree? Not sure why they were there, but it’s great to see the guy from Tripping Daisy making something of himself. “My Umbrella” was building alternative nations when Crunk was just a gleam in Lil Jon’s tooth.