MTV: Behind the Music
First of all I'd like to give a shout-out to God for letting me write this column. I also want to thank my mom, my dad, my grandma, my sisters and brother and every single person I ever met, including my manager, my business manager, my personal assistant, my personal publicist, my personal trainer, my personal stylist, my personal groomer, and of course, my personal limo driver, Ali from Grand Limousine hey, wussup, Ali? plus my accountant, who keeps it on the real. Oh, and let's not forget MTV president Judy McGrath.
Most of all, though, I want to give props to our heavenly Father for holding the focus and letting me be here with you and 300 million of our best friends at the 16th annual MTV Video Music Awards. I want to say thank you God, Jah, Jehovah, whatever He's calling Himself these days, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart. Can you hear me, God? I love you, man. You're everything to me. You're the wind beneath my wings. You're butter.
Okay. Now then.
I'm at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards show, live from Lincoln Cent . . . uh, make that MTV Plaza, as we've been instructed to call it for tonight. The name, one must concede, has a certain inexorable snap to it, a zippy portent of the ever-metastasizing corporatopolis. And, hey, we've already got Rockefeller Center, so why not rename Sixth Avenue the Via Viacom. Or how about Microsoft Square Garden? Or Union Busters Square?
It's about nine p.m. on nine nine ninety nine, a date we've all been encouraged to think of as a big numerological woo-woo, a dress rehearsal for scary Y2K, are you snoring yet? I am backstage in a specially erected white tent behind Damrosch Park and how I got here is anyone's guess. Well, that's not entirely accurate. It's true that neither myself nor this newspaper rated a blue production pass, or an orange press staff pass (does not allow access to red carpet), or a coveted red all access pass, or a yellow talent guest pass, or a gray metal Press Area disc (q&a in press tent only!), or a red-dotted blue metal One-On-One Area access (with red sticker allows access to arrivals press pens) or any credentials at all. But I've managed to be on hand for this momentous occasion all the same. How? I snuck in.
I didn't mean to, honestly. What I'd planned to do was check on the effects of a fanatically hyped nonevent on our little burg and, at the same time, scope out some of those luscious MTV teens. So I hopped a cab to the West Side. And there I found, among other things, how much I'd underestimated the power of the merger magnates to yank the strings of a culture. It was Diana Ross who clued me in. "It's all so different, so big now, the music business is so global, these kids are selling so many more records now than we ever did," Ross breathily told me (and several dozen other journalists). "It's not like it was before."
And it's not. Nothing is. Nothing except show-business moxie, an inexhaustible natural resource, as old as dirt as old, that is, as Ross herself, who demonstrated her impeccable theatrical acumen by upstaging rapper Li'l Kim in front of a global audience. (How do you trump a woman wearing a lilac wig and a skintight pantsuit with one ripe pneumatic breast almost entirely exposed? You sweep onstage and smack her on the boob.)
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I arrive at five for the preshow to find Broadway partly cordoned and Lincoln Cent . . . uh, MTV Plaza blocked off to foot traffic. A woman named Jillian Kogan is shouting through a bullhorn: "If you have a yellow letter of confirmation to the preshow and are just wandering around aimlessly listening to this girl shouting in the middle of Manhattan, pull it out and I will show you where to go."
I don't, of course, have a yellow letter of confirmation. I do have a sudden will to belong. So I follow a girl carrying a yellow letter and a sign that reads " 'N Sync is the beat of my heart," and ignore what turns out to be the sound advice a guy in a Thugz Life T-shirt is giving to a friend ("We should go uptown, dog, and watch this shit on TV and drink some beer") and get on another line.
There I encounter Takenya and Cipriana Quann, who got picked by a talent coordinator to get all dressed up and stand in the MTV pit; and Jimmy Sutherland, who is hawking his yellow letter for $20; and Susanna Pelligrini of Rockville Center, who is wearing silver eyeliner in hopes of attracting the attention of Carson Daly, a demicelebrity VJ who, Susanna says, "like recognized me once and called me over even though he didn't know my name." I also spot a Japanese photographer frantically asking directions for the press entrance when one of the scores of NYPD officers detailed to this event points west and says, "That way."
So I follow him around the corner and past the police stanchions and then breeze by the heavily monitored press check-in, ducking through the guarded tent flaps behind a British TV crew hauling a lot of heavy gear. Once inside, I park myself near the radio personality Lisa G., who, seeing that I don't have hang tags, gets a paranoid look and mutters, "Are you carrying a bomb?"
I'm not, although I could use one. The event, as perhaps you yourself observed, is fairly staggering under the weight of its own self-referential bloat. So much so that, if I may channel Miss Manners for a moment, I'd like to remark that exploiting the envelope-opening moment of truth to plug your next single just isn't done. Memo to Wyclef Jean. But I'm an uninvited guest. As such, I can make free with the rude remarks. I can note that only 500 people nominate these silly things, and that, taking a wild guess, these 500 are not drawn from the cultural strike force. I can demand to know where the garage band/vogue ball/thrash rock/cello-playing goth girl avant- garde has got to, knowing full well that no one will reply.
I can note that, back when the Artist was still Prince, he once staged a theatrical retreat from the corporate "slave masters," muscling free of his contractual shackles and retreating to the Twin Cities to make music, not jingles. This was a strange, and strangely affecting, thing to do in the middle of a fantastic career arc. Manumission apparently didn't work out for Artist, and so there he was at this year's awards show, obediently introducing his favorite group, the charming but musically disposable TLC. Before doing so, however, Artist squeaked out an obligatory, halfhearted gesture of defiance, saying that he'd been asked to sing "1999" and had demurred.
Well, pin a rose on him. The value of music (and MTV) as cultural forces in any way separable from bottom line concerns, we'll have to agree, has been definitively abandoned. Direct all further questions on the matter to Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom (of which MTV, MTV 2, and VH1 are "units"). There are undoubtedly many funny things that happened backstage last Thursday, and I would be glad to report them for you if I hadn't been found out and ejected. I went home instead and finished watching the show on TV.
Now, I would not be the first to note the slimier effects of "synergy." It did seem to me, however, that this curious concept reached a kind of apogee at the VMA awards not when that Thanksgiving float of pop music, Madonna, was propelled onstage figuratively to fellate Paul McCartney (by the way, Ms. Ciccone, George was the "shy" Beatle), and not when Snoop Dogg exchanged gang signals with that goofy cracker Eminem, but during a commercial for Ford.
It was a droll "live" ad in which a woman driver stopped her car to ask for directions to the VMA and somehow also managed to plug the forthcoming single by cute-for-two-minutes- now-get-the- fuck-out-of-my-face Latin "sensation" Ricky Martin. Moments later, the screen cut back to a shoeless Martin bathing in adulation as he captured another prize. To call the effect of this surreal (ad for car hyping show ad appears on and star that appears on show just as star cops statuette for appearing in videos on said show) doesn't begin to encompass the extent of what's afoot. When Viacom announced last week that it would acquire CBS for $37.3 billion to form the world's second largest megamedia corporation, the Times predicted that "Viacom could very likely emerge as the world's largest seller [italics added] of advertising." That's all too likely and, fellow suckers, only too real.
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