Rihanna rises above Brit's sad comeback

September 10, 2007


  • Entering their 23rd year, MTV's Video Music Awards were in big trouble.

    The music channel, which actually has long since traded video programming for lame-brained reality shows, has seen a downward spiral in the ratings of its annual self-celebration for the last four years, with viewership plummeting 28 percent in 2006.

    Though the honor has never had much credibility, the awards show was pop music's most entertaining from its inception through the '90s. But in the new millennium, it has increasingly become a tedious exercise in self-promotion, product placement, lowest-common-denominator pandering -- and, worst of all, crashing boredom.

    Network executives recently made several moves to turn things around, shortening the show to two hours, interweaving all sorts of interactive/behind-the-scenes gimmickry and limiting it to one broadcast, in contrast to the old days when it was repeated dozens of times. All of this was paired with a move to Las Vegas, America's capital of sleaze and superficiality -- hence the perfect locale for MTV -- when the VMAs were telecast live from the Palms Hotel and Casino on Sunday night.

    But the station's biggest bid to generate some buzz was tapping trash-pop princess Britney Spears to open the show. La Brit is, of course, as desperate to prove she's still relevant as MTV itself, since she now garners much more attention for her embarrassing public exploits than her mediocre music. Yet judging from her underwhelming performance Sunday, that isn't likely to change when her fifth album, her first since "In the Zone" (2003), drops in November.

    Yes, Britney wore underwear for this auspicious occasion -- but that was all she wore, dressing like a lingerie model as she dirty-danced with the requisite army of male companions while lip-syncing through her first single, "Gimme More," a relatively tuneless attempt at a sexy come-on set to an unimaginative electronic throb and most notable for the voiceover declaration, "It's Britney, bitch."

    There was no python, no jaw-dropping surprise, no tonsil hockey with Madonna -- and it was all over in less than three minutes. If Britney really wants to be more than a punch line, she's going to have to do better. As it was, however, she was overshadowed by the next act, comic Sarah Silverman, who previewed Brit's career obit: "Twenty-five years old and she's already accomplished everything she's going to accomplish in her life."

    Overall, the retooled VMAs weren't much more impressive or entertaining than Britney's abortive comeback.

    For the first-half of her mini-set, Alicia Keyes channeled Cher; next, she tried to do Aretha Franklin. She wasn't particularly successful at either, but R&B newcomer Chris Brown set the stage on fire as he channeled vintage Michael Jackson. Unfortunately, these were two of only a handful of full performances we saw.

    The retooled show featured most stars doing their thing in suites scattered throughout the Palms, and MTV showed snippets before and after cutting to commercials. The idea was that the show will draw people to MTV's Web site, where the full gigs can be viewed along with outtakes, special features and more hype.

    But as a result, we saw only flashes of performances that deserved to be aired in total, including Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley and Serj Tankian of System of a Down taking turns fronting the Foo Fighters; Chicago's platinum pop-punks Fall Out Boy destroying their gear in classic Who fashion, and Kanye West tearing it up on "Stronger" and trading verses with fellow Chicagoan Common.

    As for the relatively meaningless prizes, Justin Timberlake won Male Artist and the Quadruple Threat Award. "Play more damn videos," Timberlake challenged MTV. "We don't wanna see 'The Simpsons' on reality television." If MTV really wants to turn things around, it ought to listen to him. And a good way to save the 2008 Video Music Awards would be to show us more of the music it only teased us with this year.