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“It’s gonna get ugly.”

That’s what Pharrell Williams predicted during the pre-show for MTV’s Video Music Awards, and we might as well call him Nostradamus.

Five minutes after Williams’s announcement, Britney Spears looked straight into the camera and mumbled, “If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place.” It was an obvious homage to the opening of Elvis Presley’s legendary 1968 comeback special, but the only trouble stirred by Spears’s tired, half-hearted performance was inflicted on her flatlining career.

In a way, it was hard for Spears to screw this up, because she risked so little: The vocal track was pre-recorded, the touch-my-crotch dance routines were audaciously simple, and the red-silhouetted jail-cell prisoners (another nod to Elvis) were around to distract everyone from Britney’s ineptitude. Nonetheless, she found a way to blow it.

Apparently, we’ve all sunk so low that three years after Ashlee Simpson’s SNL debacle, critics aren’t trashing Spears for lip-synching, per se, but for executing it poorly. And while countless pundits obsessed about Britney’s fleshy midsection (admittedly ill-served by her sequined bra-and-panties undress selection), or her clumsy moves (was she really such a graceful swan back when she carried that python on her shoulders?), the big shock came from her vacant gaze. Britney never possessed much talent or taste, but early in her career she did convey a naïve enthusiasm, and that looks like it’s gone forever.

Much the same could be said for the VMAs. Always gaudy extravaganzas, they were guilty pleasures because they forced the various factions of MTV’s audience to deal with each other, at least for one night. Guns N’ Roses had to cope with Nirvana, who had to acknowledge MC Hammer, who had to sit through Poison. With those old genre barriers broken down, it was no surprise (or thrill) on Sunday to see Rihanna fronting Fall Out Boy or Cee-Lo leading Foo Fighters through a version of Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” And these were mere cut-away snippets from hotel-suite parties.

The actual awards show looked like a corporate banquet. Little wonder that Fergie (who generally lives for this shit) and Shakira didn’t even show up to collect their awards. The scale of the whole enterprise has shrunk, and since MTV hardly bothers to show videos anymore, the context has been lost. Maybe Britney and the VMAs should retire together.


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