*The unenlightened think MTV’s annual Video Music Awards is still about music. They think it’s a glossy, rebellious, brash and hip celebration of adventurous pop video production, outrageous fashion and spellbinding live performance. The show hasn’t been any of those things in decades.
Today, the VMA show, in all its vapid and consistently uncool wonder, has a more ominous role. It’s a High Definition commercial for Doomsday.
I’m serious. Like such top-shelf omens as world wars, an increasingly kooky global weather system and the national appeal of Sarah Palin, the VMAs carry a boldly subtle message: Get your affairs in order. The world is just about over.
The VMAs weren’t just bad. This kind of bad felt broader in scope than just a production having an off night. This felt Biblical bad, like a shift in the universe.
How else do you explain teen sensation Justin Bieber’s lip synching? At any given moment during his “performance,” Bieber’s lips were on one side of the stage and his voice was on the other. Kind of like watching a film shot in one language and dubbed in another tongue. The mouth and the voice have their own separate agendas.
For the record, horrid lip sync performances have been part of rock n’ roll ever since the music came to TV in the 1950s. But today’s awards shows work really hard to make it all look so real, and the last time we truly believed it was when Michael Jackson lip-synched his iconic performance of “Billie Jean” on the “Motown 25th” special.
However, uncoordinated lips were the least of the VMAs nastiness. Only in an era where personal dignity is on life support would a TV writer or producer think it cool to have Lindsay Lohan in a skit making fun of her very real personal woes. Shelve the argument for exploitation and insensitivity; it just wasn’t funny.
When the best you can do in hyping the show is to shamelessly play up the possibility of a Kanye West/Taylor Swift confrontation (and when neither performer minds being used that way), you know the stars are aligning for a storm.
There was some genuine talent at the VMAs. Underneath those layers of costumes and make up, Lady Ga Ga is a budding, dynamic singer, writer and musician. However, when an act has to wear raw beef to bring attention to legitimate musical skills–during an event that is supposed to, in some vague form, honor music, no less–then this is not simply bad TV but a televised tug of war between the forces of good, evil and the utterly ridiculous. But then, Lady G dresses like this everyday. Pass the barbecue sauce.
Hey, I know earlier generations worked just as diligently to shock and awe. Pop music will always have its share of careers built on poses. However, the difference between then and now is that much of the public doesn’t care that an unprecedented number of new “artists” possess little or no discernible talent. The masses don’t seem to mind being duped. It’s like fast food. We know it’s prefab, but our taste buds have developed a penchant for the flavor of fake.
People my age in jest often ask kids what they’ll do for oldies, the suggestion being that today’s music is so bad that it simply won’t make it that far. It’s a silly and arrogant query. Just as we reminisce to classic gospel, jazz, soul, blues, rock and roll, pop, country and everything that emerged after the cross-pollination of those forms, they’ll be swooning to the sounds on which they grew up, no matter what we think of it.
Chances are good they’ll feel as I did Saturday evening, the night before the VMAs. While that circus was setting up camp at the L.A. Live entertainment complex in downtown Los Angeles, I was at the Lucy Florence theater in the African American art district of Leimert Park, checking out Sharon L. Graine’s production of “An Evening With Sammy Davis, Jr. and Friends,” starring David Williams as Sammy and Suzanne Nichols as Eartha Kitt.
As the singing and dancing Williams and Nichols performed supernatural portrayals of the two musical legends, I felt like I’d taken refuge in a safe house from a world of passion-starved beats and half-baked lyrics.
Of course, to me, in 1972 Sammy’s “The Candy Man”–compared to the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers,” War’s “The Cisco Kid,” the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair”–sounded every bit the hokey, white-bread confection. Even Sammy, it is said, didn’t care for the song, but recorded it because he felt it could break his hitless spell, which it did, reaching number one.
However, almost 40 years later, performed in the shadow of the VMAs at the Lucy Florence, “Candy Man”–its mawkish lyric using sweets as a metaphor for hope–felt more like a revelation.
The audience knew what time it was. Williams, as a tuxedoed Sammy, didn’t have to ask them to sing along twice. They were right there with him, instinctively knowing that in the Last Days, when you come across a heart warming melody and a happy, harmless lyric, you’d better embrace it with all you’ve got.
Steven Ivory is a journalist/author who has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]