From Justin to Diddy

Scenes from the MTV Video Music Awards.

At the top of the MTV Video Music Awards, Justin Timberlake performed his new single “Sexy Back”—not a tribute to anyone’s glutei or scapulae but a statement of purpose. Timberlake means to provoke a one-man sensual renaissance and, last night, did a respectable job thereof. He deployed some dance moves picked up from early-’80s Michael Jackson, preened in the manner of mid-’80s Morris Day, recited lyrics involving sadomasochism and VIP rooms, and— voilà—a quorum of sexiness.

It happens that Timberlake was also articulating the mission of the whole production. MTV hoped to maintain the sexiness status of the VMAs in the eyes of advertisers—the show is traditionally the year’s top-rated cable program among 12- to 34-year-olds—by giving it something of a makeover. Central to this was a real-time broadcast of behind-the-scenes action on the broadband channel MTV Overdrive. “You won’t believe what our cameras catch,” breathed a thoroughly bronze Vanessa Minnillo, so I steeled myself for a flood of disbelief and punched up the relevant URL. I couldn’t get the show-behind-the-show to play, but I don’t think I missed much. Whenever the VMAs went to commercial, MTV the TV network aired snippets of the backstage stuff, and little of note was happening. There were hangers-on hanging out and glad-handers trading handshakes and celebrities celebrating, each to each. The disembodied voice of a stage manager urgently posed such questions as, “Anyone seen Diddy?” and, “Where’s Pink?” But we could see Diddy, just where he was supposed to be, beaming an insincere smile, and there was punkish Pink right in front of a camera. Was the stage manager also having trouble getting Overdrive to load?

So, we experienced MTV’s idea of the new sexy the old-fashioned way as host Jack Black summoned forth the usual suspects—flesh-baring females and guys with goofy haircuts, very many of them equipped with stage patter that somebody’s parents somewhere must find offensive. Beyoncé sang her new song “Ring the Alarm,” and it was fierce. Shakira performed “Hips Don’t Lie” with brutal honesty. The Pussycat Dolls were acceptable and, in accepting the award for best dance video, almost touching in the sense of duty they brought to thanking their makers in heaven and at Interscope. It was Jessica Simpson who presented the Dolls their hardware, but not before explaining that, being a white girl, she herself couldn’t really dance but only “push my tush.” Then she did a spot of desperate tush-pushing, giving viewers a concise preview of how she’ll conduct herself in the immediate aftermath of a nervous breakdown.

During a genial debate with LL Cool J about where the finest ladies is from, 50 Cent ventured that hot chicks reside everywhere from Texas up to Michigan, as well as “from Michigan to Detroit.” (Ought 50 be held to normal standards of geographical awareness? Only his travel agent knows for sure.) In introducing a performance by the All-American Rejects, Paris Hilton ventured that their single bore “a message worth listening to.” This may well be the case, but as the song itself is unlistenable, I couldn’t really tell you. Nor was my confidence in these dudes bolstered when one of them, accepting the best group video trophy, volunteered, “I am getting so trashed tonight.” Rock stars worthy of the name don’t tell you how trashed they are going to get; they trust their fans to presume that they’re gonna get real trashed. No, to receive a message you could trust, you had to wait around for an appearance by Al Gore, presumably invited to appear because concern about global warming is in this year. As Gore said himself, a recent poll found that young people believe that the most crucial problems their generation will face relate to the environment. In response, the audience screamed gaily, hollering at its own eco-consciousness as if it were Snoop Dogg.

The emo band Panic! At the Disco, its members attired with all the ridiculousness of fops but none of the panache, won the show-closing video of the year prize, but before Jennifer Lopez could even hand these poseurs their statuette, a casually dressed fellow crashed the scene, seized the mic, introduced himself as Six, and implored us to visit the website Ah, here, perhaps, was some more sexy! Pointing my browser in that direction, I discovered that Six was selling a DVD filled with footage of dudes crashing awards shows. I tried to buy one this morning, but the server was overwhelmed.