Teen pop is on its way out, but MTV's Video Music Awards proved that its replacement may not be much better.

By David Browne
September 13, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

The rumors began raging as soon as we ticket holders elbowed our way into New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The Aug. 29 MTV Video Music Awards would supposedly begin with Bruce Springsteen broadcasting live from the nearby American Museum of Natural History and culminate with an extremely rare TV performance by the new Guns N’ Roses. Old-school rock, in other words, was about to reclaim its rightful role in the culture, and MTV wanted a piece of it. During commercial breaks, half the audience leaped up for drinks or bathroom visits, prompting announcers to bark repeatedly for everyone to take their seats because it was ”dangerous” to be in the aisles. Hey, what could be more rock & roll than ”danger”?

The music industry may be desperately pondering its financial outlook, but the business has all but decided that pop as we’ve known it is not its artistic future. Everyone in the business is trying hard to pretend that the bubblegum scene — and, by implication, ”artifice” — of the last few years is over and that guitar bands — and, by implication, ”edge” — are back. This apparent change became the recurring theme of MTV’s show, an orgy of self-love that somehow always manages to surprise. This year’s amazement was the alternately hilarious and pathetic sight of so many acts suddenly trying to be, well, ”dangerous.”

For teen poppers, ”rock” equaled sleaze. How else to explain the sight of nearly dethroned princess Britney Spears as wax-figure dominatrix; Christina Aguilera in an outfit so threadbare that she was ogled on stage by Eminem flunkies; and Shakira, the unironic Charo of the new millennium, working to convince us that she’s a ”rocker” (body surfing! loud electric guitars!)? ”I’m too drunk for this,” motorcycle-mama Pink blurted out coyly while accepting her award for Best Female Video. Maybe she was — but were we actually supposed to believe perky Michelle Branch when she announced, while picking up her Viewer’s Choice award, ”I think I’m drunker than Pink”?

Maybe a little alcohol would have made for better performances. As diminished as Spears becomes with each passing day, her influence was nonetheless apparent throughout the ceremony. The staginess and lack of spontaneity that came to characterize the teen-pop boom are now ingrained in music; a shocking number of acts in the show appeared to be lip-synching. (There’s ”edge,” and then there are genuine career-jeopardizing risks, like singing off-key.) Eminem remains a curiously passive live performer; his stone-faced swagger to the stage for his first award, for Best Rap Video, was 10 times more dramatic than his unexciting medley of ”White America” and ”Cleanin Out My Closet.” P. Diddy & Co.’s bombastic hip-hop circus received an inexplicable standing ovation, whereas the cute garage-band face-off between the Hives and the Vines went over merely okay. Less predictably, those proudly inorganic American Idol finalists elicited more reaction and squeals than the Springsteen remote telecast.

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