By Michael Slezak
September 01, 2006 at 08:03 PM EDT

You don’t have to tell me I’ve turned into a cranky old man — last night’s deeply dull MTV Video Music Awards was reminder enough. Even after I decided to go the positive route and focus this blog item on the evening’s best performance, I still found myself Scowling! At the TV, mainly because the stars of the show seemed hellbent on sabotaging themselves. Take Beyonce’s performance of “Ring the Alarm.” Her choreography (think: Rhythm Nation, only on the wrong side of the law) was so hot, it made Justin Timberlake look like a Mickey Mouse Clubber. Her look was so scorching, I’d bet the farm on a surge in trenchcoat sales this fall. And to top it off, she sounded absolutely fantastic. Except, that is, for the choruses, where Sasha inexplicably (yet typically) relied on a pre-recorded track — I won’t say she lip-synched, since B wasn’t attempting to hide it — essentially killing all the power and rage that she built during the verses. Likewise, Panic! At the Disco sounded solid on “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies,” but ended up getting upstaged by the antics of their Moulin Rouge-y dancers, while Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” was over before I had a chance to get into the groove.

That means the gold star goes to Christina Aguilera (pictured), who came to the rescue with the mournful ballad “Hurt” (check it out here), and provided proof positive that when it comes to wowing a crowd, nothing — not a horde of bellydancers (yeah, Shakira, we’re bored with the song now too), not a flash of pyrotechnics — can match the real thing: an insanely talented vocalist connecting deeply with her material. Not only that, Xtina’s vocal and visual elegance was a stark contrast to former media rival Britney Spears, whose backstage “comedy” act with hubby Kevin Federline (the centerpiece of which focused on them misplacing their infant son) was, to paraphrase the night’s biggest winner, something of a sin and a tragedy. Ring the alarm, indeed!

addCredit(“Christina Aguilera: Kevin Kane/”)