Those of us in the press room backstage at last night’s Country Music Awards in Nashville never had a more burning desire to be back in the land of Tivo, or YouTube, than when Faith Hill had her silent, blink-and-you-missed-it “freakout.” It was a little like Nipplegate — did we just see what we think we saw? What Faith was exposing here was either one of the great televised diva tantrums of all time, or a really fantastic sense of humor marred by a seriously unwise sense of comic timing.

If you were watching as the nominees were announced for best female vocalist, you saw anticipatory reaction shots of Gretchen Wilson, Martina McBride, and Carrie Underwood in the audience and Sara Evans and Hill waiting backstage. From her body language, Hill seemed loosey-goosey and high-spirited… which I guess is my code phraseology for “possibly had a glass of wine in the green room to wind down after her performance.” When Underwood’s name was announced (as most pundits had predicted), Hill raised her arms and flashed that huge grin of hers, as if she’d misheard her own name as the triumphant one — followed within a split second by her exaggeratedly mouthing the word “What?” and angrily immediately storming off-camera.

Or should we say mock-angrily? It seemed clear enough to me that this was a gag, albeit a disastrously ill-timed one. That was the party line put out the following morning: Manager Gary Borman said, “I’ve worked with Faith for many years now and the idea that she would ever insult or undermine another artist, let alone another human being’s success is absolutely preposterous. Those who know her know that she’s incapable of such actions. She was being playful while the nominations were being read and playful after.” Faith herself was quoted as adding: “The idea that I would act disrespectful towards a fellow musician is unimaginable to me. For this to become a focus of attention given the talent gathered is utterly ridiculous. Carrie is a talented and deserving Female Vocalist of The Year.”

Ask anyone who knows Hill and they’ll tell you she is not the WickedWitch of the West, is not prone to diva tantrums, and might even bedescribed as gracious. Plus, she couldn’t have had any sane expectationof winning: She’s never been a favorite of the CMA voters, despite herimmense popularity; this category has almost always gone in recentyears to her good friend Martina McBride, though this year Underwoodwas heavily favored. Either way, there was no way Faith figured shewould win. It seemed like she was doing an impression of a diva, notactually being a diva, and trying to make some sort of self-deprecatinghumor out the idea that she could even have had a hope of winning.

But judging from the reactions I’m seeing from fans online, I wouldsay that the vast majority of telecast viewers (or YouTube armchairquarterbacks) are taking the reaction at face value. If you’reexperiencing some deja vu, this might be reminding you of John Kerry’srecent joke about the president’s intelligence, which was understood bymany, not unreasonably, as a putdown of the troops. It’s hard toimagine that Faith won’t eventually end up apologizing, just like theinitially unrepentant Kerry. Because if, as I suspect, Faith was notfeeling a tremendous amount of pain last night, you can be sure she’sfeeling a lot today.

Even some of her defenders didn’t get that it was a joke. On herwebsite, LeAnn Rimes briefly posted a message that said: “She was justbeing honest and emotional like every other person sitting at home withan opinion. These awards shows are SO political and we all get fed upwith them. We all work very hard and have for many years so to seesomeone come in and win Female Vocalist that has been here for a VERYshort time is a little disheartening. That is why we have the Horizonaward and Carrie had an incredible year, enough to sweep that one. Idon’t think Faith was angry about her loss, she probably felt, as I didthat Carrie has not paid her dues long enough to fully deserve thataward. As artists and public figures, we have to keep our feelings sorepressed so we don’t get called ungrateful as Faith has on this boardmany times now. She is a very sweet and gracious woman, whom I adore.Please cut her some slack!” Yikes. With defenses like that… Sufficeit to say that Rimes withdrew the posting after Hill issued thestatement about the whole thing being a gag.

Hill wasn’t the only one mouthing something potentiallycontroversial at the CMAs. Miranda Lambert premiered “CrazyEx-Girlfriend,” the fun first single from her second album, which isdue out next spring, and, in playing the song’s title role, shedefinitely meant to enact a tantrum. One of the lines of the song endsin “…bitch,” which is a little strong by CMA standards, so she agreedto mouth the word off-mike… though, at least over the monitors in thepress room, I was pretty sure I could hear it anyway. Plus, she smashedher guitar against the stage at the end, which was planned, and knockedover her microphone stand, which she told me wasn’t. “When you’ve gottwo minutes and 30 seconds, you’ve got to make an impression,” sheexplained to me at the SonyBMG party — and kudos to her for having thediva fit of the night that everyone could tell for sure was a joke.Miranda’s manager, Simon Renshaw, was kiddingly chiding Miranda forgiving in to the producers and not saying “bitch” into the mike — butthen, he’s also the Dixie Chicks’ manager, so he would say that.

So what do you think, readers? Does Faith deserve to be slurred withthe same B-word that Miranda used in her new song? Or do you agree withme that she’s in the process of being unfairly crucified for the lessmortal sin of misguided comic timing?