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VMA Tribute Disappointments

August 29, 2011

Last night, I anxiously tuned into the Video Music Awards to see Britney Spears claim the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard  Award , which recognizes those who “made a profound impact on MTV culture”. Say what you will about Brit, but , if she deserves anything, she deserves that award.

Those who remember an older incarnation of this blog–hosted at blogger and now private due to the mountain of personal info contained therein–likely recall me speaking a great deal about various aspects of pop culture, most notably Britney Spears.  That young woman has fascinated me for years. First, because her overly sexualized image provided rich fodder for a budding academic studying the sex industry, and later because we seemed to face similar demons in the realm of mental health.

Over the past decade, her videos drove the medium, even if she lost that momentum over the last 4 years. What she accomplished before her public decline was enough to make MTV executives millionaires many times over: the inescapable hook, the unforgettable costumes, the choreography imitated world-wide. She may have been nothing more than a puppet, but she played her part perfectly. People ate it up.

At this year’s VMAs, she was to get due praise for those accomplishments, via the same forum that, in 2007, showcased a comeback that was more akin to a death knell for the singer. I’m sure many people expected to see an over-the-top tribute, in true Britney VMA fashion,  in addition to a sincere acceptance speech. (In regards to the VMAs, Britney has made unparalleled history on that stage: the python and the Madonna make-out for starters.) We got neither.

The performance preceding the award presentation was a hyper-fast run-through of hooks from her music video past, performed by young girls dressed in costumes matching those worn by Spears in the videos.  (The age of the performers in the routine is more than I’m going to take on in this post.)

Lady Gaga, in the drag persona she employed throughout the evening, presented the award and, after Britney was called onstage, seemed poised to re-enact the unexpected kiss Britney once shared with Madonna.

I was uncomfortable watching it. Britney looked uncomfortable standing there. She looked like a girl who knew what she was expected to do, and didn’t want to. She didn’t. She simply said, “No, I’ve already done that.” Kudos to her for not giving in.

She took to the mic, and barely said a word, just a brief sentence really, to acknowledge the hefty award she was holding, and said nothing of the performance in her honor. Instead, she segued into introducing the next performer, Beyonce.

This award means so much to me, especially on the night before Michael Jackson’s birthday. He had such a huge influence on me, Gaga, and our next performer, Beyonce. Beyonce and I started out around the same time, and just like all of her fans, I fell in love with her. The first time I saw her from her singing to dancing to acting, she can do it all, she’s a triple threat, and one of the most talented people I have ever seen.

(You can watch the entire Video Vanguard segment here. You can read the Huffington Post’s excellent review of it here. )

I sat on my couch, mouth agape, wondering if that was really it. The big tribute. The great recognition. I couldn’t believe it.

I started to think about comments made by writer, poet, and mental health advocate Bassey Ipki the previous day on her twitter, mostly suggesting that Britney’s recent zombie-like stage presence was a clear signal that she needed her meds adjusted. Normally, I wouldn’t feel it was my place to weigh in on that point–hell, I still feel weird doing it–but after watching her accept the Video Vanguard Award, I have to agree. Her behavior was odd, and I’ve been there.

Well, no, I have not been on stage at the VMAs, in front of the world, but I’ve been a zombie and I’ve had no life in me. It looks exactly like that. It feels like nothing. It isn’t life. Britney’s sorted out so much, and I hope this is yet another moment she will be able to sort out. Her life is too good to miss out on it, again. There is life between zombie and out of control. I hope she finds it.

But that wasn’t the only VMA tribute that let me down last night, although it was the most significant for me, personally. They also did the requisite Amy Winehouse tribute. I was excited about that one too, and after the disappointing Britney moment, I thought maybe there would be some respite in a moving portrayal of a young artist the music industry lost far too soon. In terms of memorial and introduction, I was more pleased. Tony Bennett graced the stage and shared footage from a recording session with Amy from his forthcoming Duets II album. His words were heartfelt and the footage epitomized how I’d like to remember her.

Then there was the performance: Bruno Mars covering “Valerie”. Yes, they  honored Amy by doing a cover of her cover of a song originally sung by The Zutons. Lovely. I kept thinking how amazing it would have been if, maybe, Adele did a cover of “Back to Black”, instead.

You can watch the full Amy Winehouse tribute here.

I hadn’t watched the VMAs in years, probably not since Britney shared the stage with Madonna. I remember loving the show when I was much, much younger, but I suppose the show lost its luster in direct relation to MTV’s loss of interest in playing music videos.

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