Tuned In

VMA: Very Much Apathetic

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Topic of the morning: Britney Spears’ performance at the VMAs–cringingly unwatchable trainwreck, or brilliant work of meta commentary?

Think about it. The Britney we saw on stage was a listless, lifeless, gone-to-seed shell of the dynamic teen sexpot we remembered from stage just a few years ago. She was inert, unenthusiastic and a little fleshy. (Granted, the woman has popped out two babies, and by that standard she’s in outstanding shape. But when you’re Britney Spears you’re inevitably going to be compared to pre-motherhood Britney Spears, and you’d think her wardrobe consultants would keep that in mind.) What she gave wasn’t a phoned-in performance. She gave a performance that passed out after dialing the first three digits of the phone number.

But I choose not to see Brit’s opening number as a sad reflection of how far she’s fallen. I choose to see it as a biting riff on how far MTV has fallen. Rich, dressed up in sparkles, listless, purposeless, jaded, corrupted and in decline–that was the VMAs all over. Throughout the energy-free awards shows, MTV seemed bored with itself. “She’s 25 years old, and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life!” emcee Sarah Silverman snarked about Britney after her performance. (Silverman’s monologue wasn’t much better, including essentially the same joke her squeeze Jimmy Kimmel was making about 50 Cent in 2003.) But really, add a year to that figure, and aren’t you talking about MTV itself?

Well, not exactly. As a cultural force, MTV may have lost a step or two in the past couple years, but it’s still a TV channel to reckon with, producing impactful shows like The Hills. (Really, was there a bigger set of presenters on stage than Lauren and company?) But the VMAs are where MTV celebrates itself as a music network, and there, the thrill seems to be gone. The hosts, performing to a dead audience, worked too hard reminding us how hot and wild Vegas is, as if, if they said it one more time, they might finally believe it themselves.

Maybe it’s just a cyclical thing; most of the big MTV headliners have been around for a while–Kanye West, Foo Fighters, Britney–and maybe we’re on the verge of the Next Big Thing that brings the energy back. But the greatest symbol of the current spirit of the VMAs was the decision to have artists play gigs in hotel suites and cut between them. Even the better performances, like West’s, were abbrevated–there was a nervous, channel-flipping feel to the whole production, the constant feeling that there must be a better party going on somewhere, a better performance going on in the next room. [Incidentally, was that actually Jello Biafra singing Holiday in Cambodia with Foo Fighters? It’s pretty sad if even he can’t be bothered to tell MTV to get off the air anymore–sadder for the network, really, than him. Update: Nope–Serj Tankian from System of a Down, per MTV’s rundown. Pretty impressive soundalike, though.]

That was one of the most apt innovations of this year’s VMAs. The other was the decision to air the show only once, with no reruns. It was supposed to make the show more exciting and immediate. Instead, it was just a relief. At least we never have to see that again.

(For the take of someone who actually knows something about music, by the way, check out Josh Tyrangiel’s review elsewhere at time.com.)