2006 / Music / Previews

Preview: 2006 MTV Video Music Awards Welcome Change

VMA Is Network’s Most-Watched Event

Think MTV is all grown up? Think again. While this year marks the channel’s 25th anniversary, its premier event tonight — the MTV Video Music Awards — promises to be the channel’s edgiest yet.

Photo: MTV

Photo: MTV

When MTV first launched 25 years ago last spring, it was a young upstart with nothing to live up to and was free to make mistakes. Luckily, it had a world to conquer.

Today, the channel is a unique institution. MTV is part and parcel of the music business’ bedrock, a key stopping point for any pop-music artist on his or her way to superstardom and a segment of the mass media with global reach. It has replicated itself for dozens of international versions, controls a couple spin-off channels (VH-1, MTV2) and has recently begun to co-produce a few teenage-theme movies.

Like Coca-Cola or Disney, MTV has a brand that transcends language barriers and age gaps. It is one that is intractably linked to youth culture and hipness. It has a power that reaches not only into music, but influences movies, television, fashion and art.

So, with all this money and influence to protect, it’s surprising that this year’s installment of the channel’s premier event — the MTV Video Music Awards Thursday night — promises to be the channel’s edgiest yet (not Sonic Youth edgy but you get the picture). In a sense, it posits to the all the channel’s haters out there: “Think MTV is all grown up? Think again.”

This year welcomes a string of curious changes for the program, which will be held on Aug. 31. First, unlike previous years, we have no veteran, big-name superstars anchoring the show. The biggest stars performing this year are Justin Timberlake and Beyonce — two of today’s hottest names in music, but they aren’t U2. Secondly, MTV’s powers-that-be have decided to drastically alter who chooses the winners of the awards, letting viewers vote for the first time. (For more about the voting changes, check out the predictions article)

For those imagining a drastic re-boot of VMAs, have no fear. The annual event will be held at Radio City Music Hall in New York and broadcast live, just as it frequently has been in the past. There will also be a host. This year, we have the amusingly hyperbolic Jack Black. Viewers can count on some of Black’s mugging and metal god by-way-of-an-acoustic-guitar grandstanding to keep the show from getting too formulaic. Producers hope that Black’s familiar but loveable formula will breakup the show’s.

Another VMA regular set to return will be Kurt Loder. The VMAs are one of the few times anymore that MTV seems to remember that Loder is still on the payroll. They wheel him out for a few hours of sprawling red carpet interviews and then shuffle him behind the curtain to whisper lines to VJ Gideon Yago (I wonder how long it will be before Ryan Seacrest takes Loder’s pre-show hosting gig too).

The battle between maintaining traditions and keeping current has always been a tug-of-war at the VMAs since 1985, the program’s second year. The VMAs producers might argue this year’s changes to the big show are just the standard adaptations that are necessary given audience’s fickleness and competition from the ever-increasing number of rival award shows.

However, one suspects these alterations are a bit more drastic than just swapping out Loder’s ties and updating the program’s logo. Rather, it represents a desperate fight to keep the channel relevant, the viewers engaged and to satiate the broad range of audiences who are watching the VMAs — all looking for what the young people are listening to these days. It also puts MTV in a very risky position. Without truly bankable and widely-appealing stars, the show’s producers have to try to guess what the audiences will respond to when confronted with relatively new faces.

The most difficult challenge for the producers every year is to give an increasingly fragmented audience something that it wants to see. In the old days, superstars like Michael Jackson or Madonna were such colossal figures that their performance or appearance took a broad swath through MTV’s core demographic. Then, the execs’ job was easy. They could just enlist any bunch of “it” rock stars or bands of various subgenres to fill out the bill.

In recent years, however, it’s become painfully obvious that the MTV is juggling catering to both ardent fans of hip-hop and rock — with both pulling programmers in drastically different directions. This placating of a divided audience is best exemplified by the roster of performers this year. We have no U2s or Aerosmiths to clutter up precious air time with their anyone-over-30 appealing ways. This year’s rock lineup has a slight edge in terms of pure numbers, with bands like the Raconteurs (the new group led by the White Stripes’ Jack White), All-American Rejects, the Killers and, Panic! At The Disco. Meanwhile, rappers T.I. and Ludacris will represent the other side of the coin. Only urban pop-music dandies like Timberlake, Beyonce and Pharrell can fill the chasm between the two.

While Beyonce, the Raconteurs and especially Timberlake can be counted on to really deliver during the broadcast, the producers are still sticking their necks out on this one.

With all these pressures, the lone ace-in-hole for the VMAs has always been their ability to come up with watercooler-discussable surprises. What’s coming this year — and it wouldn’t be the VMAs if there weren’t any — is hard to discern. MTV has a track record for keeping their surprises tightly under wraps. After all, who can forget the image of Pee-Wee Herman appearing at the VMAs in 1991 shortly after his scandalous arrest at a Florida adult movie theater? And then there’s the shock (who is that?) and awe (is that really him?) of seeing Axl Rose and the re-imagined Guns ‘N’ Roses close out the big show in 2002. (Rose is penciled in as a presenter this year.)

So, will we see a reprise of Kevin Federline, Mr. Britney Spears, showing us his mic skills as he did at the Teen Choice Awards last week? Will estranged couple Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson reunite on stage to sing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”? We’ll have to wait and see.

What we will see come VMA night will be a big media monster trying to come across as something youthful, adaptable and tapped into the pulse of the new generation. It wants to deliver on its promise as a conduit into everyone’s favorite demographic and keep its street cred intact.

So, say what you like about MTV becoming yet another gatekeeper in already hierarchical and corporation-dominated industry, that it allows non-music-related reality shows to dominate its broadcasts or even that it rarely ever plays videos anymore. For its 25 years of experiences, MTV is showing hints of wisdom. It’s doing what it needs to survive.

Note: The 2006 VMAs will air live on Aug. 31 at 8 p.m. Eastern. The pre-show starts at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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