At the MTV Awards: Redheads and Circuses

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Britney Spears performs during the finale of the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards

I had a few hours to kill on Thursday night so I went to the MTV Video Music Awards. I had no idea my hours would be murdered so viciously.

The event had the typically overdone star-studdedness we've all come to expect from such affairs. It was held at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, a suitably incongruous venue probably chosen to accentuate, by contrast, the rock 'n' roll spirit of the participants who, compared to pretty much anything else other than the Metropolitan Opera House, lacked both rock and roll, not to mention hip and hop. On my way in I spied rapper Busta Rhymes going past the ticket-takers with a four-member posse in tow (somehow I imaged Busta with a much bigger posse); a few minutes later I nearly ran into Jon Bon Jovi in the hallway, wearing a big cowboy hat (he's taller than you might expect, but that could be a function of the hat, which gave him the illusion of actual height).

Two things hung over the proceedings. One was the sad death of Aaliyah (the talented young hip-hop soul singer passed away in an airplane accident only recently). The other was the sad death of pop music (Britney Spears and 'N Sync, two flagrantly untalented teen acts, were slated to perform).

The good stuff first. The tribute to Aaliyah was classy — Missy Elliot and other stars expressed their grief directly, touchingly and sometimes without a script. The tribute might have had more impact, however, if one of the stars in question had performed a song as well. It was a curiously unmusical moment for a memorial to a singer. But after it ended, Jamie Foxx, the host of the evening (the verdict: better than the Wayans Bros. but not as good as Chris Rock) did a cool, classy job of lifting the spirits of the crowd during the commercial break. By the time the cameras were rolling again, the crowd was, to borrow his words, ready to "celebrate life." Which is just a fancy way of saying everyone was ready to party up.

Young, up-and-coming soul diva Alicia Keys was holding it down for real talent at the ceremony — she wailed, she tinkled the ivories, she looked stylish, she pretty much did it all. Still, the instrumental mix on her performance was somewhat overdone; the drums and keyboards were cranked up so high they nearly drowned out all the soul. Keys' performance would have been more striking had it been just her and a piano up on stage. She had more than 20 backup singers, which is about 20 more than any real vocalist really needs. U2 gave a steady if somewhat muted rendition of two of their new songs. In any case, it was good to see some real instrumental, honest-to-goodness rock 'n' roll talent on the stage. There should have been more such moments. There were more than a few musical stars in the audience who would have energized the proceedings considerably had they gotten to perform a song or two. For example, Colombian rocker Shakira was in the house. Why not let her do a number? Why not have 'N Sync, who did get to perform, watch Shakira's car?

Which brings us to the boy-band's time on stage. Now, except for the fact that they make shamelessly stupid music that's largely without melody, true rhythm or any sort of soul, I've got nothing against 'N Sync. I was glad to see, however, the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, show up unexpectedly at the end of their number and steal the show. Of course, stealing the show away from 'N Sync isn't exactly grand larceny. LaToya Jackson could steal the show from 'N Sync. Jackson, ever the canny businessman, didn't really sing during his performance with the boys, he just did a few moves to whet the appetite. If you want to hear him sing, you have to plunk down your cash and see him at Madison Square Garden on September 7 and 10. Some seats are going for around $2,500. Now, I like Michael Jackson. I'll be the first person in line to buy his album, "Invincible," when it comes out on October. Well, maybe the second, after Macaulay Culkin. But I agree with what host Foxx said during the MTV Video Music Awards: If you're gonna spend thousands on a Jackson concert, there better be a lot more Jacksons on stage, including Jesse and Bo.

Finally, after a few hours, the long march of a concert was slogging to its conclusion. Britney Spears came on. The word was that Britney was going to deliver a performance that was too hot for prime time, too sexy for MTV, a performance that would launch her out of the world of PG-13 and into adulthood, if not adult films. Didn't happen. First off, she appeared on stage with circus- type animals — a tiger and a snake. I don't know about your fetishes, but, in my book, circuses are not erotic. I don't typically go to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey when I want to get turned on. Maybe you do. If so, I apologize. More power to you.

The music Britney cavorted to, her new single "I'm a Slave 4 U," was also a major disappointment. It sounded like it was written by Prince's seventh cousin, like something you'd hear in the background of a bad Swedish porno film, only since the words were in English there was no hiding how insipid the lyrics were. The stage was filled with feline dancers, giving the appearance that Britney was trying to stage "Cats" off-Broadway. Memo to Britney: "Cats" is closed. At least try to re-stage, like, "The Producers" or something.

My favorite moment at the MTV Video Music Awards came after it had all wrapped up, while I was standing outside the Met. A woman with piles of fire-red hair and dress that revealed more than a modest amount of skin was blowing out the venue. Gaggles of young men and women begged her for her autograph. I asked one young woman who the star was. "I have no idea," the young woman said, checking over the scraggly illegible signature the mystery woman had left her in her autograph book. "But everyone else was getting her to sign stuff." I have a feeling the woman with the red hair wasn't even an actually celebrity. But in MTV's P.Diddling, J.Loing, lip-'N Syncing world of glamorous nobodies, she may already be a star.