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MTV gets old, doesn't die.

By Jim Hanas

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Think about this. Children who were born during the broadcast of the first annual MTV Video Music Awards are now driving -- cars. And some who were born when the nascent cable station went on the air 18 years ago -- read: Britney Spears -- performed last week at the 16th annual installment of the awards show.

MTV is getting old. So old, that in the endless hype leading up to the awards on 9.9.99 (not-so-coincidentally also the debut date of Sega's new Dreamcast game system), the origin of the "Moon Man" award statuette was actually batted around as a trivia question.

Nineteen-ninety-nine is the second such milestone for the network. The first was commemorated in retrospect, a decade after the fact, by a spate of movies -- Grosse Point Blank, Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion -- set around high school reunions for the class of 1987, roughly the year people who turned teenaged while watching MTV reached adulthood. Nineteen-ninety-nine, on the other hand, is the year when people who became humans watching MTV reach the age of majority.

And so, a full, authentic MTV generation was on display at last Thursday's award show, broadcast live from New York's Metropolitan Opera House.

Hosted by Chris Rock -- who seemed ill at ease with the seriousness of it all, resulting in a series of laughless jabs at everything from white guys acting black to a joint presentation by the mothers of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls -- the proceedings were every bit as stiff and done-up as the Grammys or the Oscars.

The pop resurgence, in particular, lends itself to large, goofy production numbers and there were plenty of these, featuring Ricky and Britney and 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys lipsynching their way around various contrived scenarios, from artificial classrooms to leatherboy wet dreams.

There were some good performances and worthy winners. Lauryn Hill's performance of "Everything Is Everything" served to demonstrate that her hip-hop/soul hybrid is for real, a fact further recognized by her four awards for R&B video, female video, art direction, and video of the year. Fatboy Slim's blue-eyed electronica was likewise justly recognized with three awards for "Praise You," a candid video that captures the real reactions of passersby to a spontaneous performance by an amateur dance troupe. On the downside were wins by the incredibly overrated Korn (whose post-show interview revealed them to be every bit as geeky and red as you'd expect) for best rock video and by omni-tedious poser Eminem for best new artist. Let's remember to wonder where he is two years from now.

In its early years, MTV actually served to expand the spectrum of music available to the average kid in middle America. Then, the bands on the radio were not necessarily the bands that were making videos, and MTV brought the latter to the people: bands like the Smiths, New Order, and the Boomtown Rats, to name a few. Today, however, MTV's playlist is coextensive with mainstream radio's. The testament to this is that this year, 16 years out, the Video Music Awards included a best pop video category for the first time, a place to put all the insubstantial pap for which the network is ultimately responsible.

The winner in that category, Ricky Martin, made a stab at connecting his achievement to history by thanking his "teachers": Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Madonna.

But MTV is like America itself. It came out of the past, but doesn't really relate to it, any more than American History 101 covers the War of the Roses. MTV's history of music is self-contained and all its own. It has its own pioneers and mainstays, all of whom were represented last Thursday. Run-DMC and Aerosmith join Kid Rock on stage for a run through "Walk This Way," and it feels like a Beatles reunion. Prince's introduction of TLC is like an annointment from James Brown himself. Madonna dresses conservatively and is treated like royalty. And Paul McCartney, who appeared briefly to present the "Video of the Year" award, well, he might as well be a creature from another planet.

Video didn't kill the radio star, so much as it swallowed it. But now -- as MTV becomes a grown-up, complete with preachy acceptance speeches from, of all people, the Beastie Boys -- it only remains to be seen what will swallow it. Besides CBS, I mean.

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