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The MTV Awards--Madison Avenue’s Greatest Hits?

Some friends have gone on the record as believing the term rock video awards to be an oxymoron--that, as a concept, the very idea of awarding excellence in the creation of pop video clips seems too absurd to be thinkable. The snobs! These same haughty folks would probably also deny the legitimacy of advertising’s Cleo Awards, and of Morris the Cat and Spuds McKenzie’s right to be feted for their achievements once a year and dance until dawn afterward.

Given that it’s difficult to tell the difference between the commercials and the videos these days--especially with such ominous trends as Steve Winwood simultaneously releasing an almost identical beer commercial and video to the tune of “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?"--the Cleos and the MTV Video Music Awards have more in common than any other sets of honors. (The 1988 edition of the latter can be seen Wednesday night at 6, live from the Universal Amphitheatre, on MTV.)

Backstage at last year’s MTV ceremony, one of the big winners referred to pop videos as “commercials for songs"--and this was no ordinary churn-'em-out hack, but director Stephen Johnson, who had been widely acclaimed by even more cynical sorts as some sort of budding genius of the medium for his work on Peter Gabriel’s provocative, semi-animated clips. If this ground-breaking artiste thinks of them as mere advertisements, who are we to think otherwise?

There’s not much in this year’s crop of nominees to prove him wrong. What we have in most cases is eye candy to accompany ear candy--disposable art created for the express purpose of helping sell another disposable art.

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To be eligible for voting by the 1,800 record-industry types sent ballots, a video had to be added into rotation on MTV between May 1987 and April 1988. (That makes most reasonably good clips eligible, but immediately disqualifies some of the more underground acts whose videos didn’t quite make it.)

To refresh all concerned musical couch potatoes, here is a Sound & Vision recap of the five nominees for best video (plus a brief coda scanning the four other clips which were nominated at least three times in the 15 basic categories).

THE NOMINEES FOR BEST VIDEO:

U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are truly inspiring, world-class anthems unfortunately accompanied by visuals misguided enough to shake your faith in the band. There is transparent salesmanship at work here--but it’s not so much about selling the songs, in these cases, as selling long-term images of the band. The pseudo-documentary of “Streets” has the Irish quartet playing (lip-syncing, actually) on a downtown rooftop until the nasty L.A. coppers break up the innocent fun of the thousands of kids below. Is that counterculture enough for you, or what? Only slightly less arrogantly, “Still Haven’t Found” features the boys rambling through the streets of Las Vegas, pressing the flesh (and lips) of adoring fans and generally behaving like the drunken hooligan superstars you wouldn’t expect them to be. Which was the point, of course, at the time: to prove that these guys aren’t as sacrosanct and sober as had been generally assumed. All the fan worship dominating these two clips doesn’t bode well for a band whose appeal lies at least partly in presumed humility. (Three nominations per video, making a total of six for U2.)

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Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love” evokes the requisite share of spooky, lonely images as Our Man from Joisey wanders a closed amusement park and ponders the dark ride that is romance. It also, like so many other current videos, goes back and forth from color to black-and-white with little sense for visual continuity--and, to quote Dana Carvey as Robin Leach on “Saturday Night Live,” “I don’t know why!” (Three nominations for this clip, plus one art direction nod for the superior “Brilliant Disguise,” equals four chances for Springsteen.)

INXS’ “Need You Tonight / Mediate” is two, two, two clips in one: The first is a cleverly edited, sexy melange of artificially colored shots of bopping band members; the second is a minimalist tribute to Bob Dylan’s card-tossing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” segment from the 1965 “Don’t Look Back” documentary, though most of INXS’ teen-age fans are probably unaware of the takeoff. Good, almost clean, empty-calorie fun(k). (A whopping seven nominations for this tandem clip, plus a single editing nod for “Devil Inside,” give INXS the best shot at armloads of awards.)

George Harrison’s “When We Was Fab” isn’t much heavier on the content scale than its fellow best video nominees, but is easily the most digestible ear-and-eye candy of the bunch. Nostalgia for the You-Know-What Four is primary in this non-stop visual effects extravaganza, yet even those of us who weren’t in the group are invited to participate in remembering such items as “the pullover sweater you gave to me” or just, gee, having been fab at the same time They were. If only Gary Weis had been around to direct “Magical Mystery Tour” this well. (Four for this, plus three more for the two versions of “Got My Mind Set on You,” adds up to seven nods for the Quiet Ex-Beatle.)

THE OTHER MULTIPLE NOMINEES:

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Prince’s “U Got the Look” comes close to capturing the controlled chaos of Prince’s current concert band, by throwing duet partner Sheena Easton into an already busy stew (four nominations). . . . Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” hosts a tasteful visual complement to her tale of child abuse, with alternating glimpses of the tormented boy with poet/folkie/nuevo sex symbol Vega herself as his mouthpiece (three nominations). . . . XTC’s “Dear God” is certainly the most daring of all nominees; starting with a God’s-eye view of a young boy in prayerful song, the camera swoops down until the kid actually steps on the lens while professing a particularly embittered brand of atheism (three nominations). . . . Squeeze’s “Hourglass” is as light as “Dear God” is heavy, placing the formerly dry English fops in a Magritte-ish fun house where everything is bigger or smaller than it first appears (three nominations).

UNDER-NOMINATED WITH ONE BID: R.E.M.'s impressively impressionistic “The One I Love” is only up for best direction. . . . A far bigger surprise is that Michael Jackson’s “Bad” was passed over for everything but the obvious: choreography. If admittedly overwrought, director Martin Scorsese’s framing device (a story about street gangs) nonetheless placed a real sense of poignancy around a single that, in and of itself, had nothing more to offer than basic bravado. The Jackson backlash apparently didn’t allow for excessive plaudits this time, though. . . . Sister Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” an enjoyable one-woman “Flashdance"-style dance-athon, was also limited to a choreography nomination.

OVERNOMINATED WITH ONE BID: Cher’s “I Found Someone” (concept version), Sound & Vision’s pick for the worst of ’87, will likely endure on tape as a perennial camp classic. . . . A contender for the Bottom 10 of ’88, Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly” has the ex-Runaway doing unspeakable acts with her guitar on the floor, singing unsingable lyrics when she lifts herself toward the mike. Cher and Ford are nominees in the best female category, which some voters evidently mistook for best hardbody.


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