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COMMENTARY : There’s Nothing Hip About Snooze-Inducing MTV Show

If nothing else, the annual MTV Video Music Awards ceremony is a reliable place for Photo Opportunities From Hell. The white-noise-like buzz backstage at the Universal Amphitheatre during this year’s telecast was interrupted only occasionally by the sound of comedian Sam Kinison screaming at or with another TV interview crew and another celebrity.

Kinison: “Aaaaaah!”

INXS lead singer (and multiple winner) Michael Hutchence: “Aaaaaah!”

The delighted cameramen: “Aaaaaah!”

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The home viewers: “Zzzzzz.”

It’s a topsy-turvy, mixed-up world, you know, when staid old television’s Emmy Awards suddenly become tres hip and wild young rock ‘n’ roll’s MTV Video Music Awards become, well, square (and not as in “hip to be square”).

Yet there was a feeling that--after last year’s surprisingly entertaining show--things might be amiss this year when the Dick Clark-produced ceremony got off to a flat start with Rod Stewart lip-syncing his way through his latest mid-tempo ballad. (At least he wasn’t lip-syncing via satellite from another part of the world, a la Elton John’s curiously inexplicable contribution later on.)

Host Arsenio Hall then set the tone for the evening by acting as a relentless rah-rah cheerleader for every celebrity on hand. (Early on, he referred to presenters David Coverdale and Tawny Kitaen as “my favorite rock ‘n’ roll singer and my favorite actress,” without apparent irony).

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Attired in dark glasses and an open-chested leather jacket with gold medallion, Hall seemed to be doing a dead-on impersonation of pal Eddie Murphy (who hosted the show a few years back), substituting obsequiousness for bite.

MTV air personalities Kevin Seal and Randy of the Redwoods would have made better hosts--they alone on the cable network have the ability to let the viewer in on the ridiculousness of the whole affair without mocking it into the ground--but their time on the telecast was limited.

Only magicians Penn and Teller managed to marry rock ‘n’ roll and humor, at first smashing expensive guitars a la the Who (“their instruments couldn’t hold their passion”) and then smashing a trick box with a rabbit purportedly inside (“our instruments can’t hold our passion, either”).

“Without electric guitars, there would be no rock ‘n’ roll,” said Penn. “Without rock ‘n’ roll, there would be no music videos. Without music videos, there would be no MTV. And without MTV, there’d be no place to advertise hair-care products 24 hours a day.”

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INXS’ “I Need You Tonight / Mediate” video clip was the big winner with five statuettes, including a best video award. Hutchence made a token stab at relevance in an acceptance speech: “Nothing political, just . . . support animal and human rights, and hello Mom.”

Pressed backstage for elaboration on his pet causes, Hutchence said, “Whatever associations come under that banner, that’s what there is to support.” In response to another query, he mumbled that the band “hasn’t had time” to join up with Amnesty International yet. ( “Aaaaaah!” )

Other winners: an absent Prince for best male video and best stage performance (“U Got the Look”), Suzanne Vega (a lone model of dignity) for best female video (“Luka”), and crowd favorite Guns N’ Roses for best new artist in a video (“Welcome to the Jungle”).

Those who would argue against music videos being a true art form yet might have ammunition in the almost total lack of focus during the show on technical contributions, as opposed to a parade of personalities from TV and film.

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Backstage, a page entered the press conference area and tentatively queried, “Would there be any interest in having a director?” The questioner was referring to “Need You Tonight” director Richard Lowenstein, who with his animator mounted 3,000 color photocopies for the clever clip.

For once, the entertainment press sat in stunned silence. No director or technical contributor ever did come to the press tent--but we did get Magic Johnson (“No favorites--I like all music”), Elvira (“It’d be easier to make a list of the guys I didn’t sleep with in Hollywood”) and Justine Bateman.

Aaaaaah!

Coverage of MTV Awards party is on Page 4 of View.

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