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MTV: The Naughty Envelope, Please : Television: The MTV Video Music Awards program provides impromptu stage for musicians addressing the issue of censorship.

What so proudly they hailed, ‘round about the twilight’s last gleaming Thursday night at the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony, was Sinead O’Connor.

The target of controversy recently for threatening not to perform if the American national anthem were played before her show at a New Jersey hall, O’Connor won scattered boos but more cheers on Thursday at the Universal Amphitheatre as she picked up three MTV Video Music Awards.

Accepting the best video of the year honor for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which came after her awards in the best female video and best post-modern video categories, a seemingly surprised and bashful O’Connor thanked her associates and then used the podium as a platform to address the issue that was the dominant motif of the irreverent three-hour show--the C-word.

“I have a very great respect for people of all countries, including American people,” said O’Connor, defending her action in New Jersey. “I’d like to say that my attitude over the national anthem was in order to bring attention to the censorship issue. As far as I’m concerned, censorship in any form is bad, but when it’s racism disguised as censorship, that’s even worse, and that was the point I was trying to make.”

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Host Arsenio Hall helped defang the seriousness of the moment afterward.

“Sinead! Way to go, baby!” yelled a typically cheerleader-ish Hall (who had called the Irish singer “that cute little lady with the bald head” earlier). “I never heard ‘em sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at a concert! Maybe you ended up at a baseball game or something--you took a wrong turn!”

If inevitably seen by some as self-aggrandizing, O’Connor’s was one of the more tasteful plugs for freedom of speech in a self-consciously naughty show that--with racy performances by Madonna and 2 Live Crew--pushed the edge of the envelope of what can be shown on TV, or MTV, but nonetheless stayed well within the realm of self-censorship. (KTTV-TV Channel 11 will rebroadcast the show Wednesday at 8 p.m.)

Compared with last year’s show, which featured profane comedy from now-banned Andrew Dice Clay and a backstage fistfight between members of Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses, the 1990 telecast was relatively tame. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

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Proudly introduced by actor Eric Bogosian as “my fellow Americans--with honor,” the controversial rap group 2 Live Crew performed one of its few non-misogynistic songs, “Banned in the U.S.A.,” sounding like ventriloquists’ dummies as they haplessly parroted quasi-patriotic defenses of their First Amendment rights. In a show of rap solidarity, M.C. Hammer, Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav and members of N.W.A. also walked out on stage.

If 2 Live Crew (w)rapping its dirty ditties in the flag lacked class, the clean-imaged M.C. Hammer still managed perhaps even worse taste--by showing up at the podium to accept his best rap and best dance video awards pointedly swigging and plugging the diet cola whose advertisements featuring him dominated the commercial breaks in the show. The audience half-expected him to announce he was going to Disneyland next.

Madonna was also a contender in the most shameless sweepstakes, with an otherwise wittily choreographed “Vogue” dance number--in an amusingly incongruous baroque setting--marred by moments in which subservient boy dancers in short pants placed their hands on her heaving bosom (twice) and stuck their heads up her dress (twice).

Far more shocking was Cher, who showed up to present the climactic award . . . conservatively dressed .

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The best rock ‘n’ roll moment occurred off-camera, when Aerosmith ripped through a rave-up version of the Beatles’ “I’m Down” during a commercial break before performing the scheduled “Love in an Elevator"--for which the veteran group won best hard rock/metal video.

“Thank you Tipper (Gore) and Jesse (Helms),” said singer Steven Tyler, keeping the evening’s main riff going, “for making sure that as long as there are a few four-letter words on the album, it’ll sell an extra million copies!”

Other winners included Don Henley (best male video), the B-52’s (best group video), Michael Penn (best new artist), Billy Idol (best video from a film) and Tears for Fears (breakthrough video). Madonna herself was shut out, though her “Vogue” video won in three technical categories, including best director for David Fincher.


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