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MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS : 10 Years of Heavy Rotation : A Look at a Critic’s Picks as We Await Tonight’s Madonna Moment

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We know videotape deteriorates over time. But, assuming some preservationist soul keeps a cryogenic chamber in chilly operation over the years, what will the kids of the 21st and 22nd centuries learn about our own times when they open that freezer-burned box marked “MTV Video Music Awards nominees, 1993"?

Plenty:

* From En Vogue’s progressive anthem “Free Your Mind” (the most nominated video, with seven nods), future generations will learn that we were very much into tolerance and cleavage. Preferably simultaneously.

* From R.E.M.'s dusty, icon-filled “Man in the Moon” (five nominations), they’ll discover our affinity for James Dean nostalgia and a sepia-toned Americana exemplified by dank desert bars.

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* From Peter Gabriel’s creepy and emotionally cathartic “Digging in the Dirt” (responsible for two of his five nominations), they’ll tap into our penchants for psychotherapy and special effects. Again, preferably simultaneously.

* From Aerosmith’s goofy, jumbled “Livin’ on the Edge” (five nods), tomorrow’s free thinkers will learn the timeless joys of cross-dressing and drag-racing.

* And from Pearl Jam’s spooky “Jeremy” (four turns at bat), they’ll get an alienated gander at that ageless, Angst -ful perennial--teen suicide.

Not necessarily all-comprehensive, this video portrait of 1993, but close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. Ain’t it great to leave a legacy?

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The winners will be announced tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre in the 10th annual edition of the MTV Video Music Awards, which traditionally is less a pure celebration of the audio-visual arts than a great excuse for a performance-filled bacchanal.

Meanwhile, while awaiting tonight’s big Madonna Moment, let’s take one last minute to focus on the worthiness of the actual nominees in major categories before we get swept up in the fashion statements and calculated star irreverences:

Video of the Year Nominees: R.E.M.'s “Man in the Moon,” Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” Peter Gabriel’s “Digging in the Dirt,” En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind,” Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.”

It’s a tossup which of these popular entries voters will pick, but the Gabriel clip is far and away the best of the lot, and stands as one of the finest music videos yet made. “Digging in the Dirt” is truly trench-ant: a riveting look at emotional burial and resurrection that uses special visual effects in the service of touching the heart as well as astounding the viscera.

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The more literal part of the video has the singer driving a convertible, arguing explosively with the beauty in his passenger seat, lashing out at her and even smashing his windshield while trying to swat a pesky bee--an unusually frank acknowledgment of the anger that might come to a boil in the therapeutic process. That makes the video’s more figurative, FX-laden part, where Gabriel is bitterly buried alive in his own secret garden and brought back to flowering life, all the more powerful.

“Man in the Moon” is a lovely runner-up, in which singer Michael Stipe dons a cowboy hat in going for that James-Dean-in-"Giant” look. On the soundtrack he invokes the moon shot, the Twister game and figures from Moses to Darwin to Andy Kaufman, bringing together boomerhood with all of Western history. But the video sticks to a desert truck stop where the band and locals lip-sync the enigmatic but user-friendly lyrics in a warm celebration of all things communal and celestial.

In “Jeremy,” our third choice, Pearl Jam passionately essayed the ill fate of an isolated kid who shoots himself, implied in a series of spooky, frozen-in-time scenarios. It was the closest thing to a true horror video all year long: Beavis and Butt-head, fire walk with me .

The Aerosmith video couldn’t make up its mind what it was about: Much of it centered on young actor Edward Furlong, seen indulging in such “Edge-y” behavior as driving his car into a brick wall and recklessly disregarding condoms. But there’s an overdose of even sillier, totally incongruous band imagery, too, as if the boys worried that a cautionary tale wouldn’t be enough fun.

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En Vogue’s hard-rock-tinged plea for interracial tolerance was the video most responsible for taking the vocal quartet to superstar level, and it may well win. The message plays second fiddle to the massage here: How many warm-blooded heterosexual guys wouldn’t give up their prejudices and agree to “Free (One’s) Mind” just to pacify these babes after this saucy succession of tight dresses?

Best Male Video Nominees: Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith,” George Michael’s “Killer / Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” Peter Gabriel’s “Steam.”

Sting’s entry gets docked points for superimposing his face on a sun; a guy with a reputation for pomposity, even undeserved, should go out of his way to avoid implying the world revolves around him.

The George Michael clip overcame his continuing boycott of his own videos by creatively co-opting the lyrics into on-screen ad slogans and logos. Strangely, these ad parodies alternate with arty close-ups of beautiful people tugging on one another’s body-piercing rings.

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Kravitz’s video was straight performance miming, set in a dome with a ring of fans on an overhead walkway and covered with lights that all flash on in one glorious moment. Down side: too much slo-mo of Lenny’s hair-flinging.

The winner by default: Gabriel’s “Steam,” though it’s a lark overburdened by silly special effects instead of one enhanced by them the way his “Digging” was.

Best Female Video Nominees: Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass,” k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving,” Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” Neneh Cherry’s “Buddy X.”

Lennox’s video is a costumed period-piece battle of the sexes with guest star John Malkovich. It starts off cute but lacks a punch line; it’s no “Dangerous Liaisons.”

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Cherry’s clip is more literally conceived as a battle between the sexes, with gangs of hip-hop guys ‘n’ gals mockingly squaring off against each other. She’s got charisma aplenty and it’s a nice feminist tease, though her taunting removal of her panties at video’s end is inexplicable.

Lang was deservedly the female breakthrough artist of the year, but her “Craving” clip was a slightly overly arty mood piece, effective but unmemorable.

That leaves Jackson’s as just nominally the strongest video here. Set at a low-key loft party, the easygoing clip combined the calculated sex appeal of her most recent videos with the communal feel of her earlier pieces.

Breakthrough Video Nominees: Porno for Pyros’ “Pets,” “Livin’ on the Edge,” “Killer / Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” Los Lobos’ “Kiko & the Lavender Moon,” Green Jelly’s “Three Little Pigs,” Terence Trent D’Arby’s “She Kissed Me .

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This is traditionally the most exciting category, nominating videos that may or may not have pulled commercial weight but that were actually interesting as videos (what a concept).

Los Lobos’ excellent, little-seen “Kiko” was one of the few clips we’ve seen that successfully evoked a dream state.

But D’Arby’s “She Kissed Me"--in which lobby cards outside a theater showing an exploitation flick come to life before a barred minor’s eyes--is one of this year’s top video delights. You might have expected pomposity from D’Arby, but instead his entry gave us the sexiest, silliest use of state-of-the-art visual effects in a video since the Cars’ old “You Might Think.”


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