A kiss is still a kiss, but when it takes place on the MTV Video Music Awards show it can shoot into pop lore, as with Michael Jackson’s epic “I’m a man” smooch with Lisa Marie Presley, a literally in-your-face challenge in 1994 to those who doubted the viability of that marriage.
This year’s kiss was planted by Madonna on Britney Spears during the opening number of Thursday’s nationally televised show from Radio City Music Hall in New York, and the fact that this yawn-worthy Madonna shock tactic became the central topic of the show’s post-mortems indicates how low the once-essential showcase has sunk.
If that’s the peak moment the cable music network could muster for the potentially entertaining 20th anniversary of the event, it’s time to consign it to the proliferating pile of anonymous awards shows.
Last year’s edition at least had some chaotic energy, with intense performances by new rock arrivals such as the Vines and the Hives, and Michael Jackson’s mistaken acceptance of a nonexistent “Artist of the Millennium” honor.
In one of Thursday’s few bursts of energy, Jack Black spoofed that moment when he insisted that he was being given a “Super Genius of the Universe” award. Of the other participants who escaped or transcended the show’s awkward scripted routines, Justin Timberlake probably made the best impression.
Looking a little like Eddie Haskell but coming off as sweet as Wally Cleaver, the multiple winner called it “a travesty” when he won for best male video and graciously saluted Johnny Cash, one of the rivals in the category.
The only other pointed commentary rippling the show’s placid surface came from Coldplay, the form of the slogan “Make Trade Fair” written on the side of Chris Martin’s piano, and from host Chris Rock’s pointed barbs. (“Good Charlotte?” he said after that faux punk band’s performance. “More like mediocre Green Day.”)
The production’s clumsiness extended from bad miking on the lectern (several presenters couldn’t be heard unless they leaned close to the single microphone) to a botched presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Duran Duran to a performance by Metallica of songs spanning the MTV era -- well, that’s what it would have been if it hadn’t been ended after 90 seconds.
These awards themselves have never meant a thing, but in its early years the show itself was a real occasion. If the top minds at MTV can’t rediscover that spirit, they might as well simply kiss it off.