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On Sunday, as television's family hour gave way to raunchy prime time, a strange thing happened in living rooms across America. Britney Spears appeared on the annual MTV Video Music Awards in a sparkly black bikini, but the real disturbance developed during the two hours after her yawn of a comeback.
People started twitching, feeling nauseated, blinking uncontrollably; they reached for their remotes in a desperate struggle against information overload. The show's assault on coherence drove a music-loving nation to its knees. A rumor spread that the creators of "Pokémon," the Japanese cartoon whose images once caused "television epilepsy" in scores of young children, had wrested control from the VMA's producers in some kind of plot to destroy the music industry once and for all.
OK, that didn't really happen. The VMAs were meant to entertain viewers, not destroy their minds. But this sorry response to the Net-ification of entertainment -- an attempt to create a television equivalent to an iPod playlist, with a little candid YouTube.com thrown in -- failed in a most unpleasant way.
The ceremony, newly relocated to the Palms casino in Las Vegas, was designed as a cyber-extravaganza, multitiered and remixable. The viewing experience only began with Sunday's live broadcast. It is unfolding now, on the network's website, where "remixed" versions of the program will feature artists' commentary, viewer-requested content, and longer versions of the performances shown on television.
That's great for those who want to stretch out their annual VMAs party until it frays and breaks. But by treating the televised ceremony as a sneak preview for what's available online, the show's producers did no one any favors.
Few artists got to perform full songs during the show; the cameras cut away midchorus. Award winners enjoyed little glory; the best new artist winner, the hip-hop group Gym Class Heroes, didn't even get a speech. The show's once-unpredictable patter was sliced to the bone, with only presenter Jamie Foxx going off script. When a fistfight ensued between resident band-aid Pamela Anderson's exes, Tommy Lee and Kid Rock, the MTV jocks seized upon the news tidbit like a scrap of Styrofoam in a shipwreck.
It didn't have to be this way. Raucous, surprising music filled the all-star "fantasy suites" hosted by a handful of stars. (Some of it wasn't made the same night of the awards, however; the moonlit sky above Kanye West revealed that his performance was taped, since the program concluded before sundown Vegas time.) Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley fame laid claim to Prince's "Darling Nikki," with the Foo Fighters backing; Rihanna got a major boost from Fall Out Boy on her own "Shut Up and Drive." West, Lil' Wayne, Justin Timberlake and System of a Down singer Serj Tankian all showed off their considerable gifts -- for a few seconds, that is, until the cameras cut away.
As excitement swept through the casino-hotel's upper floors, the main event's few fully realized musical numbers came across as overwrought and confused. Chris Brown, the latest dynamo to reach for Michael Jackson's crown, showed incredible grace, but his routine (which included a brief appearance by Rihanna) lost focus halfway through. Alicia Keys shouted her way through her rock-tinged new single, "No One," mashing it up with George Michael's old hit "Freedom '90." Team Tim -- Timberlake, Timbaland and Nelly Furtado -- ended the program with a disappointingly rote medley of their recent hits.
A rare head-turning moment transpired when Linkin Park performed "Bleed It Out," from its smash 2007 album, "Minutes to Midnight." The band played the song from beginning to end, with no tricks, no cutaways, no cameos from wandering fellow celebs. Vocalists Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington stole the fire of the fans screaming at their feet and threw it back out. It was basic rock 'n' roll. But within the distracting framework of the VMAs, it felt like a punch to the gut.
Awards were also distributed. Who won? Who cares? The list includes Rihanna (video of the year, for "Umbrella"; she received her award from Mary J. Blige and the reclusive Dr. Dre, whose surfacing made for a bit of a thrill), Timberlake, Fall Out Boy, Beyoncé and Shakira, and an absent Fergie. Only Timberlake did anything interesting with his speech, praising Brown and challenging MTV to "play more videos" -- a pointless throwdown, given the endless stream of blond-chronicling reality shows promoted during the breaks.
As MTV seems happy to acknowledge, videos aren't for television anymore. Nor is music, perhaps. That may be fine. Revisiting the VMAs online, fans will find that complete Cee-Lo/Foo Fighters collaboration and plenty more to enjoy. The question remains, however, whether the network should even bother with this program next year.
The VMAs have always been more about flash and mirrors, but its creators once believed in the power of their hoopla. Now, like Britney sleepwalking through her performance, MTV has given up on itself. MTV.com is the future. Go ahead, tune out.