It was an orgy of the f-slash at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night. Everybody was featuring everybody. Madonna f/Missy Elliott, Christina Aguilera f/Redman, Justin Timberlake f/Timbaland. Up they came—to the stage at Radio City or to the podium—taking their honors, and f/the whole wide pop universe.
That was MTV's Video Music Awards, a ceremony that the channel broadcast for three decent, and often entertaining, hours. The show was almost live: It aired on seven-second delay, giving the censors just enough time to silence the sailor slang on their list while leaving in plenty of obscene phraseology they didn't recognize. You didn't hear the word "whore" once, but Crank Yankers' Spoony Love said he tapped Beyoncé Knowles, and Chris Rock, the host, was allowed to observe with a big smile that a certain former boy-band star "was ready to lick a man for 8 bucks."
Rock was a superb host, hard-core shocking and hilarious, as well as adept at rote MC duties, like keeping the show on time. Not only did he lead the way around the dry bad words to the promised land of unregulated Ebonics, he also set up the "featuring" theme. No white performer, not even Eminem, got away with dawging the audience and thanking the f-slash black man for that crazy beat. Not without a real, unsparing barb from the host. Chris Rock kicked off the roughhousing with a hard hit in his excellent opening set.
On Punk'd … they tell Justin he was broke, and … he started crying a river. … He got real white all of a sudden, and he was like: "Dude! I'm broke! I don't know what to do! I don't know what to do! Mommy, Mommy." And just when Justin got so desperate that he got on his knees and was ready to lick a man for 8 bucks, somebody shows up and says, "Man, you've been Punk'd." Then Justin gets all black again and says, "Aw, yeah. You got me, dawg. Yeah, dawg. A salaam a laycum, dawg. Fa sheezie, ma neezie."
Ow. Timberlake, in a mean cutaway, could have been forgiven for falling apart at Rock's comment, but he laughed it off. In fact, he'd appeared angrier earlier, when he saw Madonna open-mouth kiss his ex-girlfriend. Call Timberlake a hustler or race opportunist, it seems, but don't call him Britney Spears' punk.
Rock kept at it, hammering away at how flaccid white music is. ("I hope you didn't slit your wrists on that one," he told Coldplay, after they finished a sad ballad.) At the same time, almost all the white presenters—from Kelly Clarkson to Adam Sandler to Ben Stiller to Drew Barrymore—made self-lacerating jokes about how they were too white to talk, much less to rhyme. This capitulation allowed Rock to knock Fred Durst by saying, "Rap metal is nothing but affirmative action for white people." White music, without black music, is nothing at all.
Is it true? The audience, who chose a garage band from Maryland for the People's Choice Award (Good Charlotte), seems to disagree. And the show's opening number—which MTV likes to believe breaks new ground every year—was mostly standard bubble gum. Britney Spears appeared center stage in a wedding dress and sang the first verse of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" like a pro. Then Christina Aguilera showed up, raven-haired, but also in wedding gear, to give power and range to the chorus. The girls half-heartedly danced a duet tribute to Madonna's 1984 bridal writhe. And at last Madonna herself emerged, wearing thigh-high vinyl boots, a top hat, and tails. She sang a little, in her usual Rex Harrison bark-it-out way.
But the trio did have a surprise in store. Madonna had come as the man—the sugar daddy, maybe, twirling the little girls, keeping them in line, and finally kissing Spears. She also kissed Aguilera, to be fair, but the camera barely registered it, and we all know that Madonna has long leered at Britney. Britney swooned into the kiss, her mouth soft.
The small thrill of this kiss was real to me because, though girls making out with girls is an old party stunt, this time it came off as female lechery: overmuscled, rich, landed matriarch Madonna (in tails, no less) preying on sweetie Spears, who (in wedding white) hasn't even had a first marriage yet. "Hollywood," Madonna cooed as she brushed hair tenderly from Britney's face. "How could it hurt you when it looks so good?" I expect we'll see this wise-woman/callow-girl romance around more now. Britney and Madonna certainly recalled the matchup in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle of smiley Cameron Diaz with shrewd Demi Moore, another pure protein icon of perimenopause.
So that was it for the white girls. Missy Elliott soon invaded the stage, the brides and groom deferred, and the number grew chaotic and negligible. From there, the night then went on to other featurings.
On display was Eminem's formidable Shady Records—pop's own Tammany Hall. Eminem stayed glued to the side of 50 Cent, his protégé. The two collected all of their individual awards together; they even swapped trophies. They also shilled for Obie Trice, their new guy. Watch for Trice to clean up at next year's VMAs. Chris Rock knew well that Eminem was Boss Tweed, not to be crossed, but he crossed him anyway. "Nobody got no beef with Eminem. … I'm not even gonna say nothing bad about Eminem cause way too much stuff rhymes with Rock." Good idea, I thought. And then Rock added, "But Eminem don't even like his own mama."
With that, Rock again lightened what could have become a cynical night. OK, so the fix might be in—"to feature" may mean "to exploit," and musclewomen may now ravage round-faced girls—but we can live with all of it as long as Chris Rock's in charge. He made the largely promotional event genuinely fun by playing a happy hand of race cards and proving (as usual) that he can see through hypocrisy and pretension, but that he gets a kick out of it all nonetheless.
The only melancholy that Rock couldn't banish was that created by the absence of Johnny Cash, who some thought might make an appearance. But Cash wasn't featured, and his beautiful video "Hurt" didn't win any major awards, except for Best Cinematography during the pre-show.* I missed him, and I'll miss you, as this is my last TV column for Slate.
*Correction: Sept. 8, 2003. This article originally and incorrectly stated that Johnny Cash didn't win any awards for his "Hurt" video. Cash's "Hurt" did in fact win the award for Best Cinematography, but this was given during the pre-show, and not during the regular awards ceremony.