American pop music is dead. Or, at least according to MTV’s Video Music Awards it is. The start of a prize giving season that will stretch through to next February (swiftly followed by tonight’s Mercury Music Prize, where we will be rooting for friend of State, Rachel Unthank) was ushered in the kind of bizarre fashion that only the US music industry can muster. From the moment Britney Spears (the US Amy Winehouse, without the continuing drug use) made her spectacularly unengaged speech and Rihanna was just awful to (nearly) the very end, it was the bland leading the bland.
Thank God then for Russell Brand. A very shaky opening monologue aside – you could almost see his potential American career draining away before your eyes – he managed to inject some sort of spark into the whole sorry affair, gaining momentum towards the priceless moment when he ushered a bemused looking Spears onto a golf cart and drove off with her into the night. Nothing he does really comes close to his fantastic BBC Radio show (download it here – but this was another wobbly step on his unavoidable ascent.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Brand looked so good was the comparison with what was going on around him. Who are these people? Time was when any major US band / record / artist would have a resonance around the world. I may be out of touch but most of this crowd meant literally nothing. Watching the VMAs left you with the inaccurate impression that US music consists of nothing more than the empty hyperbole of modern day hip-hop, crap R ‘n’ B, identikit pop (The Jonas Brothers?) and the bloody Pussycat Dolls.
The live performances followed some sort of absurd Hollywood notion of false reality, with only the feisty Paramore offering any sense of passion and care for what they were doing, and they were beaten by Linkin Park’s Timbaland pastiche. This, after all, is the country that still considers Kid Rock and his blustering karaoke a star turn. Somewhere in amongst all this were The Ting Tings, who had managed to sneak into the Video of the Year category (they didn’t win of course). They were promised as live performers so there we sat, at least hoping for something to remember alongside the bilge. When they did arrive it was as a 30 second ad break filler with the house drummer from Blink 182 & a DJ. Sigh.
It wasn’t without its moments, of course, but they were few and far between. Slipknot turned up and took part in some strange comedy routine. Lil Wayne and T-Pain were so ridiculous that they were almost good. Almost. It took Kanye West to swallow his pride to give the thing it’s one truly great performance, low key and dramatic – the antithesis of what had gone before.
Look, I know that this shouldn’t matter, that this has as much to do with the real notion of music as a McDonalds Happy Meal but these shows have the opportunity to at least offer a notion of what is going on outside the mainstream. The Meteors and the Brits aren’t perfect but you do tune in with the hope that something may grab your eye, be it Republic of Loose and Sinead O’Connor or Rihanna and The Klaxons. This had nothing, a dandy Englishman and an ignored rapper aside. America – the past is yours but the future’s ours.