Style Check

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God love MTV: It’s the Mixed Message Network! Given the channel’s penchant for slyly combining glamorous images with bad behavior, it’s no surprise that its vast, impressionable viewership seems a bit confused.

During any typical primetime hour, the quick-cutting network features fashion victims preaching the gospel of personal style as politically incendiary videos interrupt calls for tolerance and diversity. Humpy, nubile teens doggedly pursue each other to a throbbing soundtrack of drug addled, sex-addicted, co-dependant rock stars while edgy PSA’s encourage sobriety, abstinence and self-reliance. “Dress up! Dress down! Get high! Stay low! Have sex! Stop having sex!” the network’s mesmerizing programming seems to shout. And it’s all just so darn sexy! What’s a humpy, nubile teen to do? Who cares? It’s MTV!

This year’s MTV Music Awards ceremony was no less confounding and hilarious. A swirling mass of conflicting looks, it left most students of style exhausted, at a loss for a unifying conclusion. Like Madonna dancing before a field of burning crosses, the show’s manic references to a world of potentially explosive ideas and images were so random, incessant and oddly good-natured that, in the end, they added up to little more than just that: many random references. To try to make sense of the countless contradictions and self-referential loopty-loops, just wouldn’t be, well, good-natured. Nonetheless, the show’s aggressive fist-poundin’, trash-talkin’, and booby flashin’ was a welcome antidote to those other, more established awards shows’ reliance on passive fist-poundin’, trash-talkin’, and booby-flashin’.

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While the televised program was chock-a-block with beautiful moments (a favorite being elder stateswoman Diana Ross’ cunningly direct encounter with Li’l Kim’s very important breast), the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House, where the Awards were held, was the scene of many of the evening’s more surreal juxtapositions: Hip hop superstar Busta Rhymes chatting with presidential hopeful John McCain — the Senator kickin’ it old school in a brown suit and striped tie; the rapper kickin’ it bold school in an orange halter-dress right out of Luc Besson’s chic, sci-fi masterpiece The Fifth Element. McCain’s demure daughter’s sparkly rouge, moreover, somehow worked with Rhymes’ prissy/butch ensemble. What on God’s green earth was the trio discussing? Who cares! It’s MTV!

Supermodel Shalom Harlow and earthy actress Ione Skye turned the red-velvet theater aisle into a makeshift runway, in fringed skirts and cream-colored blouses. The ambling duo wended their way up and down, and up and down…and up and down. They’d simply lost their seats. Who cares? It’s MTV!

The newest new kids on the block, the omnipresent Backstreet Boys are more backstreet than boys, when you get real close. They’ve definitely seen the harder side of Sears, while it looked as if Renee Zellweger had shopped Strawberry’s today, if not yesterday. Old kid on the block Jordan Knight re-emerged to say that silver is the new black, black is the new blue, blue is the new gray and it really doesn’t matter ’cause he’s cute, cute, cute. Professional oddity George Clinton was the lobby’s most reliable totem: His signature multi-colored dreads, sunglasses and beatific smile reflected perfect disorientation — the logical result of watching self-help giant Tony Robbins nearly spill his champagne on the de Kooning of white boy rap, Kid Rock. In a building normally steeped in grand tradition, the hip hop maverick’s devil-red porkpie hat and “mini-him” were two of the evening’s few reliable leit-motifs.

The rest of the house was similarly awash with loopy greatness and high-octane glamour. Roshumba, supermodel and superlative VJ, slithered with a confidence in a simple white tank and deeply shadowed eyes — a look that failed on a rather bruised looking Pamela Anderson Lee.

Donald Trump, looking waxy and unreal, sported his trademark inappropriate haircut and latest inappropriate Ivana-be. Just up the aisle, the Donald and Ivana of hip hop, Puff Daddy and Jennifer Lopez, listened in honest-to-god disbelief as Chris Rock gave a lecture about Ms. Lopez’ ample backside. But who cared? The diminutive power pair showed what court records show was considerable restraint.

Meanwhile, back on stage: in an uncharacteristic backward glance, Madonna was escorted to the stage by a team of red drag queens who, like symbols on an enormous pop-cultural seder plate, each represented a different facet of the reigning icon’s history. Most surprising of all: no one was surprised.

The evening’s most poignant and telling contradiction, however, came from super girl group TLC, whose latest chart-topper “Unpretty” warns that wearing “all the make-up that M.A.C can make” alone cannot guarantee beauty. Undeniably sage advice, to be sure. True to the event’s perverse approach, however, the best-selling trio brought down the house by descending on swings, sporting hi-tech dance gear, super-fly hair weaves and, in point of fact, all the make-up that M.A.C can make. Who cares? It’s MTV.