Who knew the MTV Video Music Awards were going to turn into yet another battleground in the culture wars, circa 2008? Or that Jordin Sparks would be the one to make a bold defense of teenage chastity? This is one topsy-turvy, crazy-confused election year, and MTV turns out to be hip-deep in the madness.
Granted, MTV is all about duality these days. On one hand, the network is punishing its "My Super Sweet Sixteen" stars with a new show called "Exiled." On the other hand, Paris Hilton is getting a reality series, too. Last night, MTV had the stars of the chaste "High School Musical" introduce Christina Aguilera. (Forget about those Vanessa Hudgens pictures on the Web, and just remember that Troy and Gabriela still have barely kissed.)
MTV also gave those tween pinup Jonas Brothers a giant platform: They performed an acoustic-to-electric number on a movable stage on the Paramount backlot. Then VMA host Russell Brand, decked out like a 70s rock star in his skintight black pants, poked merciless fun at the boys' famed promise rings. It seemed the sort of catty joke that would go unanswered, since the boys look far too nerdy-sweet to offer much backtalk. (They weren't let near a microphone, anyway.) But leave it to Sparks -- who came to awards with her mother, God bless her -- to stand up to the forces of cynicism.
Sparks took the stage to introduce T.I., but first leaned into the mic to make a spontaneous personal statement. "I just have one thing to say about promise rings," she said. "It's not bad to wear a promise ring, because not everybody, guy or girl, wants to be a slut." She looked sassy and triumphant, like a girl who felled a dragon. Whatever you think about promise rings, you must agree: the girl's got guts.
Apparently, she had a point, too, because the next time he appeared, Brand apologized. "I've got to say sorry to have said them things about promise rings," he said, looking pained. It was unclear whether this sudden contrition was spontaneous or came from the MTV powers-that-be. Brand did make a glum point of saying he didn't want to alienate teenage fans. And like the class clown called out by the teacher, he offered a closing zinger. "Promise rings, I'm well up for it," he said. "It's just, you know, a little sex occasionally never hurt anybody."
Still, the moment had weight. And here, all the excitement was supposed to be about how Britney Spears would open the show, after last year's "Gimme" fiasco. That turned out to be an anticlimax, instead: a little comedy schtick with Jonah Hill, followed by a walk onstage and a brief declaration. "This is the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards and it starts right now," she said in monotone -- no Sarah Palin of public speaking, she -- and then she stuck out her tongue. It was the sort of move a 13-year-old girl makes when she's just finished her Bat Mitzvah Torah portion. That poor little girl hasn't grown up at all.
But then, Good-Angel MTV was all about redemption. So Britney, humiliated so completely last year, got three Moon Men in 2008. Is the payback complete? The comeback? Time will tell.
The rest of the show, as they say, was noise. The opening Rihanna production number exemplified what makes me sad about "So You Think You Can Dance:" All of that talent and skill, and yet you know that most alumni with to wind up holding light sabers and writhing around pop stars. The Pussycat Dolls think God has been "awesome" to them, which is probably true. Aguilera's "Keeps Getting Better" choreography was supposed to make her look like a twisted supergirl dancing with some nerdy Clark Kents, but it looked more like a feminist twist on "Deal or No Deal."
Either way, it was a moment that came and went. However empowered XTina wants to be, she was upstaged by Sparks, who showed a generation of teenage girls that sisters really can do it for themselves.
Edited to add: The commenters below make a good point about labeling. Of course not everyone who doesn't wear a promise ring is slutty. And that's the problem with the current culture wars: When it comes to rhetoric, there's no middle ground. Either you're a slut or a hopeless prude, and I'd venture to say that most people fall healthily in between.
But choice of wording aside, I'm still mightily impressed with Jordin for standing up to the sex-sells music establishment. She's not your typical pop starlet, and I love her for it.