For better or worse (some would say the latter), the BET Awards has become one of the premier events in entertainment, particularly for hip-hop and R&B. Throughout its nine-year existence, the star-studded annual celebration has provided viewers with ample fodder for debates about the state of music and popular culture. While one could accuse the organizers and participants of many sins, a failure of imagination certainly wouldn’t be among them.
Which brings us to 2010’s awards. Hosted by Queen Latifah, Sunday night’s ceremony was packed to the brim with performances by some of music’s biggest marquee names – a roster that included Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Usher and Eminem. The show was ostensibly dedicated as a tribute to two artists — the late Michael Jackson and the purple-clad rocker Prince — one performance in particular is bound to make its way into the annals of award-show excess. But more on that in a moment.
It should be noted that the choice of Queen Latifah as host was a somewhat odd selection. Musically speaking, she’s drifted away from hip-hop to such a dramatic extent that she rarely refers to her prior incarnation as one of the most dominant female MCs to ever grace the stage. Nowadays, she’s gone to great lengths to cultivate an image as a mainstream everywoman, a choice few would begrudge her given the natural artistic penchant for reinvention. Yet during the awards ceremony, she provided only mild comedy relief – her costume changes and affected attempts at laughs were thin and unsatisfying gruel for the viewers.
But the night’s unexpected water-cooler moment belonged to embattled pop-star Chris Brown. The 21-year-old singer has flown under the radar since pleading guilty to felony charges for assaulting former girlfriend Rihanna, and was once touted as the musical heir to Jackson. Michael’s older brother Jermaine (himself taking a momentary break from the massive opportunism he and his siblings have demonstrated since the superstar’s death a year ago) introduced the young vocalist in a strange way: the gigantic silhouette that opened up the segment almost made it appear as if they had propped Michael Jackson’s corpse up in “Weekend at Bernie’s” fashion. Brown initially mimicked and lip-synched his way through a montage of Jackson’s most classic songs in admirable fashion, sporting Jackson’s trademark sequined glove and doing a solid rendition of the moonwalk.
WATCH MSNBC ‘SCOOP’ COVERAGE OF CHRIS BROWN’S PERFORMANCE:
But once Brown began singing live, the controversy began. Rather than paying homage to his fallen idol, Brown broke down into tears, his voice cracking with emotion. So overcome was the singer that he fled the stage without singing one complete line.
Some viewers responded favorably, describing the moment as poignant and something that could redefine or even resuscitate Brown’s flagging career. That, however, is beside the point. Michael Jackson’s untimely death remains a searing memory for many of his fans around the world. The moment should have been exclusively about paying tribute to a polarizing yet mesmerizing performer. Yet Brown’s display turned the performance into something contrived, overwrought and most noteworthy for how it epitomized celebrity self-worship.
As a professional, Brown should have harnessed his feelings and stirred up those within the audience — but should not have made himself the epicenter of raw emotion. Given the actions from which he’s trying to distance himself, the song “Man in the Mirror” was likely a difficult selection. That said, great artists can deliver emotional performances without turning themselves into spectacles. On that score, Brown’s performance with all its lachrymose melodrama fell woefully short. Controversy is likely to rage for weeks as to whether his breakdown was genuine or feigned.
Brown’s performance aside, the show did have its good moments. Nia Long and Larenz Tate provided a touch of classy romance by re-enacting a scene from the popular 1997 movie, Love Jones. Alicia Keys, looking beautiful as she prepares for her latest role of mother — got the crowd moving with a medley of some of her songs. She also snagged two awards: one for female R&B artist and another for best collaboration for her song with Jay-Z, “Empire State of Mind.”
Perhaps the best moments of all came in the form of throwback singers sharing the limelight with younger counterparts, some of them having not taken to the stage in years. Monica’s duet with Deniece Williams provided some of the older watchers with a pleasant surprise. Both vocalists — one older, one younger — provided a portrait of two artists whose careers skyrocketed, only to fade prematurely. And El DeBarge — sans his brothers and sisters — serenaded the audience in fine form.
And surely the network deserved special recognition for all the censoring of salty language done through the 3-1/2 hour extravaganza. So many artists had their lyrics bleeped, it almost appeared at times as if the television reception was failing completely.
BET also deserves credit for trying to spotlight emerging musicians via its Music Matters initiative — a worthy goal given what many consider the increasingly commercial and degraded nature of mainstream music.