The last conversation I had with my grandfather was about peppers. He’d wanted to send some home with me to Chicago, but I didn’t have time to swing by his house because I was late for my flight. “Save me some peppers for next time” were the last words I said to him. After he died suddenly, I thought more about that than about anything: how much I wished the conversation had been something besides peppers. Politics, perhaps. The Minnesota Twins. Anything.
As summer, lurching, accelerates into early fall, I think of another final conversation.
The 2001 MTV Video Music Awards took place on September 6, 2001. The show, like every VMA ceremony before or since, was an orgy of frivolity, bad fashion, and forgettable music. Andre 3000 and Big Boi, dressed like a jockey and bookie from space, respectively, introduced Britney Spears, who then danced with a snake. The snake is still alive. Christina Aguilera wore a denim rasta cap. Macy Gray wore a dress that read MY NEW ALBUM DROPS SEPT 18, 2001, a bad date, in retrospect, to release anything. The awards were corporatized mediocrity sold to the masses as the sort of authenticity one can only achieve through a series of purchases, a successful conflation of creation and consumption. You know, garbage.
But with the benefit of hindsight, the VMAs that year take on a significance that nobody onstage could have known. Rewatching them now is like looking at the blissful face of a person who doesn’t know that in five days, they’ll hear the worst news of their life.
I couldn’t find them in their complete form online; just hour-long blocks at a time. Some of them were rebroadcasts from Europe broken up with German ads, others were highlights stitched together by fans of bands that were big at the time—The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Nelly, Limp Bizkit. City High.
The awards, staged in Lincoln Center, were hosted by Jamie Foxx, wearing a greasy-looking leather coat. Andy Dick and Ben Stiller were wildly popular. So was cutting the waistband off a pair of jeans to make them even lower-rise to the point that they flirted with the wearer’s butt crack. The nadir of women’s fashion.
There were some bad performances, like a duet between Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule, two people who, for all their other talents, cannot sing. J-Lo wore a low-slung white skirt in one of the ghastly styles that was popular at the time, asymmetrical and accented with a thick belt. Her top, also white, looked like it was maybe a toddler’s pants that she cut up and stretched out over the very top part of her torso. For part of the performance, she wore a fedora, for mystery, perhaps, or because of her resplendent realness. Ja Rule dressed like Ja Rule, shirtless but still wearing a necklace and a watch, in a bucket hat with the front part flipped up.
Christopher Walken introduced a sassy performance of “Pop” by N*Sync. “I’m sick and tired of people talkin about/ What’s the deal with this pop life and when’s it gonna fade out?” A be-tanktopped Justin Timberlake, a human wedding dance even then, sang, in a moment that almost seems sweet now. Michael Jackson appeared midway through the performance, to screaming. Every appearance was met with screaming.
The audience, undistracted by smartphones, seemed present throughout in a way people are no longer present in their daily lives. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat were years away from existing; what they had was the world in front of them.
I remember the feeling of the couch in my college dorm I sat on to watch the awards, yesterday, a million years ago. I’d just turned 18, just moved away from home. Apart from the fashion and awful music that was difficult to even pretend to like, it was a good time to be an 18-year-old American. The economy was relatively healthy, although a bipartisan effort to repeal the Glass-Steagall act had already set in motion events that would lead to the economic crash of 2007-2008. But that was years away. The biggest news story that summer was that of a missing DC intern who had, it turned out, been sleeping with a married Democratic congressman prior to her disappearance. The singer Aaliyah had recently died in a plane crash. But generally speaking, things were fine. We had no reason not [?] to believe the foolish but seductive idea that things would just carry on in perpetual acceptability, that we’d always be fairly free from the existential dread (or worse) that would characterize the next indefinite span of time.
No smartphones means I remember most of it, 16 years later. I wasn’t texting or Instagramming when Carson Daly pontificated about the awesomeness of U2 for several minutes, when Bono sang, in typical cloying Bono fashion, “I’m not afraid of anything in this world. There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard.” I remember when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. introduced a performance by Linkin Park, and when DMX and Mark Wahlberg introduced the band Staind. I sensed some sexual tension between Jewel, then in her sexy pop-star phase, and Jon Bon Jovi, who was an okay thing for kids to like in 2001, I guess. I remember how much I hated “Lady Marmalade” by that time, and how I got up to go to the bathroom when the performance started.
The first MTV2 award went to Mudvayne, a barely-listenable band that is, like most popular rock bands from the year 2001, lazy shorthand for “shitty” now. The members took to the stage in makeup that made them all look as they’d been shot point-blank in the forehead, fake blood hardened on their faces.
Limp Bizkit won best rock video for “Rollin’,” a terrible song that featured a shot of the soon-to-fall twin towers in its video. When they took the stage to accept it, the band’s bassist sang a falsetto rendition of Iron Maiden’s “Wasted Years.” “So understand/ Don’t waste your time always searching for/those wasted years./ Face up… make your stand/ And realize you’re living in the golden years!” he shrieked, to delighted laughter. Fred Durst was wearing a Puddle of Mudd shirt. At the time, I wanted to sleep with him. The whole thing feels lachrymose now.
Destiny’s Child, wearing matching leather and denim outfits, won an award for their song “Survivor.” In the video, the girls wore impractical if not flattering camouflage outfits as they leapt and group danced in a jungle setting.
P. Diddy, who was dating J-Lo at the time, spent several minutes onstage wearing a number 11 baseball jersey, a fact that, had social media existed at the time, would likely have spawned a million #Illuminati conspiracy theories.
Watching them now acquaints the viewer with an almost painful sort of nostalgia. I wanted there to be meaning in the show’s details, some hint, some foreshadowing. The cultural nadir lined up with the last good day. I wanted them to have a better last conversation with something that would soon suddenly vanish. Or at least to close with something better than “Lady Marmalade.”
I wanted there to be some way to bang on a window, grab their attention, warn them. I wanted a sign that they knew they were at the unwitting goodbye party for the American century, if there was a way to imbue it without corroding the innocence of a time before.