The VMAs: Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, and MTV's Split Identity

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Sunday's show will spotlight the network's ability to manufacture icons—and prop up real talent

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When MTV celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this month, most of the chatter surrounding the event shared a common theme: MTV doesn't really play music videos anymore. And yet the network's Video Music Awards, which take place on Sunday night, remain MTV's most-watched, most-hyped, and most-talked-about program. But maybe that's because the show embodies the tension between the way MTV once was and the way it is now.

Look no further than the two tribute performances scheduled for Sunday to see this tension in action. A cast of pop stars will pay homage to both the recently deceased Amy Winehouse and the recently resurgent Britney Spears. The two are among the most important female artists of the past decade, and represent the two very different versions of MTV. Winehouse's legacy and relationship with MTV aligns with everything the network stood for when video killed the radio star 25 years ago: rebellion, discovery, edginess, and the craft. Spears, on the other hand, encompasses all that MTV, for better or worse, has grown to represent: spectacle, celebrity, controversy, and, arguably, the victory of style over substance.

Both artists have a history with MTV. One of Winehouse's first major televised performances in the U.S. was of "Rehab" at 2007's MTV Movie Awards. Three and a half minutes later, her catchy tune, unique performance style, and industry-changing retro soul was exposed to a wider American audience than the singer had encountered before. Sure, there were music fans who were already to hip to Winehouse, but the network had just made her a household name in the flyover states. Just as it had done over the years with The Pretenders, the Beastie Boys, and, most recently, Florence and the Machine, MTV put a national, regarded spotlight on artists most young people might never have discovered.

Both stars are part of MTV's grandest tradition: creating indelible moments in pop history

It certainly helped, too, that Winehouse's reputation as a partier suited the MTV ethos. The network was about breaking rules—something, as Daniel J. Flynn at the American Spectator writes, even its logo embodied, "with its forever morphing color scheme and polkadot-to-stripes-to-whatever patterns." Winehouse was certainly an unapologetic rulebreaker. She represented anarchy, speaking to the same culture moved by Nirvana, captivated by Courtney Love, understood by a generation of down-to-earth VJs, and transformed by the "this is who I am, deal with it!" attitudes of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Winehouse was dangerous and cool, but above all a complete package. MTV played a hand in that.

On the other side is an MTV that not only discovers musicians, but manufactures icons. In its 25-year history, the network has not only cultivated superstars, but become the Kool-Aid that nourishes the cult of those superstars. MTV is largely to credit for turning Spears into a transcendent sex symbol, starting with when they heavily featured the provocative Catholic-school-girl-themed clip for "...Baby One More Time" in its video rotation in the late '90s. Repeatedly inviting her to the VMA stage, the network provided the advantageous platform for moments that have defined her meteoric rise as an international sensation—the hyper-sexual nude body suit performance of "Oops!...I Did it Again," the slinky snake dance to "I'm a Slave 4 U," the headline-grabbing sleepwalk disaster of "Gimme More":

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In fact, the network in essence owned this piece of Spears's career. The flash, the sex, and the premeditated controversy are essential to the essence of "Britney Spears" the brand. Just as Michael Jackson, Madonna, U2, and Janet always had—and have—a home on the network, MTV routinely has spotlighted Spears even during periods when the rest of the world was calling her a fallen star. She's part of a long tradition of icons that the network clings to, because it helped create her. After several years of ups and downs, the pop diva is back on top of her game, and the network will fete her. And no arena in the music world seems more appropriate than the Video Music Awards for that tribute to happen.

Unlike Winehouse, it's not Britney Spears's artistry and musicianship that MTV—and the world—embraced. It was this polished spectacle, from her heavily produced songs to mega-budgeted videos, that she represented. Winehouse was raw talent with an interesting look. Spears was tailor-made entertainment, something MTV has always trumpeted. With its synthetic chords, pre-Auto Tune robotic vocals, and peculiar costumes, even the network's first video, The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," attests to that. For every Bruce Springsteen in MTV's history, there was a Paula Abdul. For each Adele today, there's a Ke$ha. Call it escapism, call it guilty pleasure, or call it worthy entertainment; it's an intricately choreographed, glittery necessity in the music world: the artist you enjoy watching perhaps even more than you enjoy hearing.

Both stars, however, are part of MTV's grandest tradition, which is creating and promoting watercooler-dominating, indelible moments in pop history. Some of them are purely musical: Winehouse, Nirvana, any of a number of Michael Jackson performances or videos. Some are eye-popping celebrations of style-over-substance: Spears's bedazzled nude body suit, Madonna's "Like a Virgin." But this is also the network whose retrospectives routinely included mentions of Howard Stern's assless chaps appearance as Fartman, a messy French kiss between Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, Eminem's feud with a dog puppet, and an arrogant rapper's commandeering of a country girl's big moment. It's a network whose biggest hit in years is a show following eight overly tanned drunkards marauding through the streets of Florence. It's a network that was founded as Music Television and now no longer plays music videos.

Clearly, as much as MTV has a 30-year history of transforming the music and television industries, it has a 30-year history of identity crises: existing as quite possibly the silliest, most degenerate network on television and arguably an embarrassment to serious music fans (remember Sisqo?), but at the same time dictating the direction of not only the music industry, but an entire youth culture. And through it, the network has remained, indisputably, culturally relevant. Winehouse and Spears embody both aspects of MTV. The network—and music—wouldn't be the same without either one of them.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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