The hot, tired press' spirits lifted remarkably when Usher took the stage. It was further proof of the alchemical power celebrities exert over ordinary Americans. When he introduced nominees in categories such as "Best Dance Video," the journalists actually whooped and cheered, happily abandoning their roles as objective observers. "I'm taking the time to tell you that we're going to make history," he said, smiling.
The only odd note in this most ephemeral of photo opportunities was when Usher, unprompted by a journalist, began remarking how different this year has been for him. "It's good that [MTV] is finally paying attention," he said, his voice barely heard among the feeding frenzy. "They ignored me for so long."
Ignored? What was Usher talking about? A bit of explanation may be required. A 25-year-old native of Atlanta, Usher is a scion of the hugely successful R&B and hip-hop industry (think Lil' Jon and OutKast) that has developed there over the past decade.
Discovered by an executive of LaFace (a now-defunct boutique label formed by hitmaking producers Antonio "LA" Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds) when he was a mere tween, Usher recorded his 1994 self-titled debut album when he was just fourteen; the album featured P. Diddy as an executive producer. His next album, 1997's My Way, made him a star, launching singles such as the simmering No. 1 Billboard smash "Nice and Slow." The next album, 2001's 8701, repeated My Way's success, leading to this year's five-times platinum Confessions and its three number one hits, "Yeah!" a dance-pop number produced by Lil' Jon and featuring snarky MC Ludacris; "Confessions Pt. 2," on which he stresses over impregnating a woman who isn't his girlfriend; and the breakup ballad "Let It Burn."
The day after his appearance at the MTV press conference, Usher conducted an afternoon teleconference with dozens of journalists for publications ranging from august newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times (Jim DeRogatis), to alt-weeklies such as the Dallas Observer (Sarah Hepola) and even relatively small "entertainment" 'zines such as Atlanta's Rolling Out (Andrea Mitchell). Each reporter is allowed to ask one question, but there are so many of us that we don't even make it through the round-robin session before the hour-long interview is summarily cut off by Usher's manager.
By the time this happened, unfortunately, the conversation had devolved into another stinging indictment of the lowly state of entertainment journalism, a sycophantic orgy on par with the MTV press conference of a day earlier. Instead of questioning Usher about relatively interesting topics, such as the controversy surrounding his "Confessions" remix with rapper Joe Budden (on which the latter said, "Pray that she abort that if she's talkin' about keepin' it/One hit to the stomach, she's leakin' it"), most content themselves with kittenish queries about his tour diet and any "advice he wants to give to teens right now."
Nearly 45 minutes had elapsed during the session before this reporter was prompted to ask his one question.
I charged ahead. "One of the things that you talked about is how finally MTV is embracing you by giving you all these nominations for your videos," I said in a nervous, rambling voice, "and that in the past, like, you've made videos but [MTV hasn't] necessarily awarded them, like, recognized them in this way. Do you find that gratifying -- the fact that, you know, finally you're getting recognition from MTV?"
"You know what? I'll tell you this," said Usher, his voice growing animated yet remaining cordial. "There's two ways in life to look at things. You can look at everything that happens to you as negative, or you can turn the other cheek and continue to work hard, and then when you earn your keep they can't deny you of it.
"I had spent millions of dollars on videos and, you know, changed, you know, a lot of motivation in the music business, whether it was through style or whether it's just through dance," he continued, referring to several of his past videos, particularly his "U Got It Bad" series with former girlfriend and TLC member Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, that were nominated but didn't win any Video Music Awards. "That was not recognized at MTV for whatever reason. I don't know.
"But, you know, the fact that they recognize me [now] and had me be a part of this ceremony and have done so many major things, you know, in conjunction with my album [Confessions], I'm happy," he concluded. "You know, it may be political. I don't know. But I know that I'm very happy that I was able to, you know, be nominated for five categories. You know, in choreography, R&B, best album -- all that. It's amazing, man."
In spite of Usher's disturbing assertion that, as a multiplatinum artist, he deserves to be nominated for a VMA, his comments hit home. Like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, he has been seemingly reared from birth to win our hearts with heartwarming, infectious melodies. But his status as a "sure thing" has been complicated by his status as an African American who sings R&B (as opposed to Justin Timberlake, a white pop star who sings R&B).
Until recently, black R&B musicians (with the possible exception of "hip-hop divas" such as Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill) were often absent from the cavalcade of critical acclaim and record sales that have greeted the hip-hop juggernaut over the past decade. Music writers often dismissed their efforts as overproduced radio fodder that lacked rap music's braggadocio edge; while MTV played their videos, the channel usually forgot about them during the Video Music Awards, which are bestowed by a committee of industry folk from record labels, magazines and video-production companies. That began to change two years ago, when Alicia Keys and her debut, Songs in A Minor, swept the 2002 Grammy Awards.
This year, Usher's five nominations tied him with Beyoncé, No Doubt and OutKast for second-most nominated artist after Jay-Z's six for the clip "99 Problems." (Usher would go on to win two golden statues.) Although the VMAs don't carry as much clout as the Grammys, they have become a cultural watermark, often crowning the biggest fish in the pop universe. So maybe it makes sense that, when it comes to props, Usher cares as much about these awards as he does about earning his platinum discs. In a world of ever-changing, interchangeable pop stars, they're one of the few ways left to stand out.