Let It Burn

At this year's MTV VMAs, Usher is a major constellation in a universe far removed from ours

Nearly forty-five minutes had elapsed during the session before this New Timesreporter was prompted to ask his one question.

"Hey, how's it going?" I began.

"Hey," Usher answered. "I'm loving your city. I'm here in Miami now."

"Miami will be the light of life," promises R&B superstar Usher, a main contender at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards
Tony Cutajar
"Miami will be the light of life," promises R&B superstar Usher, a main contender at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards

"Yes, I saw you at the press conference for the Video Music Awards," I responded, oddly pleased that he had shouted out my city. But it also led me to wonder: why hadn't I been able to do an in-person interview?

Unfazed, 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 "Chili" Thomas, that were nominated but didn't win VMA 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 multi-platinum artist, he deservesto 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 VMA, which are awarded 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 ties him with Beyonce, No Doubt, and OutKast for second-most nominated artist after Jay-Z's six for the clip "99 Problems." Although the VMA 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 dominating these awards as he does about winning his platinum discs. In a world of ever-changing, interchangeable pop stars, they're one of the few ways left to stand out.

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