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Let It Burn

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

By the time Usher Raymond appeared before a horde of journalists, photographers, videographers, and city officials during a press conference announcing the MTV Video Music Awards nominees outside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the morning sun had risen completely into the sky, threatening to scorch the gathering beneath it. But the man with the biggest-selling album of the year, the multiplatinum Confessions, didn't look as if he was breaking a sweat. "Miami will be the light of life," said Usher in a smooth voice, his platinum cross dangling from his neck. "It's like my home away from home."

Until Usher had walked onto a small, makeshift podium to announce nominees for three of the nineteen award categories, the only thing remarkable about this hot and humid July morning was how uncomfortable everyone felt. The press conference started nearly an hour late; a spokesperson for MTV was overheard explaining to someone, "We're still waiting for the talent." As several representatives for Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and City of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz stalked the small area, hapless photographers and reporters busied themselves by networking and attacking a buffet table stocked with croissants and coffee. Everyone was trying to keep in motion on a breezeless summer day, but even the coolest personages began sweating by the time the speakers took to the podium.

"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

On stage, Penelas and Diaz were joined by MTV president Van Toffler and Dave Sirulnick, executive producer for the 2004 VMA broadcast. Both Penelas and Diaz spoke ornately, trumpeting their triumphant joint bid to lure the VMA from its usual home in New York City as the Big Apple hunkers down for a potentially calamitous 2004 Republican National Convention. "If I am the MTV mayor, then Miami is the MTV city," remarked Diaz, who was wearing a black MTV jersey over his shirt and tie.

While the assembled media tolerated the quartet's pleasantries, their spirits lifted remarkably once 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.

Unfortunately, there's only so much quality time we mere mortals are allowed to spend among the stars. After the diminutive Missy Elliott ("She's so cute!" a TV reporter was overheard gushing to her friend), dressed in fatigues and a platinum dog tag, walked out to announce the nominees for two more categories, it was all over. Everyone descended upon the podium to take pictures, and Usher and Elliott posed with the Miami and MTV officials.

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."


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 "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds) when he was a mere ötween, he 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 number one Billboardsmash "Nice and Slow." The next album, 2001's 8701, repeated My Way's success, leading to this year's five-times platinum Confessionsand 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" özines 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 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."

"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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