MTV has set a high standard for the unexpected at its Video Music Awards, but on the show's 25th anniversary, the network instead settled for throwing its full support behind Britney Spears' comeback. Spears won a leading three awards, including video of the year for "Piece of Me."
Any spontaneity was left to host Russell Brand, the British comic whose rock star style and outlandish candor gave the Los Angeles show a pulse. But at the end of the night Sunday, even the manic and mangy Brand - a confessed former sex addict - could only summon a comic semi-feud with the young Jonas Brothers over their premarital celibacy.
But while Brand was unpredictable, witty and offensive, Spears was resolutely careful, determined to set right her pop star image. She was, after all, returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak. At last year's VMAs - Britney Comeback 1.0 - her unpolished performance was roundly disparaged.
In each acceptance speech Sunday, Spears spoke briefly, thanked God and dedicated the awards to her fans. Even while opening the show, she was all business, zipping through her few lines of introduction.
"Thank you so much," she said flatly as the crowd greeted her with a standing ovation. "Thank you for all the love."
MTV has a habit of reengineering the VMAs every year, and, true to form, took this year's show to the Paramount Studios lot in Los Angeles. After last year's awards, splashed throughout a Las Vegas hotel, MTV re-centered the action to a more traditional main stage.
The performances, though, often traveled back into the reaches of the Paramount lot. The Jonas Brothers played their song "Lovebug" on a fake building's stoop, before the set fell away and throngs of screaming fans ran down fictional city streets to surround them.
Unwittingly, the Jonas Brothers - one of the hottest young acts to the MTV audience - became the night's biggest talking point. Brand repeatedly joked about their purity rings, which each wears as a symbol of their vow not to have premarital sex. At one point, Brand brandished one as if he had won it from a Jonas brother.
"American Idol" champ - and fellow promise ring wearer - Jordin Sparks defended the brothers while presenting an award: "I just wanna say, it's not bad to wear a promise ring because not every guy and a girl wants to be a slut, OK?"
Brand was happy to apologize for any hurt feelings, but only to such a degree. After the show, he told The Associated Press, "I feel a bit bad that I kept talking about their vows to chastity and I'd like to take this opportunity to say no one ever have sex again. It's a mad idea. What a way to spend an evening."
A celebrity in England but relatively unknown in the States, Brand proved an interesting mix with the VMA crowd, who seemed unsure of how to react to his lack of political correctness. In his opening monologue, he joked about Madonna, virgins and President Bush, whom he called "that retarded cowboy fellow."
He pleaded, "Please, America, elect Barack Obama. On behalf of the world." Some in the star-studded crowd cheered, while others - like Spears - sat quietly.
The rest of the evening was mostly given to performances, many of which paired performers in unusual combinations. The prim and proper Leona Lewis joined Lil' Wayne, who later joined Kid Rock. Lil' Wayne took home the best hip hop video for "Lollipop."
T.I., who is currently serving 1,000 hours of community service and will afterward serve a year in prison for federal weapons charges, performed with Rihanna.
Closing the night was Kanye West who, like Spears, was hoping for a second chance after a disappointing VMA experience last year. In Las Vegas, he had a Kanye-sized hissy fit backstage and vowed never to appear at the VMAs again after he didn't get a Moonman trophy despite several nominations.
West again went home without an award this year; there were only eight awards in total. Videos from Chris Brown ("With You"), Linkin Park ("Shadow of the Day") and the Pussycat Dolls ("When I Grow Up") took home awards for best male video, best rock video and best dancing in a video, respectively.
Best new artist went to Tokio Hotel, while Spears' "Piece of Me" won for best female video, best pop video and video of the year.
On the Net: http://www.mtv.com
Associated Press writers Nekesa Mumbi Moody and Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.