If people needed a reminder that the music video was first envisioned as a promotional vehicle for a recording act, the MTV Video Music Awards was more than happy to provide such evidence. Macy Gray presented an award with her dress serving as a billboard — the front offered the release date of her newest album; her ass had the words BUY IT stretching over both cheeks. Both Mark Wahlberg and DMX were kind enough to dispense with the usual teleprompter-prompted camraderie and gave shout-outs to their respective products. Usher was nice enough to sing a bit of his newest single (purely for the benefit of co-presenter Estella Warren, who probably would’ve plugged her last movie, Planet of the Apes, were it more topical).

And, of course, there was the shameless promotion of the vehicle offering these artists the chance to promote shamelessly. Both Bono and the trio of Moby, Gwen Stefani and Eve took the time to offer praise to MTV for their tireless pursuit of broadcasting excellence. The speech given by Moby and friends was of the scripted variety, offering a biased account of the greatness that is MTV2 — of course, this speech was written not so much to affect the minds of young viewers unaware that there’s an MTV-affiliated station whose primary goal is to broadcast videos, but to inform out-of-touch cable providers that they’re missing a golden opportunity to pull in an oft-neglected marketing demographic. Bono’s speech seemed more heartfelt — his group, U2, was honored with the MTV Video Vanguard Award — but it wouldn’t take much spin-doctoring to turn its praise of MTV’s programming diversity into a mutual back-scratch from a rock group that’s not as hip as it once was.

MTV – a network that had to be bullied by record companies to actually show a video from a black artist (Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”). MTV — a network that prides itself on being the first network to lead the charge into exploitative “reality television” (justifying its revelatory nature under the guise of social commentary). MTV — a network that would censor references to drugs and violence in lyrical content before thinking twice of broadcasting umpteen videos exploiting fair ladies shaking dat ass and other curvaceous endownments. Without a doubt, MTV’s first impulse is to entertain and satisfy, and any attempts to educate or illuminate or spread cultural diversity have always been couched in making a buck. Yes, this is MTV’s raison d’etre — they’re not a non-profit organization, after all — but I wonder if other industries are giving such glowing praise for promoting diversity after tapping into unknown hotbeds of marketability and squeezing them dry. It’s especially interesting when praise comes from supposedly socially aware folks like U2’s Bono.

But, then, MTV thrives on promoting itself, whether it’s through well-intentioned congratulations or crass tittilation. MTV is an industry unto itself, perpetuating the video music industry, growing as it grows. They cradle each other, both symbiotically providing the other with necessary sustenance. Of course, any self-respecting lucrative entertainment industry is going to take time out to pat itself on the back for all to see — hence, the VMAs, an event so huge in the eyes of the world that even MuchMusic (the pre-eminent Canadian video music channel, and a new rival for the affections of MTV’s American audience) simulcast the ceremony.

This year’s ceremony best resembled the EKG of a comatose patient falling into a deeper stupor — a steadily flat line inching across the screen, intermittently interrupted by a brief spike of activity, which quickly subsides. Presenters come on stage, do their schtick, present an award, winner thanks everyone, winner steps off. Performers get on stage, perform, offer a little “surprise” (perhaps), and retreat behind the curtain. Three and a half hours later, they go to the post-show parties, have a good time, and are done with it. And if it isn’t painfully obvious, the show isn’t about the music or the performers or the videos — it’s about MTV.

MTV has always possessed a hyper-awareness of its appearance and history, which is readily apparent in the award show proceedings — awful comedic skits are interrupted by updates on the Viewers Choice voting results; shout outs to the “fans” (both real fans and those hired by record companies to clog the TRL request lines) are heard as often as shout outs to God; references to prior award show follies are lampooned (for those actually paying attention); and the filmed bits that bookend the presentation of the nominees are so arch and over-the-top that they seem uncalculated (if given enough consideration and thought). Designing the show in such a fashion (intentionally or otherwise) feeds right into the ADD/quick-cut mentality that is MTV’s lasting contribution to pop culture. Watching the show, you can imagine the director sitting in the control booth somewhere on the premesis, shouting at assistants to switch to this camera and that camera in a speedy manner. (If you had any exposure to the umpteen Making The… shows that MTV produced about their own shows, you’d have the same imagery bouncing around in your head, too.)

It never fails that any commentary regarding the Video Music Awards will bemoan the self-congratulatory tone, the shameless self-promotion, the professional stupidity bounding about the stage, and other well-beaten horses dragged out of the glue factory every time someone wants to stick it to MTV. What this bitching fails to recognize is that MTV’s self-awareness is its key strength, allowing for its monopolization of that pre-teen/pre-adult demographic regardless of where tastes lie. The chameleon-like nature of the channel’s programming belies an obsequious and troublesome need to please. It conjures up images of a line of beauty pageant models prancing in front of judges in outfit after outfit, taking in every breath and shift as a comment or criticism.

As a result, you have that inadvertent “diversity” that Bono praises, with U2 giving the Ramones a few brief moments in their spotlight, or the X-Ecutioners emerging from behind Linkin Park, or Fred Durst and Christina Aguilera strutting the stage at the same time (from last year’s awards). This isn’t the type of diversity you’ll find in a patron of the arts, though. This is the diversity found in an investment portfolio. The type of diversity meant to cover one’s ass in case some investments don’t pan out.

It’d be hypocritical and stupid of me to criticize MTV for this. However, it’s a sad state of affairs when such savvy business moves are interpreted as signs of eclecticism. These are signs of a fat bankroll, of cash money millionaires flashing the bling-bling, of healthy risks being disregarded for the safe money. The fact that MTV disguises this conservatism in such deceptively “cutting edge” clothing is unconscionable and disgusting. A commercial is still a commercial, no matter how it looks, no matter how long it lasts, no matter how self-aware it seems. Remember that.