Usher Wants His MTV

Why a pop megastar still feels neglected by the mainstream

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.

Usher, kneeling in the Confessional
Usher, kneeling in the Confessional
Savvis Center

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.

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