NEW YORK – Britney Spears (search) and Christina Aguilera (search) writhed on stage wearing bridal veils and singing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” as a tribute to the past at the 20th annual MTV Video Music Awards, Thursday.
The Material Girl quickly notched up the controversy, a hallmark of the show, by joining the pop princesses on stage -- and planting a full open-mouthed kiss on both Spears and Aguilera.
It was a hard act for the night’s host, comedian Chris Rock (search), to follow, but he delivered some pointed – and brutal jokes – about everyone from Justin Timberlake and Ashton Kutcher to Eminem and 50 Cent.
"You gotta watch out for Ashton Kutcher, because he'll take your daughter and your mother!" he said referring to Kutcher’s ex-girlfriend Brittany Murphy, 26, and current flame, 41-year-old Demi Moore.
The award-winners were a mixed bag. Missy 'Misdemeanor' Elliott, the female rapper who had a leading eight nominations going into the show, walked away with a moonman for best hip-hop video and the coveted video of the year award, beating out crowd favorite, Johnny Cash (search), as well as 50 Cent, Timberlake and Eminem.
Cash, who many were predicting would sweep the awards, was unable to make an appearance because he was hospitalized, and won only one award, for cinematography. His video of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” was seen as a swan song for the 71-year-old crooner.
When Timberlake beat Cash for the best male video, he expressed shock over the decision.
“This is a travesty. I demand a recount,” he said. “My grandfather raised me on Johnny Cash....I think he deserves this more than any of us in here tonight."
Timberlake also won the best pop video award for "Cry Me a River," in which he stalks a woman who looks strikingly like his ex, Britney Spears, and for best dance video for "Rock Your Body.
The British band Coldplay and singer Beyonce Knowles (search) also collected three VMAs during the night. And Beyonce performed the evening’s hottest dance number, in which she entered the stage by being lowered upside down from the ceiling. She and a bevy of dancers all dressed in belly-baring outfits had the most elaborate number of the night.
Eminem, who has swept many awards shows in the past, won just one award -- for best video from a film, "Lose Yourself," from his hit movie "Eight Mile." He was beaten in the rap video category by newcomer rapper 50 Cent, who was mentored by Eminem. 50 Cent, famous for being shot nine times, also took home the best new artist award.
Besides, Beyonce’s belly-dancer-inspired performance, 50 Cent heated things up with his song "P.I.M.P.," during which he was joined onstage by Snoop Dogg, the former pimp Bishop Don Magic Juan, members of his G-Unit posse -- and a horde of half-naked women.
"Today is the anniversary of Martin Luther King's ‘I Have a Dream' speech -- isn't it nice to see that his dream has finally come true?" joked Rock after their performance.
The awards, known for their unscripted outrageousness, had few hijinks this year. Instead, the actors and performers relied on making fun of the previous year’s snafus.
Last year, Michael Jackson mistook a birthday gift for an "artist of the millennium" award. This year, comedian and actor Jack Black spoofed the event, saying he was thrilled to get the "super genius of the year award," while dressed in a Jacko-like red outfit and shin-guards.
And Eminem also poked fun at himself and the verbal tussle he had with a puppet, Triumph the Insult Dog, at last year's show.
"I got into this little anger management program ... and today I stand before you a changed man," he said, as he emerged with the puppet Ed from the off-Broadway musical, "Avenue Q." "Working with Ed has taught me that puppets, just like people, have feelings too," Eminem said -- then attacked the puppet for talking too much.
Other highlights of the show included a lifetime achievement award given out to '80s pop band Duran Duran (search), who said they are back in the studio recording, and the closing number by metal band Metallica.