Outkast: Kevork Djansezian/AP
Brian Hiatt
August 26, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Has it really been a year since Madonna planted that oh-so-earthshaking smacker on Britney? With MTV’s next Video Music Awards coming up on Sunday, Aug. 29, the answer must be — in the words of nominee Usher — ”Yeah!” In the intervening months, Madonna has started calling herself ”Esther, ” and Britney has gone through a marriage, an annulment, and an engagement. And perhaps more relevantly, the MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show — in which the nation learned way too much about Janet Jackson’s taste in piercings — set a new, FCC-irking standard for the network’s stunts. With America traumatized by what Chris Rock called a ”[boobie] on a Sunday afternoon,” can this year’s VMAs even raise an eyebrow? Who knows. But here’s what we’re excited about anyway:

No host, no red carpet Perhaps scarred by Lindsay Lohan’s egomaniacal ”Look, I can dance!” stint as MC of this year’s MTV Movie Awards, the network will present the VMAs with no host at all. That puts more pressure on the presenters, who include Ashlee Simpson, Shaquille O’Neal, Hilary Duff, Paris Hilton, Will Smith, and Jimmy Fallon. And that’s not the only change: For the first time, the show will take place at an enormous waterside arena in Miami, instead of a smaller venue in New York or L.A. Accordingly, instead of strolling down a red carpet, many of the night’s stars will arrive via boat, which raises some questions: Will P. Diddy have his yacht encrusted with diamonds? Will Good Charlotte engage in naval warfare with fellow pop-punkers Simple Plan? And when will MTV roll out its show, ”Pimp My Dinghy”?

Music The arena venue should give the evening’s largest ensemble — the two-dozen-member spacy-pop collective the Polyphonic Spree — plenty of room to spread out. But numbers aside, the evening’s biggest act is Grammy-grabbing hip-hop duo OutKast. It’ll take a lot to top the weirdness of Andre 3000’s tribesmen-in-the-future version of ”Hey Ya!” at the Grammys, but at least they’ve got several other hit singles to perform. Other performers to watch for: Usher, who will no doubt celebrate his bland-to-badass makeover (with help from crunk master Lil’ Jon), and brainy hitmaker Kanye West, who’s gone from coveted producer to superstar rapper in the past year. The announced lineup is short on rock bands; among the few who’ll be included are Hoobastank (best known for the power ballad ”The Reason”), violin-wielding pop-punk dudes Yellowcard, and rock revivalists Jet.

Surprises The VMAs traditionally include several unannounced moments, from Neil Young jamming with Pearl Jam (1993) to Jacko tongue-kissing Lisa Marie Presley (1994). With no information whatsoever at hand, here’s some speculation: This year, the ideal surprise probably would involve Britney Spears and her perpetually white-T-shirted fiancé, Kevin Federline. Will they perform together? Make out with Madonna together? The Kev-and-Brit-obsessed masses will settle for anything.

The (interesting) awards The VMAs have never really been about the Moonmen given to winners (does it matter, for instance, that Jamiroquai won big in 1997?). But a few categories are intriguing. The Viewer’s Choice Award, decided upon by online fans, pits Good Charlotte and Simple Plan against Christina Aguilera, Linkin Park, and Yellowcard. With the pop-punk vote split, don’t be surprised if out-of-fashion rap-metal act Linkin Park wins. Meanwhile, in the Best New Artist category, bet on either Kanye West or pop/R&B band Maroon 5 to beat out precocious 13-year-old belter JoJo, Brit mock-metallers the Darkness, Jet, and Yellowcard (yeah, them again).

The retiring champ Jay-Z has announced he’ll retire — and he also has the most nominations, scoring six nods for his gritty video for ”99 Problems.” So this year’s VMAs will likely double as a tribute to hip-hop’s departing king, with many sightings of Jay-Z at the podium and fulsome tributes from other performers. All the love might even give him an excuse to make a quick return to recording (perhaps, as he’s hinted, under his real name, Sean Carter). But will he finally admit that he’s going out with fellow nominee Beyoncé? Now THAT would be a shocker.

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