Guns N’ Roses Cap Night Of Spectacles From Diddy, Eminem, Timberlake

Night's performances also included Bruce Springsteen, Avril Lavigne, Pink, Ludacris, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Nas.

Guns N’ Roses’ surprise performance at Thursday’s 19th annual MTV Video Music Awards was easily the night’s highlight presentation, even though P. Diddy, Eminem and Justin Timberlake had more pizzazz and Bruce Springsteen and Sheryl Crow had more heart. Click here for the complete 2002 MTV VMA Winners List.

The group — which included longtime GN’R keyboardist Dizzy Reed and a batch of new faces like ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, ex-Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck and guitarist Buckethead — kicked off its medley with “Welcome to the Jungle,” the song that had thunderingly announced GN’R back on their first VMA appearance in 1988. (Click for photos of the top VMA moments.)

Storming back and forth across the stage, sporting long braids and a bandana, Axl Rose was noticeably winded by the end of the tune, but the mania was in full force as Guns launched into their second track, a ballad likely planned for the long-promised Chinese Democracy. The group closed with “Paradise City,” again bringing the crowd back to the glory daze of hair metal.

The show kicked off on a more solemn note, as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band broadcast a live performance from outside the Museum of Natural History across town. Somber and steely, the Boss rasped, “Can’t see nothing in front of me/ Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind” on the title track from the group’s The Rising, relaying the sentiments of thousands of 9/11 mourners and rallying them together at the same time.

Back inside Radio City Music Hall, Pink began her “Just Like a Pill” lying on a leather couch, singing softly, but by the time she was finished she was standing in full glory, belting the lyrics as emphatically as another jagged little pill.

Pink’s performance was dynamic and dramatic, shifting from gentle and balladlike to rockin’ and anthemic. In the end, neither Pink’s black-purple hair nor the backdrop, which consisted of battered amps and bookshelves, a refrigerator and other appliances rejected from an East Village apartment, could distract from her mighty vocal delivery.

Ja Rule’s beef with DMX may have been reopened recently, but unity was the word of the night when he and Ashanti performed a medley with Nas to celebrate Nas’ entry into the Murder Inc. clan. The performance began with a video segment of Ja and the new princess of hip-hop and R&B paying tribute to Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in “Singin’ in the Rain.”

The duo entered the stage for “Down 4 U” holding a huge umbrella and dancing seductively around a row of giant streetlights, Ja clad in a black suit, red vest and black hat, Ashanti sporting a sexy white flapper-style fringe dress. After Ashanti sang, “I wanna be your chick/ I wanna be down for you,” Ja replied with volleys of husky raps. Sparks shot from the lamps, and the pair ended the performance back on the bench where they started.

Then Nas hopped out of a shack at the right side of the stage and sparks really started to fly. Nas began rapping “One Mic” ominously on his knees, then stood and picked up the pace, building the song’s intensity.

Nas ended the song by bringing back Ashanti and a shirtless Ja Rule, exclaiming, “We need peace in hip-hop music and I’m gonna be the big man to bring the peace. Nas and Murder Inc., y’all.”

To quote the first line of “Objection (Tango),” the song Shakira rocked the house with following a seductive belly dance and a samba jaunt with a stage full of percussionists, “It’s not her fault that she’s so irresistible.”

Shakira’s stage presence was impressive, and by the time she finished the song she’d performed a robot dance, fell backward into a well-behaved mosh pit, and was delivered back to the stage quickly enough not to miss a single line.

Eminem thumbed his nose at the nation’s conservative lawmakers and talking heads by appearing on a set that looked like a house of legislature. As Em performed “White America,” the suits became increasingly agitated. By the end of the song they were throwing paper airplanes and wadded up balls of paper at Detroit’s finest.

Seconds after the closing note, Slim Shady returned in front of the stage shirtless to launch into “Cleaning Out My Closet.” As he paced from one side of the stage to the other, he pointed at members of the crowd. Without props, dancers or other rappers around, Eminem held the crowd’s full attention.

P. Diddy began his gangbusters set by descending from a giant elevated platform while a full orchestra blasted “Bad Boy for Life.” Clad in a white suit, sunglasses and a platinum cross, Puffy roamed the smoke-covered stage until Usher emerged to jiggle with the rapper and four other dancers.

A voiceover announced, “Hold up, Diddy. Get on with part two, son,” and in a flash Puffy segued into “I Need a Girl” parts 1 and 2. As the music throbbed, an ensemble of dancers in shiny silver outfits joined P. Diddy and Usher, busting more moves than ‘NSYNC. Girls kneeled in rapture before Puffy, who writhed between them.

Busta Rhymes upped the ante, rising from a platform to the sounds of sirens and the beat of “Pass the Courvoisier.” Clad in a black biker jacket and leather pants, Busta spit rhymes back at Puffy and the two performed back-to-back.

Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any hotter, Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes took the stage in a black T-shirt and blue jeans as the curtain raised to reveal a spectacle of Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze and pogo dancers from the AntiGravity troupe for a climactic full-stage explosion.

After being introduced by J. Lo, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke about the resiliency and generosity of New Yorkers in time of crisis and thanked the music community for being so selfless in the aftermath of last September 11. “Music has a very special way of bringing people together,” he said. “And this next performer does this with style and grace. Here to perform for you is Sheryl Crow.”

Scenes of downtown New York, firemen in uniform and Manhattan skyscrapers splashed across screens and Crow began “Safe and Sound” on a keyboard. As she hit the chorus the curtain rose to reveal a full string section, which augmented the passionate track. During the song Crow’s voice shifted from a hushed whisper to a voluble near-shout, and the song’s accompanying images ended with the universally recognized “I Love New York” logo.

Both the Hives and Vines were vocally opposed to the battle of the bands set up for them, but by the time they took the stage back-to-back it was clear that both were up for the challenge. Swedish darlings the Hives began by performing “Main Offender.” As they played their Stooges-meets-Sonics garage punk, the words “You are crime, the Hives are law” scrolled across the stage screen.

Vocalist Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist sang with attitude and vigor, and guitarists Nicholaus Arson and Vigilante Carlstroem strummed with rage to burn. “I know you want us to play more, but that’s all the time we have, so you can turn off now,” Almqvist sneered as the Hives finished.

Then the curtain came up to reveal Australia’s Vines in a haze of smoke and bright lights. As the band began “Get Free,” singer/guitarist Craig Nicholls snarled and spat out lyrics while strumming a volatile, grinding riff that would have done his hero Kurt Cobain proud. His bandmates backed him with a tumultuous, tumbling performance — bassist Patrick Matthews thrumming along, drummer Hamish Rosser pounding with a loose, tempestuous groove.

As the song progressed, Nicholls got more and more unrestrained, screeching the second chorus and screaming uncontrollably at the song’s end. He concluded the performance by knocking over an amp, flinging his guitar into the drum set and tearing down the front of the kit.

For Justin Timberlake’s debut live performance, a huge boombox filled the stage, and a guitarist perched atop the appliance strummed the jagged acoustic rhythm of “Like I Love You,” the first single from his upcoming Justified. A bassist and drummer joined in before the boombox’s CD door opened and the ‘NSYNC star emerged dressed in black leather pants, an open long-sleeved shirt covering a red T-shirt, a black hat and gloves.

About halfway through the song, he was joined by the Clipse before putting on a display of his dancing prowess. At the end of the tune, the front of the boombox cabinet opened and the ‘NSYNCer strutted inside before the door shut again.

Earlier in the evening, before the big show had begun, Ludacris chose to avoid the night’s ride of choice — limos — and ride the bus. Rollin’ out in style for his pre-show performance, Luda let fly from atop a custom gold-colored vehicular behemoth as it pulled up to Radio City Music Hall, barking out his hit “Roll Out” as a handful of dancers gyrated around him.

When a mock traffic jam encircled his ride, Ludacris stopped rapping and shouted, “What’s up with all this traffic? We gotta get to the VMAs!” Then, with barely a pause, he burst into “Move B***h,” and his Disturbing tha Peace posse vacated the bus and spilled into the street. DJs scratched alongside gridlocked cars, and dancers hopped on cabs and station wagons. Rapper Shawna’s long braids swung back and forth as she rapped along, and I-20 backed the group up with more fleet wordplay.

Standing on the music hall’s marquee, 17-year-old Canadian singer Avril Lavigne and her band capped off the VMA pre-show with a performance of her #1 hit “Complicated.”

Clad in a white sleeveless shirt, a loosely knotted black striped tie, studded bracelets and oversized khakis, Lavigne looked kinda punk, but her enthusiastic bobbing and wide grin made it clear she’s no disgruntled outcast. She swayed from side to side, singing in a sugary pop voice, and her band accompanied her with spiky guitar lines and semi-propulsive rhythms, creating a blend of sweetness and angst.

Even though it was raining, Lavigne and her bandmates returned a few minutes later to perform the more upbeat “Sk8er Boi,” which was filled with pogoing that mirrored the energy of the song.

This story was updated on August 30, 2002 at 2:00 AM. EDT

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