Since many of the recording artists who populate MTV are known as much for their off-stage misadventures as their on-screen triumphs, it's fitting that the Video Music Awards are eagerly anticipated not because they give props to creative innovation (although that's nice, too), but because they shine a spotlight on a crowd of hipsters that never fails to shock. Someone always either acts up, falls down or, against all odds, truly moves the audience. Or, in the case of this year's 18th annual ceremony, broadcast live from Manhattan's Metropolitan Opera House last night, all three possibilities came to pass. Here are the highlights and, okay, the low points, too:The opening monologue: After performing a medley of hits in incongruous classical-music style — somewhere, Adam Sandler, the original Opera Man, surely was phoning his lawyers — emcee Jamie Foxx (a surprisingly passable vocalist) launched into an energetic ramble that was raunchier than it was funny. First, he pointed out that tickets to the upcoming extravaganza honoring Michael Jackson were going for $2,500 apiece, "but the kids get in free." Then, making note of the hot trend in celebrity-nicknaming, he cracked that recently rehabbed Backstreet Boy AJ McLean — who announced that he was enjoying his 64th day of sobriety — would now go by the handle "Long Island Ice T." Adding injury to insult, Foxx then offered the recovering alcoholic a bottle of champagne.The Aaliyah tribute: Although Janet Jackson spoke of the ill-fated up-and-comer with all due respect, her choice of funeral attire was dubious at best. Did she raid Donna Summer's closet before leaving for Lincoln Center? Worse, the queen of pop missed her cue to clam up, and accidentally stepped on the next mourner's line. (You just know that, as soon as the diva made her way backstage, there was yet another untimely death.)The revenge of the nerds: The meek may or may not someday inherit the earth, but they certainly were present at the VMAs in great enough numbers to at least stake a claim on the Met. Not only did four-eyed "Weapon of Choice" director Spike Jonze stammer through an acceptance speech flanked by Fatboy Slim and Christopher Walken (no portraits of cool themselves), Linkin Park's ultradweeby frontman concluded his caterwauling of "One Step Closer" by saying a polite thank-you that surely did his mom proud. In addition, Moby gave a shout-out to his "South Side" leading lady, Gwen Stefani, that acknowledged his inherent dorkiness. "I'm not the most attractive person in the world," the chrome-dome observed. "Without Gwen, the video wouldn't have gotten shown in the first place."The fashion risk-takers: Once viewers recovered from their astonishment at seeing J. Lo fully clothed — not to mention, getting an eyeful of her ripped "I'm Real" duet partner, Ja Rule, half dressed — the surprises kept coming fast and furious. Gracious! Alicia Keys scored a hit wearing an art-deco hair net, as did Gwen Stefani, pulling off a 1940s-era 'do. Alas, 'N Sync and Destiny's Child fared less well. On a set designed to evoke comic-book coloring, the boys turned out a rollicking rendition of "Pop" in get-ups that made it appear that they had just lost at Paintball. And the gals... well, they had better watch their backs — Cher doesn't take kindly to having her Vegas costumes lifted. Still, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most stunning, uh, look of the evening belonged to the brutal-rock group Mudvayne, who paired conservative suits and ties with — egad! — neon mohawks and bloody, fake bullet wounds.The blatant self-promotion: MTV sold commercials aplenty, but apparently some acts weren't willing to fork over the Benjamins. No matter, though — these folks simply turned their moments at the mike into advertising time. Instead of merely bantering with fellow presenters Mark Wahlberg and Shakira, rappers DMX and Busta Rhymes plugged their upcoming albums. Wiggy Macy Gray took her stab at publicity a step further by donning a dress with her new disc's release date on the front and a simple message — "Buy it" — on the back.The great performances: Tickling the ivories and unleashing her fierce pipes with heart-stopping passion, "Falling" singer Alicia Keys came off as every inch the real deal. Yowza! Lesser acts relied on gimmickry to turn heads, but it worked. Jay-Z had a Stomp-like rhythm section of basketball players warm up the crowd, and Missy Elliott called on a larger roster of guest stars to back her up than would be found in an average episode of The Love Boat. Inadvertently, U2 sent waves of excitement through the room, too, when a power outage nearly short-circuited their set and caused them to start over following a station break. And despite the fact that Britney Spears's new single, "I'm a Slave 4 U," lacks the sugar-rush kick of her prior hits, she filled the stage with enough Lion King chorus boys and jungle animals to almost divert attention away from her blatant lip-synching.The special guests: Since Jamie Foxx wasn't exactly a laugh riot as emcee, appearances by funnymen Andy Dick (saucily spoofing Christina Aguilera in drag), Ben Stiller (deflating the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy) and Will Ferrell (reenacting the scenery-climbing incident of the 2000 VMAs) were especially welcome. However, the night's biggest thrill was delivered by the original thriller himself, Michael Jackson. Foxx may have reduced the "Bad" guy to a punchline, but, as he emerged from a cloud of smoke to step lively at the climax of 'N Sync's number, the king of pop commanded the stage as if his crown had never been tarnished.