Once upon a time, MTV really did feature the very thing the “M” in its acronym stands for: music. In this bygone era, Music Television was not about pregnant teenagers (who, ironically, were only babies in the ‘90s) or Snooki fist-pumping her way into America’s the hearts (or fist pumping her way into a vast majority wanting to fist pump her face and/or poof). It may be hard for today’s teens to believe, but these reality-based programs were non-existent just a little more than 10 years ago.
And at the tail end of the ‘90s, MTV enriched our lives with a little program that became symbolic of late ‘90s pop culture: Total Request Live.
The show, which soon became known simply as “TRL,” debuted in September 1998, with blue-eyed host Carson Daly (and — fun fact — no screaming live audience; those only began in late ‘99). The last days of the decade were ruled by dueling boy bands and pop princesses, along with some less squeaky-clean performers, such as Eminem, KoRn and Limp Bizkit. The program featured a top-ten countdown of viewer-voted videos, peppered with (sometimes bizarre, a la Mariah Carey and her popsicle cart) celebrity interviews and performances. The show, which helped launch countless careers, was a superstar-making machine and a valuable promotional stage for tons of celebrities. A band or artist knew they’d made it when one of their videos popped up or they were invited on set.
(Please excuse the horrible picture quality — remember, this was before the days of HDTV)
Unlike other countdown shows, this one gave the viewer something a little different: power. It was up to us to cast the votes and make sure our favorite video made it to the top. Forget the presidential elections; never was there a more important place for democracy than in the TRL studio. I felt a lot of pressure ensuring that my Boys (Backstreet Boys, that is) sang and choreographed-danced their way to number one.
TRL was also the platform for a battle of epic ‘90s proportions: Backstreet vs. N*SYNC. Both groups were popular pre-TRL, but the show helped launch them into the superstar stratosphere. Much like Sharks vs. Jets rivalry, things got dangerous when two opposing fans faced off. Hell hath no fury like a teenage boyband fanatic scorned; this is a fact. Whenever either boy band made a guest appearance on the show, mass hysteria broke out in Times Square. Hundreds of screaming, crying, borderline-obsessed girls littered the street outside the studio just to catch a glimpse of their beloveds, which necessitated tight security. Bieber, eat your heart out!
Alas, all good things must come to an end. And on a cold November evening in 2008, I sat with my roommate, nearly in tears, watching the final episode of TRL. A dark day in history, indeed. After a revolving door of videos, pop superstars, hosts and even intro graphics, it was all over! Bon voyage, Total Request Live.
The popularity of the music video seemed to slowly diminish in the 2000s, and the end of TRL was like the flame of that proverbial candle finally burning out. This next statement may be a bold one, but TRL was sort of our generation’s American Bandstand. Kids came home after school, flipped to MTV and (at the risk of sounding corny – sorry!) found a show that spoke to our generation’s love of pop cultural influences and icons.
Does the world still have room for the popularity and influence of music videos as we, the children of the ‘90s, knew them? Does the next generation even care? Epic mini-movies from Lady Gaga and Kanye West draw in audiences, but it’s hard to say if videos will ever have a major resurgence, especially in a social media world in which they’re forced to compete with countless other mediums of information and entertainment. Anyone can watch videos on YouTube or on their iPhone, so a live countdown show in this day and age might be trivial. But TRL will always have a special little spot in our hearts.
Oh, and Carson, it’s because of TRL that we’ll even forgive you for dating Tara Reid.