Eugoogly: Total Request Live
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 17, 2008
The 90s: Now officially over
James Horner’s “Southhampton.” Most people probably think that the first video to top the charts on MTV’s soon-to-be-flagship video request program was something by Backstreet Boys or N Sync, but I remember when the show started as Total Request, a VJ-less, half-hour night-time program, part of the channel’s new nightly lineup with Artist Cut, Say What? and Rockumentary Remix. And at the top of the charts on the first night was James Horner’s instrumental piece, still piggybacking off the endless pop culture overflow of Titanic’s monstrous success. Well, to be honest, it was either that or Hanson’s “Weird,” I can’t remember entirely for certain. But either way, who could’ve possibly predicted at the time that this afterthought of a video request program would help dictate the next half-decade in pop music?
Total Request Live, or TRL, as it would be come to be known, will be closing its doors in November. The last bastion of MTV’s olden days of actual music video playing, the show is nonetheless at least partly responsible for its own demise. Back when TRL debuted, music videos still constituted the majority of MTV’s programming, but as the show ballooned in popularity, MTV execs apparently came to realize that its core demographic was starting to skew a little bit younger. And maybe the kids didn’t really care about getting to see full music videos (TRL only played videos in their entirety for the first few months) as much as they cared about cute guys, teen princesses and screaming a whole lot. There are other contributing factors, of course–the rise of reality TV and YouTube chief among them–but really, it was only two or three steps between TRL and The Hills to begin with.
Still, it’s hard to begrudge the show too much. Back when it started, I was as into it as anyone. Nothing much else was happening in pop music in 1998, anyway–post-grunge had become totally stagnant, hip-hop was the sole property of the Bad Boy family and big beat had failed miserably to cement its Next Big Thing status. Hanson was already entering the awkward years, and the Spice Girls were about to break up. We needed something besides the Lilith Fair to occupy us, at least until the new millennium. In the form of the teen pop explosion–the boy bands and the blonde starlets–we got it. And TRL, now in a mid-afternoon timeslot, perfect for kids like me just coming home from middle school, was the perfect conduit to bring this emerging pop front to the masses.
And in TRL host Carson Daly, we got…well, I’m still not really sure. The popularity of TRL was in no doubt at least somewhat related to its host for nearly a half-decade, and he managed to parlay it into both a late-night talk show gig and a fling with Jennifer Love Hewitt, but you’d be hard-pressed to explain exactly why. He wasn’t charismatic, he wasn’t particularly good looking, he didn’t seem that knowledgeable, and not only did he not seem very interested in the music or people he was dealing with, at times he seemed downright contemptuous of them. The best explanation you really could proffer about Daly’s popularity is that at the very least wasn’t an egghead like Matt Pinfield or Tabitha Soren, or a complete mess like Kennedy or Jesse Camp. He was more like Dave Holmes, Camp’s Wanna Be a VJ mroe stable runner-up, except thinner and more vacuous. And really, stable, thin and vacuous was all a show like TRL needed.
I will say this for Daly, though–it never felt the same after he left. The show’s urgency had already started to fade with the demise of the Max Martin era, and once Daly stopped showing up, turning the reins over to the even less remarkable talents of hosts like Damien Fahey and Vanessa Minnillo, TRL’s already limited credibility turned to nil. And without a burgeoning pop phenomenon for it to hang its hat on (in another era, the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana might’ve been the answer, but this time another channel got to them first), TRL felt lost at sea, an island of music video programming surrounded by miles and miles of dating shows and reality TV. It was only a matter of time before it was swallowed whole.
The memories from those first couple years, though, are enough to sustain TRL’s legacy amongst just about anyone who was still in grade school at the time. The N Sync and Backstreet Boys battles. KoRn’s “Got the Life” becoming the first video retired on the show after spending 65 days on the countdown, despite never climbing above the #3 spot (and the video’s follow-up, “Freak on a Leash,” finally becoming the first metal video to achieve pole position). That time a grassroots movement somehow catapulted New Kids on the Block’s “Hangin’ Tough” to the #2 spot. Britney Spears denying her much-rumored affair with Fred Durst to Carson Daly (“He got no nookie”). Tom Green crashing the party with his “Bum-Bum Song” video. During these formative years, you almost felt like you had to watch the show, because you never knew what seismic pop event you might be missing if you didn’t.
I haven’t intentionally watched the show in years, of course. But I kind of hoped it would always be there, just in case. When the next big pop explosion comes, who’s gonna let the kids know? Are we really willing to entrust Lauren Conrad and Pete Wentz with that kind of responsibility?
R.I.P. Total Request Live, 1998-2008