It’s not 1998, but MTV was hoping to get back to its music video roots with the return of its famous video countdown show, “Total Request Live,” aka “TRL,” on Monday. The show is a reboot of the popular old series — with a whole new generation of hosts focused on embracing the viral nature of today’s social media culture.
In its glory days, “TRL” turned stars into superstars — and helped launch the careers of people such as Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Backstreet Boys, Nelly, Kid Rock, No Doubt, and Beyoncé.
The show was the ’90s version of “American Bandstand.” It was exciting to watch because it did what MTV and Rolling Stone once did so well: celebrate music and fandom. The focus of “TRL” was to embrace the beauty of the fan-artist relationship.
Full of wide-swinging camera jib shots of screaming fans on set and on the sidewalk out in front of MTV’s Times Square studios, it was a blend of the hottest music videos, the wildest celebrity interviews, and powerful musical performances.
Monday’s show launch featured top artists such as Ed Sheeran, who invited two of his biggest fans up from the street-level bullpen to see him perform in studio. The fans had to make a case for themselves before they could get into the studio. It was an endearing moment of seeing an artist show gratitude and humility toward his fans, rather than many of the latest breed of entertainers who act more entitled and preachy than humble.
Carson Daly once became a household name as the face of the “TRL” franchise; his thoughtful music interviews of top artists made the show smart, informative and entertaining. Daly — who went on to host “The Voice” and co-host “The Today Show” — has been replaced by social media stars no one older than 25 has likely ever heard of, including Liza Koshy, rapper-comedian DC Young Fly, radio host Erik Zachary, DJ-actress Amy Pham, TV personality Lawrence Jackson, and writer-producer Tamara Dhia. The new hosts are enthusiastic about the reboot, but they’re all barely old enough to remember the original show.
The original “TRL” occurred, thankfully, at a time before politics saturated the entertainment world. The new show — at least the first iteration of it — carried on that tradition, as it was apolitical and focused on the love of popular tunes.
Yet the show also seems surprisingly open-minded. Albert Lewitinn, the “TRL” show-runner, said in an interview with The Fader he’d welcome the opportunity to have the president on the new show. “He’s welcome to hashtag us and @TRL. He’s the president of the United States. Of course, we would welcome him on.”
Today’s youth-oriented TV fans are likely too young to remember the original show, but MTV doesn’t seem worried.
“The brand itself is so much bigger than one element; for us to launch anything successful, it needs to be in the cultural zeitgeist, whether it’s a brand-new show or a relaunched ‘TRL,'” MTV president Chris McCarthy told Variety.
One disappointing feature that’s missing is the video countdown. It was the heart and premise of the original series. Fans of “TRL” remember calling up a toll-free number or using dial-up internet connections to share requests for their favorite music videos. By the time the show went off the air in 2008, MTV was only showing clips from the music videos, rather than the whole things. This move to minimize the videos turned off fans and pushed MTV in the near music-free direction its been in until now.
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In 1998, the music video had become a powerful platform and a respected cinematic art form. No longer were there cheesy ’80s videos with sexy girls lying provocatively on hoods of cars or choreographed dance numbers — the videos had evolved into pieces of art, with fantastical elegance and visually stunning scenes resembling major motion pictures or esoteric paintings. The music video genre allowed such acclaimed directors as Spike Jonze, Francis Lawrence, Mark Pellington, Mark Romanek, Michel Gondry, and Hype Williams to graduate to Hollywood feature films.
In the end, the internet killed the video star when YouTube allowed teens to watch what they wanted, when they wanted. The music video is mostly a foreign concept to most young people today.
Even the music videos that are still made are consumed outside of television. In 2012, Nielsen found that most teenagers preferred to listen to music via YouTube over iTunes, radio and CDs. The ability of MTV to have a virtual monopoly on showcasing the hottest new music videos is long gone. Every video a teen wants to see is a click away.
Only time will tell if the network can make lightning strike twice.
In response, MTV gave up trying to convince millennials to request videos on the new iteration of “TRL.” Instead, the focus is now on live artist performances and original content.
“While we will be focusing on music, we’re going to be focusing on so much more: film, television, fashion, and sneakers, just kind of encompassing culture as a whole and what it is in this day and age,” new co-host Dhia told Entertainment Weekly.
People have long lamented that MTV morphed from a music-focused network into a sometimes politically charged home for reality shows about pregnant teenagers. It seems it is finally trying to go back to its roots, albeit in a way that acknowledges today’s digital world. Only time will tell if the network can make lightning strike twice.