A Total End To an Era In Pop Videos
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008; C01
"Total Request Live" is going off the air after a decade, and all we can think about is Mariah Carey.
Flashback, summer of 2001: A glassy-eyed Carey unexpectedly wanders onto the set and begins to wriggle out of her T-shirt. "All I know is, I want one day off when I can go swimming and look at rainbows and, like, eat ice cream," she says dreamily, as host Carson Daly's chuckles grow increasingly panicked. "And maybe, like, learn to ride a bicycle."
Try to find anyone age 18 to 29 who does not remember that moment.
So when MTV announced this week that "TRL" -- as it's been known since the brand pulled a KFC back in 1999 -- would broadcast its last fizzy countdown show in November, it felt like the end of . . . something.
Not that the show, which premiered in 1998, was ever that great. Formatwise, it's uber-low-concept: Bunch of high-pitched teens pile into a Times Square studio and watch the day's top music videos, emceed at first by Daly, later by a parade of lesser-known VJs.
Occasionally an "it" boy or girl of the current music scene drops in for a chat and to pump a new release.
Like a museum exhibit on the evolution of the boy band, the groups changed -- Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Jonas Brothers -- but the giddiness of fans jostling in line outside 1515 Broadway, that stayed the same.
But at least there's the music. Which, okay, isn't that great, either. The featured videos, democratically selected by Web votes, are generally arguments for musical dictatorships. Think: "I Want It That Way" on endless repeat through most of 1999. Producers eventually instituted a "retirement home," where such songs as "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" could rest up for a while, get a break from rotation.
But the music -- at least it's there. The very presence of music on MTV has become a novelty, as the rest of the station's lineup degenerates into back-to-back "Real World" spinoffs. "TRL," that sentimental fossil, was one of the few remaining blocks of time in which people actually played guitars and sang.
Question: Can a "TRL"-less MTV even justify hosting the MTV Video Music Awards anymore?
That "TRL" managed to hang on as long as it did is more surprising than the news that it's being canceled.
In the past few years, the whole concept of voter-generated countdown shows has started to feel extraneous. With the on-demand availability of YouTube, why waste time voting again and again and again for your faves at MTV.com? Why not just watch "I Want It That Way" 57 times in a row online, retirement home be darned? What if we want it that way?
Still, there was something nice about how "TRL" taught us about patience -- waiting, with fingers crossed, to see whether our wish-list video would make the show. Waiting, with fingers crossed, to see whether Mariah might show up again and what she might remove this time.
The end of "TRL" is not the day that music died. But it's kind of like the day that music television died.
Without "TRL," MTV is pretty much just . . . TV.