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Prince, the Backstreet Boys, and Diddy on a Treadmill: How the Original ‘TRL’ Conquered Teen Culture

Twenty years ago, the MTV countdown show—and its fan-besieged Times Square studio—was the center of the pop universe. Can its reboot possibly recreate the magic?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As the 21st century dawned, teen pop and boy bands reigned supreme. New York City’s Times Square had not yet become a pedestrian-friendly promenade. And at its apex, Total Request Live, MTV’s flagship show, hosted by affable budding superstar Carson Daly, aired every weekday afternoon in a packed studio with a giant studio picture window looking out on Midtown Manhattan, and a virtual window into seemingly every home in America.

TRL regaled the after-school crowd with a top-10 video countdown and all manner of celebrity-fueled hysteria. An appearance by Eminem or Britney Spears or ’NSync or the Backstreet Boys—should they saunter over to that giant window and wave at the teeming Times Square masses below—could stop thousands of teenage hearts. It could also stop traffic.

And that’s when the cops would call and ask that the window shades come down, lest a starstruck Justin Timberlake fanatic get plowed over by a cab.

“We never wanted to drop ’em, because a lot of those people out there, they were out there like it was New Year’s Eve,” says TRL vet Tim Healy, who went from head writer to executive producer. “They would wait hours, and then we would drop it, and you would hear them just—it was like the air being let out of a balloon. This moan outside. I always felt bad for Carson. People were pissed … and I think a lot of the guests took pride when the shade came down. They knew that they kind of ground Midtown to a halt.”

The showrunners took pride in that chaos, too. TRL premiered in September 1998 with the modest aim of hybridizing various warm, familiar MTV tropes. It was a countdown show that retained the same phone number as its ’80s-born predecessor Dial MTV. (That’s 1-800-DIAL-MTV, of course.) It was an anything-can-happen live show designed to justify that swank new Times Square studio. It flaunted the audience-driven anarchy of various summer MTV Beach House incarnations. And it starred a young VJ named Carson Daly, an everyman L.A. radio guy who soon turned into a bigger star than many of the stars he was interviewing.

It’s also the show where Mariah Carey dropped by unannounced one day in 2001 to hand out ice cream and do a brief striptease, in what was either a personal “meltdown” or a shrewdly playful channeling of the show’s joyful pandemonium.

The TRL moment coincided with the music industry’s last true boom time. The file-sharing behemoth Napster debuted in 1999 but took a few years to build up the steam required to decimate CD sales for the next decade. In 2000, when the show latched onto big hits by the likes of Backstreet Boys, Korn, Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, Eminem, and Limp Bizkit, 'NSync’s No Strings Attached sold almost 2.5 million copies in its first week alone, a record that stood until Adele broke it in 2015. TRL ensured that MTV was usually airing at least 10 music videos every weekday afternoon, heavily weighted toward boy bands and the Britney/Christina/J.Lo tier of divadom riding the final giant wave of album sales, but nonetheless rededicating the channel to its most influential cultural product. And the show quietly innovated upon the staid celebrity-interview format with a goofy riot of games and inspired stunts dimly reflected nowadays by the likes of Ellen and Jimmy Fallon.

The show’s ratings—which per Nielsen peaked in 1999, with almost 800,000 viewers a day— gradually declined until the show closed up shop in November 2008 with an epic, boldface-name-saturated finale. But the brand is strong enough that MTV is premiering a full reboot on Monday, a bold gambit given that in 2017 the notion of “requesting” a song is all but obsolete, and teens hardly even watch television on their TVs anymore. Moreover, the current political and cultural climate is charged to the degree that new showrunner Albert Lewitinn is already getting roasted online for telling The Fader that he’d love to host President Trump, who made at least one apolitical, Apprentice-driven appearance in the show’s first incarnation. (MTV passed along information about the new TRL but the new showrunners were not available for an interview.)

But talking with various former executives, producers, and writers—along with the odd host, casting director, and frequent guest—it’s clear that the show’s prime was so glorious that it’s hard to resist attempting to revive it. “When we look back at it, there will never be as pure and as fun and as happy a ride or a time as when TRL was at its zenith,” says co-creator and former MTV senior vice president of production Bob Kusbit. “It was just the greatest ride that you could ever have in pop television.”

In retrospect, TRL has an End of Empire feel, a dizzying peak for music television, the music biz, and pop music as a whole. But at the time, soundtracked by an infinite cascade of screaming teenagers, it simply felt like Empire.

“I remember that my first interview, they asked me, ‘Do you know the names of the five Backstreet Boys?’” recalls TRL researcher, writer, and producer Bryan Terry. “And I was like, ‘I think one of them is named Brian.’ Like, I didn't know shit about pop music!”

Terry explains Total Request Live as the musical equivalent to SportsCenter. It was a live rumination on current events and viral-type frivolities that checked the archetypal American teenager’s pulse daily—with a deadly serious top-10 video countdown determined by fan phone calls and nascent online voting, just to give the whole thing some statistical gravitas. “It was as scientific as it could possibly be back then,” Kusbit says of the tabulation. (If it’s pure stats you’re after, daily charts and crunched numbers are unofficially preserved here.)

In the public imagination, the show is synonymous with teen stars and boy bands, especially the great Backstreet Boys vs. ’NSync war that raged in the late ’90s and early 2000s, giving America perhaps its closest modern-day equivalent to Beatlemania. (The two groups’ stranglehold on TRL’s daily no. 1 spot basically lasted four years.) But that unfairly narrows the show’s scope at a time when “pop music” had a much broader definition, encompassing Linkin Park, My Chemical Romance, and theoretical “anti-Britney” disruptor Avril Lavigne.

The show premiered at a low point for the channel and youth culture alike. “Grunge music was on its way out,” Kusbit recalls. “It was sort of a dark time at MTV. Ratings were low, and the energy was low.” He knew TRL had struck a nerve when morale among MTV employees viscerally improved, spurred in part by staffers taking genuine sides in the Backstreet vs. ’NSync debate. But though the likes of Justin Timberlake (or Brian Littrell) were most likely to earn a call from the cops, the show had plenty of variety.

“I sort of see TRL as being in this moment in time when pop was defined in a much more diverse way,” says former executive producer Tony DiSanto. “’Cause you had Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Eminem. The common thread is that they were all sort of visual artists, too—they were like TV stars with great videos.”

It’s not that this period avoided stagnation altogether: “There were a few songs where I was just like, ‘Oh, Jesus, we need to just throw this thing in the trash, it’s been no. 1 for like 40 weeks,’” says Damien Fahey, one of the new hosts elevated in the wake of Carson Daly’s 2003 departure. “You just kind of get sick of it. But those are pretty few and far between.” The show’s semi-official “Retirement Home,” reserved for videos that dominated the charts for so long they were disqualified, is packed with Mickey Mouse Club veterans and teen-pop all-timers like “Bye Bye Bye” and “I Want It That Way” and “...Baby One More Time.” But overkill was an honor likewise bestowed upon artists like 50 Cent, Blink-182, Korn, Fall Out Boy, and Usher, plus one-off delights ranging from Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” (presented here as “Back That Thang Up”).

Everyone from Green Day to a rooftop-bound U2 to Prince swung by; Fahey remembers auditioning by writing VJ promo copy for videos by Creed, P.O.D., and Shakira. The Prince visit is especially jarring in retrospect: “He was pushing Carson’s buttons a little bit,” DiSanto recalls. “Like, ‘Do you like the music you’re playing?’ And it was a little bit awkward, but Carson, I remember, came back with a really strong statement, like ‘Hey man, if I’m the bartender, and I don’t like Jack and Cokes, I still have to serve it up to people, because that's my job.’”

For the more metal- and punk-oriented end of the TRL spectrum, there was a subversive element to being embraced by the oracle of teen-pop stardom. “It was great,” says Deryck Whibley, frontman for Canadian punk band Sum 41, who lodged two videos in the show’s hallowed Retirement Home. “Because we were planting our flag on enemy ground, you know? I remember the very first time we went on there, O-Town, or something like that, was on there, and I remember, we were making fun of them as they were about to come out or something. So that was just the vibe for us, to just go on there and sort of spit in the face of everybody else, of the pop bands that were on there.”

But no artist of his generation personified the conflicts and complexities of pop superstardom more vividly than Eminem, a frequent guest but never quite a comfortable one, at least backstage. “I remember him sitting on the couch by himself, sort of head down, like he didn't really want to talk to anybody,” Fahey says. “I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s a man who doesn't want to talk to anyone. So I think I’m just gonna leave him alone.’ But then, you know, he gets out there, and he’s debonair.”

Historically, of course, the rapper launched various IRL feuds against countdown-dominating giants from Britney Spears to Christina Aguilera to rap-metal doofs Limp Bizkit to even Mark Wahlberg, whom Eminem antagonized right on camera with Daly watching. But he knew the show’s power, and wasn’t quite immune to it. Multiple TRL vets fondly recall Em’s 2002 appearance on the show, just as 8 Mile premiered and made him a movie star, too. “It was crazy,” says longtime producer Deirdre Connolly. “We were begging the city to keep the curtains up so he could walk over and wave, and then the second that happened, kids are like running across the street ... they were actually risking their lives to get closer to Eminem. And then we had to bring the curtains down.”

“I remember how emotional he was,” says casting director and segment producer Courtney Mullin. “Literally, you could see the tears in his eyes. It really hit him, I think—it was chilling to see Times Square like that, and just to see that he wasn’t taking it for granted. That he really, really appreciated that moment.” As a major artist, you could turn your nose up at the show and the teen-pop hegemony it often stood for. But it was harder to deny the passion, the terrifying ferocity, of the show’s joyfully screaming hordes of underage fans.

As casting director, Mullin arguably had the hardest job on TRL, or at least the one that involved the most verbal abuse. “On the days when it was, like, the Backstreet Boys, literally—I’m not even exaggerating—I would get to work, and there would be people sleeping on the streets,” she says. “Parents would actually come in the middle of the night and sit in a line with their kids, just to make sure that they had a shot at getting in. And then, the same thing with ’NSync. Eminem drew big crowds, also. I feel like people either loved me or hated me.”

They hated her because in its first incarnation, the TRL studio could accommodate roughly 60 audience members, and it was Mullin’s job to pull the lucky few out of the Times Square mob via trivia contests and other culling devices. “I always wanted to give the opportunity to the biggest fans, to just have that experience, because there was nothing else like that in the whole entire world, where you got to be that close to your favorite artist,” she says.

Which means she broke a lot of hearts and enraged plenty of moms and dads. “I had the parents, who’d be screaming at me, yelling at me: Don’t you understand? I had to call off work today! I got here at one o’clock in the morning! All the bribes. No matter where the parent worked or what they did, they were like, ‘I could get you this, I could send you this.’ They were desperate to make sure that their kid was happy. And obviously I didn’t take anything, but it was just so funny, the things that I was offered.” (Her most memorable attempted bribe: a year’s supply of Peanut Chews.)

By showtime, a TRL studio audience was a frothing, ravenous pit of starstruck delight: as pure a fount of fandom as an artist could ask for. Per the daily video countdown, the show was conceived as a For Teenagers, By Teenagers proposition, which meant that no idea was too goofy or too absurd, if it could hold a middle schooler’s attention. “To be 23 years old and have a conversation like, ‘Oh, we should have a monkey come tomorrow and pick the videos,’” says Terry. “And then next thing you know, you start work the next day, and there’s a fuckin’ monkey sitting in a cage. And you’re just like, ‘Holy shit. That's happening.’”

This is the era of MTV in which Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst literally blew up a boat halfway through a performance of “Nookie.” Diddy, who had an office across the street from the TRL studio, was likewise famously up for anything: Healy fondly recalls the day Diddy agreed to spend an entire show just running on a treadmill to prove he was really training to run the New York City Marathon. “I remember just being halfway through that show,” Healy says, “and looking at Britney Spears on our stage and P. Diddy being covered with sweat running on this treadmill, and thinking, ‘What the hell are we doing?’”

Terry recalls trying to sneak Jay-Z into the Times Square Virgin Megastore to surprise shoppers, only to have store managers call off the bit because crazed fans were likely to burn the place down if Jay even showed his face. “I had to get back into his SUV to drive literally the nine tire rotations it would take to go from the Virgin Megastore to the TRL studios, and it was like the fuckin’ pope,” Terry says. “People were crawling on the cars, and I'm just like, ‘Holy Jesus, this is something else.’”

Even for A-list celebrities, the show was too huge to ignore, its fans’ love too pure to resist. Healy says he knew TRL had become a pop phenomenon when the likes of Tom Cruise or Will Smith showed up, and more traditional NYC publicity-tour stops—from The Today Show to Conan to Letterman—started to see the show as legitimate competition, booking-wise.

Mullin remembers the time Brad Pitt showed up and struggled to shake the backstage jitters. “He was like pacing back and forth,” she says. “He was so, so nervous. And it was cool to see how vulnerable they could be.”

“A lot of the celebrities were a little bit intimidated by coming on TRL, for a couple reasons,” Healy says. “One, it was live. And two, you’re standing in front of a studio audience of screaming girls, and nobody wants to come off as out of touch. A lot of them came in with the attitude of, ‘Help me. I don’t want to go out there and look lame.’”

The show’s emphasis on games, stunts, and wild improvisation also threw big stars, but many came to embrace the change in routine and the writers’ determination to mix up even the straight interview component. “As a huge Beastie Boys fan, I would get pissed when I would read an article and, like, ‘God, another place is asking [the same] question?’” Terry says. “And so we always prided ourselves on being real consumers of media, like, ‘Listen man, Britney's been asked that question 19 times. That's not what she's here for.’”

This insistence on novelty and zany innovation made TRL an anomaly in its time, and some modern talk shows have mirrored that approach. “I feel like we started everything before, like, Ellen and Jimmy Fallon,” Mullin says. “There was just something fun about being interactive with the guest. All the fans—it’s one thing to shake their hands, but it’s another thing playing a game and being like in this interactive, fun contest with your favorite celebrity. And you never see that anywhere. All that stuff I see on Jimmy Fallon and Ellen, all those little games, we did all that for years and years. Almost everything that they’ve done, we’ve done before.”

Like every major TV show, TRL struggled to adapt its tone to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but here, too, their target audience’s sensibilities came first. In its first few days back on the air, the show became a group therapy session between celebrities (ranging from Justin Timberlake to Lenny Kravitz to Moby) and shellshocked fans. (In October 2001, even Rudy Giuliani dropped by.) “Tons of credit to Carson, where he understood his voice and place in that,” Terry says now. “He was really like, ‘Hey, let’s talk just about this, and this can be a place where young people can just talk about this, and we’re not going to solve anything, and we’re not going to try to figure anything out, but we get that up until this point, we’ve always been a place for you to talk about what’s on your mind musically. Well, obviously now, something is bigger that’s on a lot of our minds—we can talk about it.’”

Total Request Live is somewhat randomly preserved online, but in the video clips still floating around, it’s striking how often Daly is the focal point, no matter how famous the person he’s talking to or how ridiculous the scene he’s navigating. He was the show’s unflappable straight man, an earnest music fan and subtly deft improviser who commanded the spotlight by never, ever trying to hog it. He became a star himself simply by letting whatever was happening around him happen.

“When you’re on TRL, you’re in the middle of Times Square surrounded by four cameras, 60 screaming teenagers, and Shakira’s next to you, or Madonna’s next to you,” says Fahey, one of the hosts tasked with filling Daly’s shoes. “Like, interview her, pay attention to the kids, listen to this in your ear—you know, like if the director is talking to you in your ear—take cues from the camera guy, read the cue cards. So it was way more complicated than I was used to.”

All of TRL’s hosts made it look fairly easy, but no one more so than Daly, who could seemingly handle anything: Even the July 2001 Mariah Carey ice-cream incident, perhaps the signature TRL moment. The singer’s personal and professional struggles in this time frame are well-documented, but the actual substance of her surprise visit—Carey pushes an ice-cream cart into the studio, hugs a few audience members, jumps onstage, waves at the crowd outside, pulls off her oversized T-shirt, and banters awkwardly with a somewhat perturbed Daly for a few minutes—has been amplified somewhat in the 15 years since.

“I don’t even remember what album it was, but she had come already to promote the album and singles and everything,” says Connolly, who was a producer that day. “So at that moment, she had already been stopping by quite a bit. So it was sort of like, ‘OK, how does this appearance become different than being here last week or two weeks ago or whatever? Oh, you could bring ice cream out and surprise the fans, they won’t know that you’re here, it’s special.’ And it kind of grew out of that idea of kind of mixing it up—this was more spontaneous. I actually think, frankly, as we were watching it, I don’t think that we would’ve anticipated talking about it 15 years later. It seemed like, ‘Oh, fun, this is interesting! This is different!’ It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’”

The rebooted TRL will rise or fall on its ability to inspire these sorts of superstar-driven “‘holy crap’ moments,” as showrunner Albert Lewitinn put it in that same interview with The Fader. Getting superstars to play ball is much tougher across the board in 2017, now that they can dump their holy crap moments directly onto social media. But reviving key parts of MTV’s past has become central to its future. The new TRL is the latest in a string of high-profile reboots of classic MTV properties: A new iteration of Unplugged premiered last month, and the first season of Siesta Key, a reality show from the producers of mid-2000s reality-show staple Laguna Beach, concludes this week. Ratings were down for this year’s VMAs, though they did beat Game of Thrones among teens; cable channels as a whole are imperiled in the cord-cutting era, but MTV ended the summer with three months of year-over-year ratings growth.

During launch week, at least, the new-look TRL guests (including Ed Sheeran, Migos, Lil Uzi Vert, Demi Lovato, Romeo Santos, and newly anointed show “godfather” DJ Khaled) will be far more famous than the hosts (a web-savvy crew led by Vine-christened rapper-comedian DC Young Fly). But the most striking new element might be the show’s efforts at multi-platform ubiquity, from Facebook (which is hosting a daily pre-show and, along with YouTube, a post-show) to live streams on Live.ly and Musical.ly. It’s a fragmented new age that’s enough to make you nostalgic for 1999. “The beauty of us was, kids had to run home and turn on their television at 3:30 to watch,” Kusbit says.

Lewitinn’s thoughts on potentially welcoming President Trump—and his vague answer when asked how TRL might cover popular artists who are also accused domestic abusers, including the rapper XXXTentacion—angered the activism-oriented sector of potential viewers that this year’s VMAs attempted to attract by rebranding a category to Best Fight Against the System. That sequence aside, the actual VMAs ceremony managed to stay relatively politically muted, but it will be much harder day to day for TRL to avoid choosing sides in a modern climate of constant culture war. Inspiring—and captivating and not offending—a young crowd is a much tougher job these days, especially when that target audience has so many entertainment options that they no longer need to “request” anything from anybody. Classic TRL’s daily top-10 list, however scientific its construction, was a decent way to chart what the kids were into in real time, but nowadays Spotify (for starters) can do that for you anytime. And it’s hard to imagine any one show airing at any one specific time competing with the 24-7 bacchanal offered by Snapchat, YouTube, or even Twitter.

Plenty of kids now, of course, don’t ever turn on their televisions at all. “It was the viewers’ show,” Healy says. “The internet was just becoming what we know it is today. YouTube wasn’t around. It was back when you didn’t have your face in your phone all the time. As opposed to other shows, there wasn’t really a barricade between the celebrity and the viewer. We really tried to create a vibe there, where the celebrity was one with the audience.” At its best, TRL created a loopy solar system that outshone almost any individual planet that entered its orbit. By design, there are far fewer cultural entities now where one might conceivably reach out and physically touch a mega-celebrity. Mariah Carey and Brad Pitt—and their younger, modern A-list equivalents—have less incentive than ever to visit someone else’s playground, and no one playground can hold everyone’s attention for long.

But could America be secretly longing for a simplified, centralized one-stop shop for youth culture again? “I think there’s something in us that wants to be a part of something everyone else is into,” Fahey says. “Music is so fragmented now, there’s no one central hub to go to be like, ‘Oh, this is cool, this is cool.’ I think that that’s what’s missing from pop culture and music today: There’s not that one place where we can all go to, to gather round and root for your boy bands, or your rock bands, pop stars, things like that.” That’s a tall order for anyone in 2017, but it makes sense to bet on a show that already did it once.

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