MTV announced this week its plan to discontinue the video-countdown show TRL. In November, the show will begin an open-ended hiatus, presumably for brand-management reasons beyond this writer’s understanding of marketing.
TRL began its life 10 years ago as Total Request Live. The original host was Carson Daly, who brought the vibe of a country-club cutup to the proceedings. The show broadcasted from a glass-walled studio above the tourist-choked purgatory of Rudy Giuliani’s Times Square. Its initial list tilted in favor of R&B—mostly blue-eyed boy-band soul (Backstreet Boys, N*Sync) and the come-ons of ingenues (Aaliyah, Monica)—and further recorded the popularity of terminally bland alt-rock (the Goo Goo Dolls), tenacious power-balladeers (Aerosmith), family-friendly hip-hop (Will Smith), and a parent-irritating Goth with a big costume budget (Marilyn Manson).
Day after day, outside the studio, teenyboppers would raise posters for the show’s cameras and their voices for its microphones, joining together in an effort to squealingly coin a word onomatopoeic of euphoria. Upstairs in the Viacom Building, MTV executives would hustle from a briefing on the emerging purchasing power of Gen Y to a conference call on synergizing with Britney Spears to a 75-minute spa session of bathing in the day’s fresh money. At home, kids would phone in to vote, picking up a habit that would not only prime them for American Idol but also shape their idea, one sincerely dreads, of American democracy itself.
In the studio, there would be more squealing. With the addition of an in-studio audience, a teenybopper mob would cheer then, as it cheers now, for live performances and celebrity interviews and even matters related to education. Just the other day, TRL hosted a back-to-school fashion show: An editor from CosmoGIRL! advised that, while you might chafe at being expected to read The Great Gatsby, the novel still holds valuable potential as a style inspiration. If TRL ever does get revived, I do hope to see a summertime segment on Tender Is the Night swimwear.
TRL’s signature moment came to pass one Thursday in July of 2001, when pop diva Mariah Carey dropped in unexpectedly. She entered pushing a cart filled with ice-cream treats, wore a pair of shorts connoting assertive depravity, and gave voice to existential frustrations: “You’re my therapy session right now, Carson.” Her behavior was sufficiently erratic that the crowd couldn’t squeal for it with any real consistency. She was a celebrity wreck, and in a nice little front-end collision of the pop rhetoric of empowerment and the marketing of lust, a halter-neck garment stretched across Mariah’s chest reading “supergirl.”
TRL now devises its countdown list by way of a formula that takes online votes, radio play, ringtone sales, downloads, and—just a hunch—some form of not-illegal payola into account. A glance at last week’s lineup indicates what’s on the minds of kids these days—mostly love, sex, and luxury goods, of course.
But the list is hardly all lewd: In contrast to Mariah’s bizarro supergirl, we have, at No. 8, Alicia Keys’ “Superwoman,” a tribute to women in general and black women in particular, accessorized with a video absent of avarice and lust, unless you count the singer’s breathiness at the chorus. Keys—variously seen sitting behind a piano and stepping into situations as an astronaut, as a single mother applying to college, and as Cleopatra—aims to provide uplift as passionately as Oprah and more mechanically than Otis.
The director of the clip, Chris Robinson, appears to be developing a subspecialty in woman-positive statements on the R&B tip, with his video for Jennifer Hudson’s “Spotlight” (No.6) espousing a kind of feminism derived from Candace Bushnell books, Diana Ross singles, and couples counseling. In a prologue, Hudson chats with a friend on her iPhone, complaining about her boyfriend: “Mm-hmm, I really like him, but he is too possessive and too controlling. I can’t be myself around him.” The recommendation? “Girl, every time a man has me stressed, I put on my best heels and go out.” Thus is Hudson on the road to liberation, achieved partly via the delivery of advice-column lyrics: “Is this relationship fulfilling your needs/ as well as mi-i-ine?”
Robinson’s third contribution to the countdown, Cassie’s “Official Girl” (No. 5), is a bit more problematic, largely because Cassie is not so much a singer as a bikini model with a few dance moves. The speaker of “Official Girl” explains that she’s fed up with being “your unofficial girl”: In turn, the video depicts Cassie demanding proper respect by taking half-nude photos of herself, getting them developed, and triumphantly flinging them at her man. It’s unclear whether this gesture represents a final kiss-off or a first warning, but I think she gives him the photographs in a Louis Vuitton document pouch.
Somewhat less ambiguous, Pink’s “So What” (No. 2) is a 3½-minute sneer. It seems that singer has recently suffered a divorce and is eager to share the feelings she’s working through. Here, Pink, wearing a wide array of cute outfits and bleating “I don’t need you,” acts out by trashing a guitar store, engaging in a pillow fight, piloting a riding mower to the liquor store, slipping urine into the drinks of unsuspecting acquaintances, stripping naked for a bank of red-carpet photographers, and cutting down someone else’s tree. You’ve got to admire how she sets a good example by wearing goggles when using that chainsaw. Technically, these are oversize bubble shades favored by California girls from Oedipa Maas to Rachel Zoe, but a shop teacher still might approve.
Much of the rest of the list is a dull rehash of blingy posturing, with the No. 1 clip, T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” emerging as a hearty celebration of high-end tequila, large stacks of money, and kept women. The scenario finds the rapper giving his number to a pretty cashier at a fast-food joint. Soon, he’s buying her cars and diamonds, and she’s on his arm at a party celebrating the release of the very record this video is promoting. Ultimately, that all turns out to be a Robb Report daydream. T.I. didn’t hand her his digits: He merely gave her a big tip, leaving a $100 bill for an order of hot wings.
The list’s lone white male is Jason Mraz at No. 7 with “I’m Yours.” Mraz, like T.I., is depicted as having ready access to a private jet, but mostly he’s a low-key dude. He flies to frolic somewhere blessed by ska beats and sandy beaches. The song is about plunging into an affair; the video is about cliff-diving.
The most beguiling video on the list hustles the M.I.A. song “Paper Planes” (No. 3). The song, released last year, appeared in the Top 40 this summer, popularized by the film Pineapple Express. M.I.A.—a fly girl, a critics’ darling, a lady rapper from Brooklyn by way of Sri Lanka—is the only person here who might be accused of doing something subversive, to employ a term much appropriated, abused, and cheapened by the people upstairs at Viacom. In fact, the video was the subject of a teapot tempest upon its initial release, when MTV tried suppressing the chorus, with its addicting syncopation of gun blasts and cash-register ring.
In “Paper Planes,” M.I.A. appears as a small thing in sassy eye shadow. Selling sandwiches out of a van in Bed-Stuy, she looks like an immigrant working a shift, unless that’s just her cover. She’s lilting prettily about visa papers, drug markets, gas stations, pirates, spies, murder. Paper planes are bearing down on New York City. She’s chanting, “All I wanna do is … take your money”—and chanting it rather persuasively. The song is criminally catchy, partly because its gangster-rap fantasy, rock-star swaggering, and riddling geopolitics never coalesce into anything so dull as a message. All the videos on TRL’s countdown are about pop’s idea of success; “Paper Planes” is the only one clever enough to make paranoid puns about blowing up and getting paid.