How Can MTV Make Their New 'Total Request Live' a Hit?

Jennifer Lopez and Carson Daly
Stephen Lovekin/FilmMagic

Jennifer Lopez and Carson Daly during Jennifer Lopez and Sum 41 Visit MTV's "TRL" on Oct. 14, 2004 at MTV Studios, Times Square in New York City.

MTV has recaptured the news cycle this week, if nothing else, with the announcement that they will officially be reviving their marquee turn-of-the-century music video countdown, Total Request Live. The announcement was received with a great deal of enthusiasm and an equal amount of public skepticism -- could MTV really hope to recapture the excitement the show generated in the late '90s nearly 20 years later?

Probably not: TRL was a product of its times, as much as its times ultimately came to be a product of TRL. There's no going back to televised pop's monocultural pre-millennial impact, when teens rushed home after school to vote on and watch their favorite videos because it was the most reliable, accessible form of mass entertainment out there. As plenty of other articles have already pointed out, MTV's most formidable opponent at the moment isn't VH1 or other music and/or youth-oriented TV, it's Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube -- and those all have a pretty big head start on whatever TRL 2.0 ends up being.

But that's not to say the program can't succeed. To a certain extent, the music-video request show is the closest thing MTV has to an evergreen format -- it existed in the decade before TRL through such proto-programming as Dial MTV and Hangin' With MTV. TRL best nailed the formula, with the right energy, the right host and at the right pop backdrop, but most of its lessons can still apply, even in a different cultural and musical context. Here's some things we'd have the show focus on to allow it to best thrive.

1. Find its teen-pop core.

Total Request Live might've been based out of MTV's Times Square studio in the late '90s, but its heart truly lay in Orlando and Disney. Without the boy band explosion -- percolating before TRL, but absolutely unavoidable afterwards -- and the ensuing surfeit of pop megastars graduating from The Mickey Mouse Club, TRL could never have had the generational impact that it did.

The boy bands might not exist in the same way in 2017 -- though with a new crop of groups like Why Don't We, Pretty Much and CNCO really starting to sprout, it might soon enough. But regardless, there's five separate solo 1Ders making relatively vital pop music, Jake and Logan Paul about to cross over from YouTube to top 40, both Fifth Harmony and solo Camila Cabello, and a quaking world of K-pop (BTS, Bigbang, T-Ara) that's just a song away from erupting onto the pop charts. (Not to mention the now-23-years-old reigning king of teen-pop, once he decides he's ready again for the spotlight.)

There's more than enough for TRL to build around here -- and if it's smart, it'll do so from the beginning, featuring these artists as front-and-center as possible, making the show inextricable viewing to the artists' rabid fanbases.

2. Find its anti-teen-pop core.

Those who lived through the times will undoubtedly recall that it wasn't just the boy bands that made the TRL era so singular. As much as the program was dominated by Backstreet, Britney and *NSYNC, it also had to make room for KoRn, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and other rap-rock acts who represented pop's counter-strain at the time. When you watched TRL, you didn't just watch to see if "Tearin' Up My Heart" or "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" was gonna reign supreme, you wanted to see if "Got the Life" was ever gonna make it higher than No. 3. The marquee fight was between the boy bands, but the undercard was between them and the nu-metalers.

Now, nu-metal probably isn't coming back in 2017, and largely for good reason: Some of those videos were great, but many were unapolgetically piggish, and the oversimplified pop vs. metal fight of those days ended up split among gender and other binary lines that thankfully don't exist in quite the same way in 2017. (Neither, for that matter, does mainstream hard rock -- at least not in such a manner, for such a young audience.) Today, the anti-pop would probably come from the hip-hop world, with boundary-pushing (and oft-controversial) young rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage and XXXTentacion.

They don't have to exist in explicit opposition to the Zayns and Camilas of the world, but they have to provide some kind of edgier undercurrent, something to feel a little risky to the older teens -- or something they can use to piss off their younger siblings, anyway.

3. Bring back video premeires.

The days of kids watching MTV for hours on end in the hopes of catching their favorite video are long gone, obviously. But seeing a video for the first time, when it's only available in one place at one moment? That still has currency. Teens will still tune in to Beats 1 when they know Zane Lowe's gonna premiere a new Lorde song, and they'll tune in to MTV if they know the modern-day Carson Daly will debut a new Lorde video.

Doesn't have to solely be music videos, either: exclusive live content works, teasers work, album and tour announcements -- anything that MTV can tweet out an hour ahead of time and say We Have This and No One Else Does. But music videos should obviously be the crux: They don't have the importance or the budget that they did 20 years ago, but when done right (as artists like Selena Gomez, Charli XCX and Kendrick Lamar have proven this year), they can still be as buzzworthy as anything. Hell, with a platform like TRL back around, maybe it'll even inspire everyone to try harder again.

4. Emphasize the "Live" as much as possible.

Again, as important as the videos are to the TRL brand, they can't be the only draw in 2017 -- there has to be an emphasis on the studio, on the fans in attendance, and on the potential for a viral moment to capture the Internet for the rest of the day. Guest appearances will be important, no doubt, but so will an air of general unpredictability: Games, contests, and potentially dumb "Why not?" experiments that have a strong possibility of falling flat on their face will all be crucial.

Much of it will depend on the chemistry between the hosts -- a rotating cast of five has already been announced -- but it'll also just be on the producers to never let the show get too comfortable, lest it turn into rote video content any kid can program for themselves in 2017.

5. Find a skeptic voice for balance.

Part of the reason Carson Daly worked as the host of the original Total Request Live was that though he was preppy-looking enough to convincingly mingle with the era's biggest stars -- and big enough of one himself to date then-It Girl Jennifer Love Hewitt -- he always seemed like he thought himself a little bit above it all, a subtle air of superiority that carried over to his eventual Voice and late-night hosting gigs. It made sense, because TRL was a show of such fundamental over-enthusiasm that a host of similar exuberance would've made for certain overkill and exhaustion. You needed Daly there to confirm that no, in fact, the battle between 5ive and Jennifer Paige for that day's supremacy was not going to end up swinging the entire national economy.

With five hosts scheduled to split hosting duties for the new TRL, it's certainly not likely that all or even most will be able to play the voice of skepticism for the show -- it's not the obvious route to go for MTV, and Daly's brand of underplayed smugness made more sense in the '90s than it likely would today. But all you really need is one: One host to give the show the touch of the outsider, to play a part in the world of pop popularity contests but not inextricably of it. It'll go a long way to make the show accessible to those kids who are in love with pop music, but whose personality finds them naturally drifting a little further to its fringes. Get those young fans in the fold, as well as the true believers, and there's no reason the show can't become a major part of this pop era.

MTV Video Music Awards 2017


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