On May 18, 1999, Backstreet Boys swung by Total Request Live to celebrate the release of Millennium, and thousands of young pop fans choked Broadway, bringing traffic to a standstill in Times Square. Inside our studio, hundreds more shrieked in the presence of a dewy Nick Carter.
I realized that the stars had aligned: All of these young people were having their most important pop music experience, together with their idols, on television. (Also, it was loud. Very loud.) We had created a moment — and now, TRL is coming back at a very different one. Here’s what has changed since my turn-of-the-millennium heyday — and how the new TRL could fit into today’s pop culture.
YouTube Killed The Video Star
The original TRL hit just after VHS taping but before YouTube. If you wanted to watch a music video by your favorite artist, you actually had to be there when they showed it on television. That’s what the votes were about. Today, kids can discover, analyze, emulate and get sick of new videos in the span of an afternoon. TRL is going to have to work extra hard to be appointment viewing: better live performances, crazier spontaneous moments, more personal interaction between artists and fans.
Artists Opened Up…
TRL was a place where pop stars could be themselves and where fans could see their idols up close and personal (if yelling at a window from the middle of Broadway qualifies as up close and personal). Now, pop stars are obligated to let potential fans all the way in from the get-go. TRL helped create this world, and in 2017, it can still provide what the internet cannot: a flesh-and-blood audience of young fans in the same room as their favorite artists. I have been there when a 13-year-old *N Sync fan got to touch the hand of JC Chasez. There is no substitute.
…And Fan Armies Bloomed
Generally, in my TRL era, peace ruled the land among fan bases. Today, they’ve evolved into warring factions. Can the Harmonizers occupy the same studio as the Camilizers? Is there a natural antipathy between the Sheerios and the Self-Haimers? (Probably not what Haim fans call themselves, but it should be.) There is a whole new form of fandom out there, just waiting to be explored on the new TRL — at the least through debates or angry dance-offs.
MTV Got Woke
At this year’s Video Music Awards, as Katy Perry made Handmaid’s Tale jokes and Logic rapped about suicide prevention, the videos felt almost beside the point. (The current MTV audience has never really equated the channel with music, anyway.) I remember being in the TRL studio on the day of the Columbine massacre, and that first show back after 9/11. We wanted to comfort our viewers but also give them an outlet for their fear and rage. In 2017, when it feels like there’s a school shooting a month and thousands of undocumented kids fear deportation, TRL will have more of a responsibility than ever to be a strong progressive voice.
The Monoculture Frayed
Current pop culture feels fragmented: Every young person I know has unique, ever-changing favorites (the latest big Lorde, Fifth Harmony and Katy Perry singles are already out of the Billboard Hot 100), and each pop pundit in my Twitter feed declared a different 2017 Song of the Summer. On the new TRL, will rock fans rally behind Imagine Dragons? Will Logic become today’s Eminem? And where do The Chainsmokers fit in — are they the new Good Charlotte or just another BBMak? TRL always had the authority to tell its viewers who and what mattered, and the surest way for the show to continue to do that is the same as it ever was: to simply listen to its audience.