MTV's TRL reboot: music videos are gone but somehow it's the same old song
Monday - 09/10/2017 02:25
The much-heralded return of Total Request Live, a cultural touchstone of the late 90s and early 00s, is a curiously dated disappointment
If I remember anything from MTV’s original Total Request Live, which was cancelled in 2008, it’s the revolving door of hosts – Carson Daly, Vanessa Minnillo, Quddus, Damien Fahey – and the excitement of racing home from school to catch the beginning of the music video countdown.
The appeal of TRL, back in the early 2000s, was not only that it was interactive, live and daily, giving pre-teens after-school programming that wasn’t Oprah or Ellen or Maury repeats, but also that there were then few other places to actually watch the day’s most popular music videos. YouTube didn’t launch until 2005, when Daly had already departed the show, and smartphones and iTunes and VeVo had yet to turn the music industry on its head. TRL was, in a way, one of the last bastions of the monoculture, where kids of the 90s and early 00s could consume both music and news before a new episode of Pimp My Ride or Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. But when iPhones did eventually come along, TRL was all but rendered irrelevant, and the show knew it was time to bow out: why spend an hour waiting to see our favorite videos when they’re all now at our fingertips?
For whatever reason, MTV has chosen to resurrect Total Request Live with a new pair of hosts (DC Young Fly and Tamara Dhia), a swanky, kaleidoscopic set and the same hordes of screaming fans assembled in Times Square, as if they’d been frozen in ice since the show’s last episode in November 2008. But if TRL seemed like an anachronism 10 years ago, it feels downright neolithic now, in the era of streaming and tweeting and gramming and Shazam-ing.
In Monday’s premiere, which featured guests such as DJ Khaled, Ed Sheeran, and Migos, TRL seemed much more like a jazzed-up talkshow for the digital age, with canned promotional appearances, a good bit of standing-in-place-waiting-for-the-next-cue, and, in the biggest twist of all, no music videos, nor requests. And, save for a brief, prefatory flashback to the show’s heyday, when it was ground zero for rivalries like ’NSync v the Backstreet Boys and Britney v Christina, not a single nod to its place in the pop culture canon. Amazingly, the new TRL made me feel old, and I was born in the 90s.
Instead, the hour was filled with the kinds of gimmicks that would otherwise find a home on YouTube, like the adorable six-year-old viral sensation Ahnari, who rapped Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow and was anointed “the future” by Khaled, who dutifully played hype-man through the entire premiere (which was likely why his song Wild Thoughts played for practically every dance-break and pre-commercial interlude).
When Khaled wasn’t blessing people up and down and offering them “major keys”, Sheeran participated in a game called “heart, follow, block”, where he was shown three celebrity Twitter posts and, in the vein of the timeless dinner-party classic “fuck, marry, kill,” asked to “heart” one, “follow” a second and “block” a third. In between you could see – though barely hear, thanks to MTV censors – a performance by rap trio Migos, as well as one by Sheeran, who was asked to select one of two fans, both of whom had their bodies inked in his honor, to join him in the TRL studio. Spoiler alert: he chose both.
In its defense, TRL premiered on a rather inopportune day, as the country woke up to news of the massacre at Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay hotel, which took more than 50 lives and injured at least 500 others. The TRL hosts mentioned the shooting at the outset and also promoted a nonprofit called Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates gun control. But the show’s buoyant, carefree approach was so obviously dissonant, given the current state of affairs, that these nods felt awkward. Especially when DC proposed a moment of silence before the camera abruptly cut back to Khaled, lounging in a big leather chair, the words “Major Key Motivation” superimposed on the floor beneath him. “Right now, we needpositivity, and we know DJ Khaled is a master of positivity,” DC said. “We need some words of wisdom, big bro!” Unfortunately, not even Khaled could offer them, and the camera sputtered for about 15 seconds before he told the audience that “love is the key”.