This past Sunday, MTV bid farewell to one of the most iconic programs the network has ever produced over the course of its near 30-year history. “Total Request Live,” or “TRL”, officially signed off the air for one last time, marking the end of the road for a show known just as well for launching the careers of “diverse” pop stars like Kid Rock and Christina Aguilera, as it was for it’s steadfastly devoted audience of teenagers (whom either spent after school hours glued to the TV set, or frolicking outside MTV’s studios in Times Square).
But whether you liked the show and what it stood for (obsessive admiration over artists, actors, and other “hip” figures getting their 15-minutes of fame), you had to respect the fact that at the height of its popularity, TRL symbolized the power of MTV to shape mainstream American culture.
That’s because while neither Limp Bizkit nor the Backstreet Boys were creating anything of transcendent quality, the appeal of these groups to the young masses, coupled with TRL’s unparalleled ability to let fans vote for their favorite videos and display their popular musical allegiance, did transcend the way viewers consumed music and supported (or gave “props” to) their idols. In essence, if fans kept voting for them, TRL’s most (in)famous host, Carson Daly, would provide viewers with immediate access to their favorite videos and frequent live appearances from the artists themselves. And, over time, fans began to demand this instant access. Band’s started building elaborate websites, albums came loaded with interactive media, and the music video continued the climb (that began with innovative videos like Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer“) to its perch as the most defining aspect of the pop-oriented musician’s brand. That’s right, TRL was transcending the way we interacted with music, while at the same time, was serving as a band’s primary branding tool.
Admittedly, when I was of high school age I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I was a lot more concerned with aligning myself with the brands of such “alternative” rockers as Staind and Papa Roach. Did I think they made great music? Probably not. But I wanted to disassociate myself from the “boy bands,” so I went to war on a weekly basis (ok, maybe daily) with legions of teenage girls to support my side of the musical aisle. MTV, and the bands I supported must have loved me. I watched the show, voted for the bands, bought the albums, and even purchased the shirts to spread my allegiance, the old fashioned way.
So if TRL was the ultimate pop-culture, brand-building machine, why did the network just host their last show? I’m think it might have to do with the stunning proliferation of new media. Music fans no longer have to rely on TRL to see their band’s favorite videos; they can just as easily go to YouTube. Want to support your favorite band as manically as possible? Join their Facebook group. In a cluttered media landscape and a constant state of information overload, people have tons of different mediums through which to align themselves with, and enjoy, b(r)ands.
Undoubtedly, MTV came to this realization themselves. These days, music fans are just as likely to track a Twitter feed to discover a new band, and then download their video or podcast, then they are to spend a whole hour of their day watching TRL.
Information is moving at breakneck speed and for musicians and the music industry, hopefully this means that quality and skill will win out over the mass marketing and pop culture spin that defined the TRL generation (for better or worse).
Besides, it’s a lot easier to link to your favorite band then it is to buy their T-shirt.