Certain things are model combinations of form and content. Among them: Oreo cookies; those little dental-floss boxes with the metal edge to snip off a length of floss; the paperback jacket art for Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels; and MTV’s Total Request Live, the daily afternoon countdown show hosted by the cable channel’s cynosure of the moment, Carson Daly. If you’re not familiar with MTV’s top-rated hour: Fans phone and e-mail in their votes for their favorite current videos, which are then compiled into a top 10 list; the fun here is in trying to keep your fave act prominent, and to savor the suspense as Daly unveils the day’s tally (if the structure of TRL has been cribbed from the decades-old Top 40 radio format, that doesn’t make it any less involving). ”Can the Backstreet Boys unseat ‘N Sync?” asks the host. ”Unseat ‘N Sync” — say that three times fast and make it sound easy like Daly does. See? Who says Carson — who likes to affect the look of having just woken up from a sound nap — doesn’t deserve the big bucks?
This being MTV, the videos aren’t simply broadcast — they’re decorated with all sorts of techno-doodads. Along the bottom of the screen runs a crawl containing e-mailed comments from viewers. As Korn’s ”Make Me Bad” unspools with black-and-white menace, Myra from Texas writes, ”That video kicks hardcore butt!” Meanwhile, outside MTV’s Times Square studio in New York City, a gaggle of kids crowd around a camera and microphone to put in their 2 cents as their images are projected onto the lower corners of a video.
This enables, for example, a girl standing out in the sleet on a gray Times Square day to aver solemnly during the Backstreet Boys’ ”Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely”: ”I requested [this song] because my boyfriend recently dumped me on my birthday, so I know the meaning of being lonely!” And as always — no matter what anyone says, even after a cataclysmically sad admission such as this — the outside crowd punctuates the song dedication with a wild, whooping, Woooo!!
That Woooo!! is the essence of TRL‘s appeal, since it is simultaneously spontaneous and indoctrinated. Far more so than the Today show or Good Morning America, MTV has deployed its windowed studio to maximum effect, creating mini mob scenes outside (”All I Want for My Birthday Is Carson!” read a hand-painted sign in the crowd recently) while, inside the studio, the lights streaming in from Broadway add to the feeling of groovy garishness. When TRL breaks for a commercial, MTV flashes a visual of a girl in a red parka floating up from the street to hover outside the studio window — it’s a metaphor for the way kids watching all over the country wish they could fly into TRL and land with a soft thump on Carson’s lap.
For his part, Daly is the perfect host for this sort of show. His laid-back demeanor undercuts the countdown suspense, keeping the cornball competition between boy-band videos in proper perspective. Not only is this not brain surgery, his slack grin and tossed-off comments suggest it ain’t even that difficult a hosting gig. The toughest time Daly had recently was conducting a satellite interview from Germany with AC/DC’s Angus Young and Brian Johnson. Young got bogged down while explaining an Internet publicity stunt and struggled with the phrase ”eBay-dot-com” as if it were untranslated Middle English; Daly had to speed up these geezers’ responses before the studio audience fell into an attention-deficit-disorder trance.
Yet for all of Daly’s hipster serenity, TRL is a hotbed of competitiveness. New videos that claw their way into the top 10 one day may vanish the next. Madonna’s spaz-attack dance video for her watery version of ”American Pie,” for example, died a quick death on TRL (the diva soon scheduled an homage-paying visit). It was shoved aside by younger competitors such as the omnipresent Christina Aguilera and the oldest-lookin’ teenager in show business, Jessica Simpson, whose ”Where You Are” sounds like a ballad Barbra Streisand might have cut in her most tawdry, Richard Perry-produced days.
Yes, it’s a dog-eat-Snoop-Dogg, cat-eat-sex-kitten TRL world; Carson Daly just rules over it. Woooo!! A