August 08, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT

As home to TRL, MTV’s Times Sq. studio is perhaps the closest thing that tweens have to a Mecca: one only needs to watch the fervor with which they gather at street level during taping of the show, shrieking at any glimpse of a host or popstar in the window above. The glassed wall, being part of the studio, is clearly soundproof. But the hordes don’t seem to care — their outpouring of support borders on fanaticism. It’s like they’re seeing the Pope on his balcony, only he’s wearing an Ed Hardy T-shirt and they have a poster of him over their nightstand.

With this in mind, I entered the TRL studio for the first time yesterday with an overwhelming feeling of guilt and trepidation. Guilt because I was occupying prime real estate on hallowed turf — what tween wouldn’t kill to be inches away from the stage where Damien and Vanessa usher out the Pharrells, Fergies, and Timberlakes of the day? Trepidation because I didn’t know what these youngsters were capable of, both in terms of noise levels and spontaneous acts of enthusiasm. My fears were justified when the crowd-control handlers gave their first cue to “make some noise!” Rarely have I been so uncomfortable in a public space, and I wondered how the hosts and crew retain their sanity after hearing those squeals week in and week out.

But that was just the beginning, and this was no regular show. TRL was announcing this year’s Video Music Awards nominees and pulling out all the stops to promote the massive, weekend-long event at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas. As the procession of stars started rolling out — Rihanna, Timbaland, Kanye West (pictured, with Damien Fahey) — the decibel levels became even more deafening. During a commercial break, a producer’s instructions for a Chris Brown entrance sent a girl sitting behind me over the edge. Cries of “Ohmygod ohmygodohmygod” turned into real tears and prompted a stern but compassionate talking-to from a security guard. She was almost speaking in tongues until her friends finally convinced her to calm down — “You’re gonna get us kicked out,” they hissed, dead serious.

addCredit(“Kanye West and Damien Fahey: Stephen Lovekin/”)

It’s easy to mock the tweens and their cultish ways, but it’s alsoeasy to forget the integral role they play as tastemakers of pop. Theyare the ones listening to the radio everyday, filling arenas, andfanatically tuning into TRL. And they are the ones who make celebritiestruly feel their celebrity. The red carpets, press engagements,luxury transportation — these are all reminders that you’ve “made it,”but it’s hard to underestimate the effect of screaming fans literallycrawling over one another to touch your hand. Is this what Beatlemaniawas like? Seeing this behavior so close up made me actually stop toconsider how wild it is.

In a particularly telling moment, “Male Artist of the Year” nomineeRobin Thicke stood onstage as his video for “Lost Without You”continued to play through a commercial. Without provocation, the entirecrowd started chanting the lyrics and Robin performed a few shimmiesand shuffles while walking around the room greeting all of the girls(and completely ignoring the guys). Needless to say, they almostfainted with excitement. There was something so playfully egomaniacalabout the whole scene that it seemed almost surreal.

As I snickered at these antics and imagined many of the crowdmembers texting “OMG!! <3 Robin Thicke” to their less-fortunatefriends, I also couldn’t help but feeling slightly envious. They werehaving so much fun! Their days and weeks were made. Meanwhile,I sat with the other press who looked on with either cynical glares orjaded yawns.

When it came time for the highly anticipated performance, us media types were asked to fill in around the back of the studio as the “ringer”audience members were invited to swarm the stage. Kanye stormedonto the stage to with his trademark sunglasses while a lineup offuturisticaly-dressed violinists summoned to fast-paced beat of“Stronger.” I watched with bemusement as the tweens clawed at his jeansand stuck their tongues out at any camera in the vicinity. A small butsymbolic gap formed between the press and the ringers — theself-segregation of the converted and the atheists.

But as the eerie strains of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” rose up, I suddenly hit me that Kanye West was performing 5 feet in front of me.Timberland, Rihanna, and Chris Brown were watching from across theroom. I shoved my notepad into my back pocket, threw my arms up in theair, and crossed that invisible line. When Common ran out for a versefrom “The People,” I may have let out an clumsy, “WOO HOO!” Myvoice may have even cracked a little bit. Whatevs. I guess what theysay is true — Tweens have more fun.

I no longer have any shame in my game. For that, I have only TRL to thank.

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