Three days after the Age of Terror began, TRL returned to MTV. It was Friday, September 14, 2001 – a shell-shocked day in a shell-shocked week in a year that dissolves in memory from absurdity to despair, from a shark epidemic to a nation in fearful mourning, from daddy-son presidents on a birthday golf trip to wars declared on the concept of weaponized fear. Cultural history recalls the profound statements by late-night hosts, David Letterman’s stoic fury, Jon Stewart’s raw emotion. The TRL response to 9/11 achieved a separate, disreputable immortality, thanks to Dave Chappelle’s 2004 comedy special For What It’s Worth.
And the broadest description of the 9/14 TRL is precisely that off-key. See a somber Carson Daly surrounded by American flags, receiving call-ins from various celebrities, “I’m joined on the phone by our friend Moby.” In the lookback doc Life After 9/11, Daly admitted to the disconnect of approaching such a tragedy on Total Request Live, a show which Daly described as “a daily afternoon over-celebration of all things pop culture.”
The actual episode’s difficult to find, but you can catch a quick glimpse of it in the aforementioned doc. “It’s just been a hell of a week here in New York,” says Daly, sounding hoarse, “All over the country and all over the world, for that matter.” There are a lot of kids in the studio with him, looking sad, confused, interested, a bit glazed. Daly brings up one teenager, Virginia, who talks about what she saw on the horrible Tuesday just past. “Before you knew it, the building had just collapsed,” she says, loud silence around all her words.
TRL was a strange show, perfect for a time long gone. I watched in the early years so am inclined to place its cultural peak around 1998-2002, but everyone claims MTV was better when they were young enough to assume MTV would never leave them behind. “Over-celebration” is a fine summation of the show’s best and worst instincts – it made everything seem important until nothing was important, recasting the smiley mood of a morning show with the final fumes of the music channel’s notionally rebellious streak.
But it could conjure a daily mood of pure afterschool ecstasy, both wild and domesticated, revolutionary enough to feel dangerous and safe enough to feel comfortable. A lot of that was Daly, who seemed like a dutiful older brother, the type who would give you a beer and take care of you when you puked. And some of the tone of TRL was tied to that pop-music moment, Fred Durst and boy bands and pop-punk and Britney Spears’ downward ascension. It’s maybe too easy to feel nostalgic about those days, to forget that the music industry TRL leeched upon could be a monolithic fun-killer, star-making inoffensive bright young things and broffensive neckbeards.
The show did help turn (or maybe singlehandedly turned) “fandom” into a central ritual of modern-day pop culture, performative and vaguely democratic, a cultural force that was waiting to be quantified and monetized. This was a show that was literally just about music videos, but the music videos were so quickly beside the point, edited down to make room for more shots of screaming fans. And so for once the fans really were the whole purpose of the show: The kids in Times Square holding signs, the votes cascading in to push one Jive artist ahead another one. And, for one day in September 16 years ago, those fans were just kids sitting in a weird room in midtown Manhattan, pondering the fallen towers just a few miles south.
Watching that brief clip today, seeing teenagers the same age I was that week, I felt something much deeper than nostalgia. It’s the total clarity of a time reclaimed, of a mood long forgotten reclaimed. That was how it felt, that precisely, to be young and scared and angry and uncomfortably numb, listening to famous people on television who sounded as confused as anyone else. TRL was never a great or even particularly good TV show, but it was a shared cultural experience, one mediated by TV cameras whose imagery looks primordial compared to the glorious HD output by your average cruddy smartphone.
A new TRL debuted Monday in the shadow of another act of terrorism, the deadliest mass shooting in the modern history of our nation. The mood would’ve been off no matter what, but the shoddiness of the production didn’t help. The gigantic new set looks like the nightclub from TRON: Legacy rebuilt as a frat house dance floor, and the show kept getting lost in its many different corners. Take, for example, the one pure moment of trainwreckitude. DC Young Fly (one of the 1,700 hosts) took the time to note that Rihanna and J. Lo were taking to social media to show their support for the victims. He said, “I wish we could have a moment of silence,” but then he decided, “Right now, we need positivity, and we know DJ Khaled is a master of positivity. We need some words of wisdom, Big Bro!”
Smash cut to:
For a long, wrong moment of accidental silence, Khaled stared at the camera and we stared back at him, the white throne, the yellow jumpsuit, the floor, the empty expression. If you’re wondering what that floor means, I gather that “Major Key Motivation” is one of the 14,000 segments that the new TRL is gradually introducing – and one of wait-but-seriously 14 references to Khaled’s album Major Key. (Everyone had key-necklaces, and he described bits of advice as keys, and after all, my friends, isn’t love the key to unlocking the chains of hate, or whatever.)
Then the camera cut back to DC Young Fly, who apparently decided that now was the time for a moment of silence – no doubt spurred along by some members of the production crew, whose crosstalk was always audible during this failed throw. Then Young Fly tossed it back to Khaled, whose debut motivational speech left something to be desired, “Love is the key, love is the answer, love is the solution,” said Khaled. “I have a rule in my house: No dark clouds allowed in my house. The key is to stay away from them. Walk away, or ask them to leave nicely.” Brief pause to imagine: DJ Khaled, nicely asking dark clouds to leave his house.
They staged a cold open with the assembled TRL hosts and guests somberly assembled, sending thoughts and prayer to Las Vegas. Throughout, MTV ran short commercials pointing viewers to a website promoting gun control. This was admirable, but you could feel the show viciously trying to pivot away from the seriousness of the moment, shrieking positivity. There is some honor in the idea that entertainment can be a distraction from life’s horrors. But I don’t know: it felt more like the show thought the tragedy itself was a distraction, something to reference and then dodge, a box to check.
More to the point, there was barely any tangible notion of this tragedy as something the culture was experiencing. It felt like something that the show wanted to just skip over, look past: Give us a chance, ignore the production mistakes, ignore the whole modern era that has rendered everything that defined the original TRL irrelevant.
There really were a lot of plain-old mistakes: Missed cues, underexplained games, an exclusive clip from Riverdale cutting right over the guest’s introduction of that clip. Maybe the show will get better when it irons out some kinks, but I don’t know. The general style had less in common with the original TRL than with the recent editions of the Video Music Awards. The modern VMAs always have multiple stages and outdoor performances and various humans with microphones scattered frontstage and backstage. The show seems to get worse at managing its hugeness every year, though. (It’s also faced declining ratings ever since someone decided to replace the comedian hosts with celebrity hosts who must really consider themselves funny.)
So it was with TRL, which has a whole squad of high-energy hosts, each doing their own interpretation of the Jimmy Fallon laugh-scream “Yeah! Yeah!”. Besides Khaled, I had never heard of any of them before today, which is probably a good thing; MTV doesn’t and shouldn’t try too hard to appeal to anyone my age. But I can’t imagine anyone tuning in wanted to see Liza Koshy and Tamara Dhia outside in Times Square, hosting a “twerking” contest. I think the goal was for Liza to twerk and see how many other people she could convince to twerk, and no one wanted to twerk because it’s not 2013, and then Dhia said, “You gotta twerk with Liza, boy!” to a dude who badly did not want to twerk.
After this segment was over – was it a segment? Can a moment of nothing be said to “happen” at all – Dhia concluded to Koshy, “Whatever prize we could give out, I guess you won it.”
And then they threw to commercial, but the camera held on them for too long, and I swear I heard Liza Koshy say, “What do we have next? Do we have more challenges?”
Was anyone planning this? The unfortunate answer is both yes and no. Despite being more impressive in pure visual terms, the new TRL was also too stilted, weirdly unable to pivot from the rails laid for it. Ed Sheeran came on, looking as embarrassed as he always does. DC Young Fly asked him about hanging out in DC with Dave Chappelle, a story I’m not sure we ever heard the ending of. They mentioned that Sheeran had tour dates coming up, and suddenly his tour dates were on the big screen within the screen. They asked Ed Sheeran how U.K. fans compare to U.S. fans, which is certainly a question you can ask. Later, Lili Reinhart from Riverdale came on, and she was asked about the status of the Betty-Jughead relationship — “Are you at the point where you’re hashtag goals? Or are you more like a Facebook ‘It’s Complicated’ couple?” (I have nightmares where people ask me the same thing.)
It was right around this moment when social media lit up with the news about Tom Petty’s condition. You would think that some notion of the new TRL would be to ramp up the possibilities of live television in this hyper-connected era. Instead, in a pastiche of youth-hipness and a stunning example of missing the whole present purpose of social media, the show spent those first reverberating seconds of the celebrity-remembrance spiral playing a game about tweets lost past. See, Ed Sheeran looked at three tweets and decided which ones he liked and which one he would block — it was basically “Marry, F—, Kill” but with Twitter, which I guarantee is exactly how this horrible game was pitched in the horrible room where some horrible people dreamed up a horrible way to reboot TRL in a way that was totally unrequested and dead.
At one point they brought out six-year-old Ahnari to rap Cardi B, and they literally cut her off while she was still rapping. DJ Khaled said “She’s the future,” and someone else said “That was beautiful,” and the little girl kept rapping, not realizing she was already in TRL‘s past. But Khaled was right, as usual. She is the future. TRL isn’t. D+