This is an ode to an old, dying friend — a haggard, old guy that we’re kind of surprised hasn’t actually bit the big one yet.
This friend is “Total Request Live.” A little more than a week ago, MTV decided to pull the plug on our best middle school friend. Though the show’s been in a coma for the last eight years, MTV finally — seriously, who knew the show was still kicking around? — decided to end it all.
“Total Request Live” was our “American Idol.” It gave every teen and pre-teen a sense of empowerment. We all wanted to be in the studio audience, sitting in the background while Carson Daly — his nails painted black for some reason — commanded the audience of screaming lunatics who just wanted to give a shout-out to their friends or touch Justin Timberlake’s sensual, boy-band body.
It was a strange show, but easily the biggest hit MTV ever had. It sparked arguments between friends over the best videos and clearly divided individuals into either the Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync camps. Maybe we never did call in to request a song, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t really, really think about it whenever a song was going to break an all-time record for consecutive days at the top.
It was a little strange that videos got less and less play as the show got on in years. And maybe it was a little annoying that they were interrupted by the fanatics in Times Square and by phone call-ins, but it didn’t really matter: We just wanted to know if Korn would make it to the top or if Tom Green could actually make the countdown. And even looking back at the songs and videos now, it’s hard to tell whether music was actually better back then, or whether the memories were just that good that no matter what song it was, it would be a favorite forever.
And Carson Daly — the master. He was our Dick Clark, our Casey Kasem. He never had the sex appeal of any of the bands or singers, but he directed it all with a calm hand and a confident stature.
Like any good obituary, we won’t talk about the bad times, nor will we discuss Jesse Camp or anything past 2002. No, this is a tribute to the show that helped shape the most monumental years of our lives; the show that featured our favorite songs of then; the show that stretched the boundaries of MTV. This is our “Total Request Live.”
Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic”
In an era during which the average music video was a three-minute segment of pretty faces singing to a camera (with a few modest dance movements thrown in to make it legit), the Beastie Boys’s “Intergalactic” was like a blast of water to the face. Giant robots? Mad scientists? A trio of white rappers dressed like Power Rangers? What the hell?
“Intergalactic,” like the best of the group’s music, explodes with an infectious, celebratory sense of anarchy. The video, in turn, is a head-spinning, eyeball-straining, eardrum-bruising gem. Cherish it.
Korn: “Freak on a Leash”
Even if “Got the Life” was Korn’s first big break on “TRL,” and without a doubt the better song, “Freak on a Leash” might take the cake as the most artistic video ever shown on the program. Between blowing through lava lamps, water coolers and old-school cell phones with a single bullet, this video was pure explosive bliss. The hole-y, lighted room — most likely cut swiss cheese style by the bullets — that the group rocked out in was also easily the best display of a band jamming in a video. Sure, there’s a little too much anime that brings it down, but when the girl at the end grabs the everlasting bullet, the whole video slows to a halt with the gripping image. Plus, this video often beat the boy bands. What a nice juxtaposition: bullets and boy bands.
Blink 182: “What’s My Age Again?”
Few songs were ever this self-aware on “TRL.” “What’s My Age Again?” was slick and catchy, a pop-punk waterslide of joy, but then you heard the opening lyrics and realized it wasn’t OK to listen to with your parents around. Sure the guys from Blink 182 ran around naked the entire video, ran past a nurse/porn star — the voluptuous Janine Lindemulderm, who also appeared on the cover of the album, Enema of the State — and even showed up on Jim Rome’s TV show, but what song captured a struggling 23-year-old’s self-analysis of maturity better than this one?
LFO: “Summer Girls”
Thanks to TRL, “Summer Girls” by LFO became the anthem — albeit a meaningless one — of my summer 1999. The three-man boy band faux-rapped about everything from Cherry Coke and Fun Dip to Macaulay Culkin and The Beastie Boys, all while pining after girls donning Abercrombie & Fitch. It sounds like a bad commercial, but watch the video and you will find no sarcasm. They “bounce and a-wiggle” to their hip-hop song sincerely, surrounded by tweens wearing (ironically) not much of anything, let alone the brand name they name-drop.
Mariah Carey f/ Jay-Z: “Heartbreaker”
Who even remembers Jay-Z was in this damn song or video? “Heatbreaker” was four minutes of S-E-X. Only Mariah Carey could make a movie theater job look as steamy as this. Every gyration and touch of the ground, matched with the refrain of “Gimme your love,” absolutely throbbed with sexual energy. And, my God, the pink top. Mariah owned that video with her voice, her charm and her, um … screw it: This video was hot. From the catfight scene to the shots of Mariah crawling toward the camera, this video was going to sell albums. And Jerry O’Connell ended up in the video. So that probably sold a record, too.
Bloodhound Gang: “The Bad Touch”
Whose parents didn’t hate this song? With its stupidly pornographic subject matter and juvenile music video that managed to offend just about everyone, it must’ve been public enemy number one at PTA meetings. Owning a copy of Hooray for Boobies — yep, that was the name of the album — in 6th grade was as big a score as getting your friend’s older brother to buy you a fifth of Bacardi O three years later. Too bad most of the song’s NC-17 wit was lost on middle-schoolers. But they should grasp it now: “And then we’ll do it doggy style so we can both watch X-Files.” Brilliant.
Eminem: “The Real Slim Shady”
How many kids learned what head actually was after watching Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady?” A lot. Between rhymes about Christina Aguilera blowing Carson Daly and saying “fuck you” to Will Smith, this violent and sexual video was overtly anti-TRL (“I’m sick of you little boy and girl groups / All you do is annoy me / So I’ve been sent here to destroy you”). Its appeal, however, was anything but. Whether you loved or hated Eminem, you couldn’t look away. Eminem was the bad boy of the TRL era and definitely had the “balls to say it.”
Canada’s answer to the boy band, soulDecision was more Monkees than Backstreet — they played their own instruments and wrote their own songs, including breakout pop jam “Faded,” penned by indistinguishably dreamy front man Trevor Guthrie. And what songs they were, with lyrics made for whispering awkwardly in the ears of dance partners at middle school dances by pre-teens who weren’t quite sure what “faded” meant: “Every night when we say goodbye / I can’t help looking in your eyes / Wondering why you and I haven’t hit it / Can we get it on?” (Of course, “on” is sung as two syllables.) The video, shot in multi-colored rooms in a Vancouver apartment, wasn’t so dynamic as to keep your attention for longer than a verse and a chorus, which made it perfect for TRL and the show’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it style of videos.
O-Town: “Liquid Dreams”
If there were any doubters, O-Town proved once and for all that, yes, boy bands were that synthetic. Created in front of the world’s eyes on the then-revolutionary format of reality TV, the “Making the Band” product was primed to conquer the TRL market before its members were even chosen. Built on a groove as artificial as the band itself (the music video graphics weren’t much better, either), “Liquid Dreams” captivated tweens everywhere and kept O-Town on TRL for 54 days. But it wasn’t a surprise, what boy or girl of any age isn’t obsessed by the notion of a “dominatrix supermodel beauty queen”?
Britney Spears: “I’m a Slave 4 U”
In light of Britney Spears’s recent deranged episodes and her current attempt at a comeback, the singer’s former listeners may have lost track of how undeniably poppy the 26-year-old performer was. While she first hit the TRL scene with her 1999 hit “Baby One More Time,” the singer finally matured beyond her bubblegum pop days with the 2001 club-banger “I’m a Slave 4 U” — despite what its web-speak-influenced title suggests. The song premiered during Spears’s 2002 VMA performance, which showcased a giant python wrapped around her neck. Phallic references aside, the Neptunes-produced track was Spears’s most risque effort to date, complete with a hushed whisper that sounds vaguely like a direct sexual advance. The music video premiered at TRL’s number one slot and was the first video in the singer’s history to not “retire” from the program. Clearly her steamy vocals and gyrating hips influenced somebody.