On Sunday, MTV’s Total Request Live issued its swan song, and I wasn’t listening. Dubbed TRL by its hordes of devotees—among whose ranks I used to count myself—the show marked a generation of awkward and not-so-awkward teenagers who tuned in for a decade to watch, fanatically, their favorite “celebs” battle it out for the top spot on the show’s daily music video countdown.
In middle school I watched TRL religiously, falling in lust with Lance Bass and experimenting with eye glitter in the bathroom mirror. Today, ‘N Sync is dissolved, Lance Bass is gay, and TRL silently ran its last episode while I sat in my room pretending to work on my thesis. I feel a certain degree of guilt about letting my last chance to watch the show slip by, not because I was waiting with bated breath to see who was number one, but because I cannot imagine my 13-year-old self feeling anything but shame at the way her 21-year-old counterpart forgot this defining feature of her adolescence.
For all of TRL’s apparent mindlessness, it represented a crucial slice of pop culture—the idea of “climbing the charts”—that I loved and felt a part of. TRL facilitated the sort of direct public engagement with artists that you can’t get on YouTube, eMusic, or iTunes. Though it was a commercial experience, it was participatory, even communal. Beyond the viewer and the video, TRL was about you, your best friend, host Carson Daly, the hundreds of people waving signs outside of MTV’s studio in Times Square, and Britney Spears before she got trashy. It was bubblegum beautiful.
As much as I love clicking and watching (and clicking and reading and clicking and chatting), the passing of TRL is a reminder that the media institutions that I always viewed as essential and contemporary are fading away. TRL’s viewership has been dropping since its peak at the turn of the century, and its daily average number of viewers of more than 700,000 over the past 10 years pales in comparison to MTV’s top rated show right now—The Hills—which regularly lures four million.
Is there something about a show like The Hills that appeals to viewers more than TRL does? I think this is possible. When you watched TRL, it was possible to envision yourself, maybe someday, as one of those sign-wavers floors below. But hanging out with celebrities is so twentieth century. Culture today values actually being a celebrity yourself. Shows that depict the “real lives” of young people—like The Hills or the phenomenally popular Gossip Girl—present viewers with a more palpable alternative to their own life. You might not be an Upper East Side socialite, but maybe you’ve sat next to one on an airplane (or in section).
But I confess: When I read on Tuesday that TRL had run its final episode on Sunday, my first thoughts were not about new media, pop culture, or Heidi Montag. My reaction was completely self-centered: a melodramatic response to a strange and peripheral reminder of the passage of time. A generation of college kids who grew up on TRL didn’t care about its death, and as I didn’t watch on Sunday night, Daly said, “We’re old now.” We’re not old now (not yet), but I’ve finally resigned myself to the idea that I’m on the forestalled brink of adulthood. Time flies and things change, whether for the better, the worse, or the entirely indifferent.
Emma M. Lind ’09, a Crimson editorial chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House.
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