Bye Bye Bye: What We’ve Learned From Pop’s “TRL” Era

By: Mike Barthel / November 17, 2008

Last night, TRL said goodbye, and while doing so, it listed the ten most influential videos that hit it big on the program. Normally, a TRL list wouldn’t be worth the oaktag its cue cards were printed on, but surprisingly, whoever made the picks for this list pretty much nailed it; the ten songs truly did define the five-year span during which pop was ruled by MTV’s afternoon countdown show. You rarely see an era officially ending, and you almost never get the era to sum itself up so accurately, so now that we’re five years past TRL’s hegemony, let’s try and figure out what it was like–and figure out what era we’re in now.



First, the list, along with the release date of each single:

1. Britney Spears – Baby One More Time (1/12/99)
2. Eminem – The Real Slim Shady (6/30/00)
3. Backstreet Boys – I Want It That Way (6/29/99)
4. N*Sync – Bye Bye Bye (3/14/00)
5. Christina Aguilara – Dirrty (10/15/02)
6. Kid Rock – Bawitdaba (2/15/00)
7. Beyonce feat. Jay-Z – Crazy in Love (6/15/03)
8. Usher feat. Ludacris and Lil Jon – Yeah (10/5/04)
9. Blink-182 – What’s My Age Again (10/17/00)
10. OutKast – Hey Ya! (9/15/03)

Those release dates are important, because they define the parameters of the era. Britney’s video is not only atop the chart, it’s first chronologically, debuting in January 1999–or, when TRL really became important. That era continued through 2003; in 2004 the only entry is “Yeah,” which isn’t really a TRL video so much. (Even the 2003 entries seem questionable.) But the seven clips that debuted between 1999 and 2002 run absolutely do owe their successes to TRL.

Let’s focus on the pop acts–Britney, NSync, Backstreet–for a second. The pop aesthetic was easy to parody–the participants even did so themselves sometimes–but this is just evidence of how powerful it was, how coherent and logical a style. It seemed to evoke a particularly American vision of perfection, everything white and clean, everyone moving together, the music not just making hits but containing hits: that sound you hear at every section change in “Bye Bye Bye” (or at the beginning of the chorus of Britney’s “Oops…I Did It Again”) is an orchestra hit, ostensibly the biggest sound imaginable (check it on your Casios). It’s all over these songs. It did what pop is supposed to do: it sounded big and impossible and new, and it alienated those outside its target demographic. To listen to any of these songs is to feel like there is a gigantic army of jumpsuit-clad teenagers, all connected, all puissant, marching together toward something-or-other, making you feel like you were part of a fantastic movement of being awesome.

And the other songs did, too. They might seem out-of-place now, but Blink-182 was a minor punk band before TRL seized on its latent pop tendencies and turned its three members into the kind of people who you care about when their plane crashes. The myth was that Kid Rock and Eminem excited a different group of people than did Britney and Justin, but that was just part of the game: Ultimately, all the music on TRL was pop.

But more importantly, what made that music pop was TRL, and its five-year run may turn out to be the last stretch of time in which musical tastes could be dictated by a single authority. TRL seized on this new aesthetic and popularized it; instead of methodically building up a fanbase, an aspiring star could just get on the show (and have a great song) and launch a career. A lot of people would discover the artist simultaneously, and even as the song filtered down to radio and word-of-mouth transmission, TRL endured as the ultimate source.

Now, however, authority is diffused. A song becomes big because there’s a dance video on YouTube, or because a band has built up a critical mass of emo fans, or because it’s released a lot of respected mixtapes. An artist doesn’t try and get a song on TV so much as she tries to get people to come to her MySpace. (The only exception to this would seem to be American Idol, but it’s not really dictating tastes; instead of picking their favorite song, viewers pick their favorite artist, and then the winner is assigned a song that labels hope everyone will like. That likability still has to come through diffuse authority; witness, for instance, how many Idol runners-up have fared better than winners.) A new release is now just one more event in an ongoing celebrity narrative told by many sources and interpreted by readers on a daily basis, whether the gossip be large-scale stuff about teenpoppers or the endless churn of Internet gossip about R&B singers, rappers, and punk rockers. The single-source model still survives in niches–like Radio Disney–but as a primary driver of the charts, its days seem to be numbered.

The consequence for pop, it seems to me, is a loss of togetherness, that bigness and importance that defined the TRL era. If your first exposure to a song is a link your friend sent you rather than watching it on national television while millions of others do as well, it seems somehow insincere for that song to take on the regalia of impossible newness. You know someone has heard it before if only because your friend sent you the link; your relationship with it is more personal, more about your reaction and your connection to other fans you know personally. That’s nice, but it’s very different from the kind of pop we’re used to thinking about. You can even see the transition in this list. “Yeah” is a good song, but it’s a small song too, made up of few small sounds (no orchestra hits here) and accompanied by an avowedly regional rapper. That’s what pop sounds like now, mostly. Much as we may have complained about it at the time, in retrospect the TRL era may look like a last hurrah, one final glorious supernova before the whole thing collapsed in on itself.

Idolator Live-Blogs The “TRL” Finale [Idolator]