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

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.

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  • sXenester

    really though, tom green’s “bum bum song” should’ve made it

  • Eugene Langley

    Is it really stupid that this, probably correct, evaluation makes me sad?

  • Maura Johnston

    @Eugene Langley: not at all.

  • Anonymous

    Surprised Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” wasn’t on the list. That waS pretty big on the rock side for the whole “pop/hip-hop v. nu-metal/punk” thing that seemed to exist within the show’s parameters.

  • dyfl

    I’d agree that Limp Bizkit had much bigger TRL hits, but I’m assuming they decided to represent rap-rock with somebody who’s still a commercial force, not a defunct band who’ve reached punchline status. That’s a bit intellectually dishonest, sure, but overall in keeping with the MTV mindset.

    Nice piece, Mike. Though for me, the sound of the orchestra hit is the sound of the Pet Shop Boys, and it just breaks my heart that they never produced for anyone on this list.

  • westartedthis

    well, we all said that this kind of pop music was dead when alternative rock ruled the airwaves. no one would ever be suckered by pre-fabricated popstars again! we won, everybody! our reward is…marcy playground? shit. let’s hear that spice girls song again.

  • Anonymous

    @Eugene Langley: No. I feel totally bummed and alone.

  • the rich girls are weeping

    The cancellation of TRL is indeed the last nail in the coffin of (ugh, sorry) the monoculture.

  • Anonymous

    Without TRL would there even be an Idolator?

  • Maura Johnston

    @Thesemodernsocks: how do you mean? i mean, it’s not like pop music never existed, and it’s not like people who thought of themselves as ‘smart’ music fans never liked pop music before the (admittedly trl-presaged) poptimist era of the early ’00s. sure, the site would be different, but that’s like saying ‘without the drudge report would there even be a gawker.’

  • grainy16mm

    Little T and One Track Mike – Shaniqua (8/14/01)

    ’nuff said.

  • T’Challa

    I really see nothing “sad” about what kids were excited about for that particular moment in time.

    After watching the crash-and-burn histrionics that resulted from what I’ll call the “Lollapalooza generation” (which pretty much ended when Kurt killed himself), the time was ripe for some shiny, happy people to come along and entertain the young kiddies scared of stuff like Marilyn Manson and hip-hop gangsters.

    @westartedthis: The “alternative nation” pretty much did this to themselves (ourselves?).

    We held up icons like Billy Corgan (self-righteous ass), Courtney Love (sad drug-addled victim), Trent Reznor (drug-addled death obsessive) and Kurt Cobain (suicide)–of course kiddies ran straight for a new wave of shiny, happy people like Britney, *Nsync, et al.

    Hell, even I was seduced by it all. I’ll never forget the first time I saw “Baby One More Time” on MTV. Same goes for “My Name Is…” The immediacy of those songs was undeniable.

    And while I should validated now that the “cool” sites have come full circle to celebrate such unabashed pop, I do find myself calling bullshit on most of them acting like to appreciate Britney Spears NOW is some profound moment of enlightenment. Especially since most were the same ones that thought crap like Avril Lavigne was something special. Um, no.

  • westartedthis

    @T’Challa: that’s exactly my point – any scene will “do it” to itself eventually. copies of copies…as you’ve stated, the first-wave of stars deteriorates like britney (or is absorbed into the fragmentary abyss like comedian/actor/dancer/dick-in-a-box enthusiast justin timberlake) and the next wave is a poor excuse to say the least (avril, miley, jonas brothers).

    i’ll never forget the first time i saw the “baby one more time” video either, but i had the opposite reaction. i was in best buy, and it was on all the discounted TVs that are shoved off to the side, away from the expensive big-screens. at this point the stores were already pumping in “best buy radio”, which tries to sell artists no one otherwise has any interest in. i thought this was the visual extrapolation of best buy radio. i truly thought she was some kind of femme-bot shill for best buy who i’d never hear of again. the catholic school-girl outfit just seemed like some desperate male fantasy (it was, and it worked like a charm) and the hook sounds more powerful in retrospect than it did at the time. it wasn’t exactly, “with the lights out it’s less dangerous,” you know?

    i’m not sure how exactly one sweeping cultural movement will present itself in the niche age (obamanation?), but the Beast must assume control and fulfill the Scriptures somehow, so…you know, count on it.

  • Chris Molanphy

    @the rich girls are weeping: I like the way you phrased this, if only because you don’t imply that the monoculture was alive and well when TRL came on the scene.

    The monoculture, for me, began to die with the advent of tightly formatted niche radio in the 1980s, which reached new levels of atomization by the ’90s. The process was accelerated by the advent of hip-hop, a genre that entire other formats/niches were formed and/or strengthened in order to oppose. (The rise of adult-contemporary radio and country radio in the ’90s — from previously solid genres to total radio-dial domination — can be attributed directly to Top 40′s late embrace of hip-hop.)

    TRL was, for a subset of youth culture, a nice bit of last-gasp monoculture aggregation, but it’s not like it embraced everything. (I mean, Radiohead never made the daily Top 10, even while they were scoring No. 1 albums. Or the White Stripes, say.) Still, I buy the idea that TRL became a fairly genre-ecumenical locus of all things pop, in the broadest sense of that word.

    But: yeah: “final nail.” You called it on that one.

  • Dick Laurent is dead.

    “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.”

    I quite like that bit- matter of fact I had nightmares just like it after watching TRL those days.

  • Invisible Circus

    @grainy16mm:

    double true.

    Why didn’t they have the song you still remember but you don’t remember who they are category?

  • Wasp vs Stryper

    @dyfl: MTV decided Korn was bigger – the band had a longer reign of videos, and over TRL’s ten year existence (the show began with the format seen until today in 1998) they had a large volume of videos. Plus they were on the show more often than Durst + Co, kinder to their fans and more open to doing the sort of stunts/grand entrances that TRL liked. Hence, why Jonathan Davis was on the final broadcast, chatting about TRL and not Durst…

  • T’Challa

    @westartedthis: good stuff. I enjoyed your ‘first time’ with Britney–I’m curious how I would’ve reacted seeing it somewhere other than MTV/TRL. The insidiousness of it all was just so scarily affective, I suppose. While I ‘got’ what they were doing (selling the Catholic schoolgirl fantasy via thinly-veiled double entendre), it was no less fascinating/engaging. Then again, I love watching ‘World’s Wildest Police Videos,’ too.

    There’s a part of me that has hope for the next gen of kids, in part due to the post-culture that’s rapidly developing, but mostly thanks to what you’ve termed “Obamanation.” I’d like to think that with kids equally versed in Bright Eyes, Kanye West, Justice, etc without the genre-specific alliances of the past married to the idea that good guys CAN win will result in some truly groundbreaking music sooner than later…

  • T’Challa

    …and isn’t ‘Hey Ya’ kind of the moment when indie rock and hip-hop REALLY came together as one?

    Looking at this list again, that song had as important an impact on music/social culture as Britney/Eminem/etc, but on an entirely different and positive tip. It opened people up to one of the most innovative hip-hop crews of all-time, and opened the door for indie rockers to get into other ‘real’ hip-hoppers like the Clipse, Ghostface, ect.