No. 32: The End Of “TRL”

You’ve all probably been forced to bite your tongue while someone makes a joke about how MTV doesn’t play videos anymore. But if the channel should change the first letter of its acronym to anything, it’s probably “T,” for teenagers. MTV is a network of planned obsolescence, expecting—requiring!—its audience to outgrow it, and then hate it, before the new micro-generation comes in and its programs can cater to (or shape, you know) the kids’ desire to be entertained and to be different than everyone else. Like 50 Cent, MTV’s image depends on it being hated, in this case by non-teenagers; this makes actual teenagers think that they are doing something right. But this also means that the channel is inevitably going to go through some awkward public pubesences when they’ve aged out one generation but haven’t quite figured out the next. And that’s why it needed to take the extraordinarily symbolic step of doing a big blow-out final show for Total Request Live.

By the time the show wound down last month, TRL was lame to everyone. Its old viewers were too old for it, and its new viewers saw it as the kind of thing that the old viewers watched. Besides, MTV’s viewership is down 23% in its core demographic, and the channel needs to make room for shows that cater to those kids: “Our new shows will feature themes of affirmation and accomplishment,” according to Brian Graden, MTV’s president of entertainment. What this seems to mean is more scripted reality shows like The Hills, and more comeuppance/social mobility shows like From Gs to Gents.

This would be pathetic and laughable, of course, except MTV is usually right about these sorts of things. One of the great lurking worries for music fans is that the younger generations just won’t be interested in pop anymore, or at least won’t be interested in buying itc. The end of TRL ultimately seems to verify that feeling. If MTV doesn’t think they can make money off pop, why should anyone else? And if teenagers are more interested in shiny psuedocelebs than in shiny pop music—o horrible youth!—will we ever get back to the pure sort of beneficent pleasure afforded by TRL‘s most luminous lights? The sound is disreputable now (though on That Metal Show, the audience seemed to prefer Britney Spears to Britny Fox!), but it was one of the wonders of the modern age, ultimately, and while it will no doubt come back at some point in the endlessly recycled future, will there be new sounds to replace it? In these debased times when everyone hates everything a little bit, the end of TRL gave us a rare instance of deserved nostalgia for the recent past. But on a deeper level, it seemed to be one more sign of the impending popocolypse.

Miley Cyrus on TRL finale [YouTube]80 ’08 (and heartbreak)