Pop Playground
The Science of TRL

new York City’s Times Square: American chart pop’s ground zero. Every afternoon, crowds line up in front of MTV’s Uptown Studio, waiting for their chance to witness the latest chart-toppers go head to head. A scant few of the mostly female crowd actually get access to the hallowed halls of Total Request Live, where host Carson Daly counts down the ten hottest singles in the country “as chosen by YOUR votes.” The cameras roll! The crowd screams! TRL has begun again!


TRL quickly rocketed to the upper echelon of MTV shows, becoming a cultural phenomenon all its own. For one hour, the viewers take over the tightly regimented programming (don’t believe those “Craziest MTV Moments” specials; MTV is a big-bucks commercial venue that leaves little room for spontaneity, Soy Bombs aside) for the ultimate in pop egalitarianism: 10 videos, interspersed with celebrity interviews. For pop music is mostly a numbers game, based on sales and dollar amounts. TRL requires only a few clicks of the mouse to exercise freedom of endorsement: no parent’s wallet required. The underage masses take over the airwaves! Is this madness?


It has the potential to be. After all, TRL is live, so flubbed lines and surprise guests (a near-breakdown Mariah Carey was probably the most memorable of these) have to be taken into account. But things usually go off without a hitch: audiences are prepped with the rules and regulations, and producers quickly disarm the outside crowd of any offensive signboards before the show starts. These precautions are mostly extraneous, as few viewers go to cause trouble (the notable exception was an anti-war protest October 8th that was handled with clumsy “cut-to-commercial” tactics). They go to participate in the moment, to be a part of the experience. Individuality is not a concern. This is not about getting your 15 minutes of fame. This is a ritual, an homage to the fickle god of celebrity. The stars of TRL are the stars of MTV (and often, the reverse is true as well). The audience, whether at home or in the studio, still remains a passive viewer, a fan, and importantly, a consumer (the real-life equivalent to a voter in pop music).


Perhaps “passive” is the wrong word. After all, viewers take active part in selecting TRL’s lineup. However, “Total Request” doesn’t translate into “Total Control.” MTV has plenty of restraints, subtle or otherwise, to lead viewers to desired choices. The most obvious is the voting mechanism itself. A listing of 50 to 60 of the latest videos greets voters. Write-ins are permitted as well, but never could a write-in compete with legions of Nick Carter or Avril Lavigne fans who can effortlessly click again and again. Nevertheless, the choice is rather large and diverse, ranging from pop divas (Christina Aguilera, Madonna) to rappers (Eminem, Nelly, Snoop Dogg) to R&B queens (Kelly Rowland, Ashanti) to hard rockers (Korn, P.O.D.) to pop-punkers (Good Charlotte, New Found Glory). The charts reveal this diversity, as something from every corner (and for every demographic) usually makes the top ten. The choice is far greater than your average November ballot. But that comparison is misleading. A more apt metaphor is the convenience store, filled with delicious snacks for whatever your taste may desire, all easily and readily available.


And like those snacks in the convenience store, placement is everything. I’m not talking about butterfly ballots. It’s all about facing your product, getting the name out. TRL does that: it’s essentially an hour-long commercial for pop – and TRL is pop. TRL is constantly geared for what will come next. The videos are moot – they are never shown in their entirety. Often, a video that has been on the countdown for more than 3 weeks gets a cursory few seconds of airtime along with its placement. “Sk8er Boi”? That’s already been to Number One. It’s only Number Seven. It’s on its way out. Get to the next video. Usually the top two videos get longer face time, but even this isn’t certain. TRL’s live atmosphere and strict time constraints require the producers to use videos as time cushions. LL Cool J’s interview goes too long? Cut a few seconds off No Doubt’s video. Need some time to hype P. Diddy’s new show? Blow through “Dirrty”; after all it’s been Number One for the past three days. TRL thrives on change, on the new. No one wants to turn in every day for the same 10 videos in the same 10 places. We need dramatic tension, we need movement. Most of all, we need to feel like we do matter, that we do have an effect on placement. The viewers do; after Good Charlotte guest hosted an episode, they exhorted fans to push their video to Number One. They were vindicated next show. But MTV keeps a steady hold on the reins. Videos favored to move up (i.e. newer videos) get more face time. Old standards and videos falling down the charts get far less. “Wannabe” videos – singles that almost made the countdown – are paradoxically given more airtime than some of the videos that legitimately make the top ten. Guests debut their latest singles in their entirety, and urge viewers for support. This panoply of pop keeps TRL in a state of flux, and keeps the viewers watching – and voting.


But why do the viewers vote, day after day? In spite of their voices, their videos are barely shown for more than a minute. Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” has never made it to Redman’s verse before being cut off. This misses the point: viewers don’t vote to watch a video. Only a TRL novice would vote for what they want to see. That’s not how the show works. Voting is for placement. Ranking is all that matters: it’s the only variable MTV doesn’t control. Thus, a vote is not equivalent to making a choice about programming. MTV still manages the programming content. A vote is a statement of support, a testament to brand loyalty. “You guys let Justin Timberlake slip to Number Four this week,” Carson admonishes. “All you Justin fans better get together tomorrow if you want to get him back to Number One.” The viewer is always addressed as “you,” and the rankings are always referred to as “your countdown.” Frequently, the show features giveaways of merchandise to the “biggest” fan who proves his or her worth by answering trivia questions over the phone or in the studio. This fan empowerment is an ingenious marketing strategy. These huge pop icons desperately need legitimation of audiences; otherwise they cease to exist. TRL gets out the vote, cementing brand loyalties in a world of conflict. Identify yourself as a loyal Avrilist and devote yourself to the cause. Mobilize! Defeat the legions of Nelly fans who imperil young Lavigne’s existence. After you establish your cause, you can expand: buy her album, see her concerts, and continue to vote, vote, vote! The TRL boards are a testament to this factionalizing, with posters under names such as “AvrilChick15,” “tlcjanetlova,” and “skaterpunk224” dissing O-Town or mourning the lack of support for the new Nirvana video. Pop princess devotees butt heads with punk lovers, while metalheads bait hip hoppers into arguments about what constitutes talented musicianship. Opposition promotes unity and faithfulness; every Korn fan that slags the Backstreet Boys helps his enemy’s cause as much as his own.


Some fans seem to know something is amiss. Frequently they complain about videos only shown for a minute. Rumors abound that record labels pay for slots or that MTV has rigged the votes. Such obvious chicanery is doubtful: should it be exposed, the entire TRL system would be in jeopardy. It’s far easier and safer to subtly manipulate audiences without elaborate conspiracies. But labels know what’s at stake, and TRL is an important venue. If labels pay for guest appearances or placement on the TRL ballot, it would shock no one. After all, they own the show and they make the rules. But manipulating young viewers by using the illusion of participatory democracy as a marketing tool reeks of less than savory ethics. But should we expect anything else from commercial television, especially a network as mercurial as MTV? The answer is simple for the jaded media critic. But they don’t pay the electric bills for the Uptown Studio. The people that do are the ones waving their “WE LOVE JUSTIN” signs out in the cold rain on the streets of New York. Their gleeful faces barely acknowledge the fact that TRL has left them, literally and figuratively, out in the cold.


By: Gavin Mueller
Published on: 2002-11-11
Comments (0)
 

 
Today on Stylus
Reviews
October 31st, 2007
Features
October 31st, 2007
Recently on Stylus
Reviews
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
Features
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
Recent Music Reviews
Recent Movie Reviews