If you were born in the 80’s through the early 90’s, there is a good chance that at some point during your adolescence, you watched MTV’s Total Request Live. It was a cultural phenomenon and the gold standard in pop culture. For younger readers out there, Total Request Live, or “TRL”, was a show that played the 10 most requested music videos of the day, as voted by viewers.
TRL premiered in 1998, just before the tectonic shift of mass media. By 2005 social networks/media had emerged, YouTube was blowing up, and the entire landscape for how people consumed music and information shifted. But for a few years TRL was massive. It was a staple in teenage life, the flagship show for MTV and it launched the careers of many artists/bands.
Everyday kids would pack into Times Square outside of the TRL studio; holding signs and cheering for their favorite artists. Think about that for a second, the show was so popular, that kids would show up outside the studio with no hope of going inside or being able to see much of anything. But they wanted to be there just to be a part of the phenomena. That’s some serious influence on a demographic. The impact the program had on mainstream media cannot be understated.
In 2020, where an infinite amount of music and content is only a click away, it’s hard to comprehend why people would tune in for an hour everyday to watch a countdown of 10 music videos. However, before TRL was engulfed by the internet, it was a shooting star across the mainstream media sky and the biggest vehicle in pop culture.
While reminiscing about TRL, I decided to rank my top 10 music videos from the show. This isn’t a list of the most successful videos, but rather the videos I feel had a lasting impact on teenagers in the late 90’s & early 00’s.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Californication”
The RHCP’s video for Californication features the 4 band members as avatars of themselves. They are in an imaginary video game, navigating through different California landmarks. Each band member racks up a high score and they all eventually meet at the center of the earth. The music video is fun and innovative. However, it’s the juxtaposition of the cool visuals with the melancholy lyrics that has the lasting effect. Since the song is about the dark side of Hollywood and how western culture has taken over the world.
Britney Spears – “Baby One More Time”
The song is one of the best selling singles of all time. This was Spears’ debut and it rocketed her to the apex of stardom. The iconic, yet risque, school girl outfit she wears caused debate as Spears was only 16 years old at the time. It also let a lot of prepubescent boys know that they liked girls. However, Rolling Stone summed up the overall impact of the song perfectly, by writing “it spearheaded the rise of post millennial teen pop.”
Eminem – “The Real Slim Shady”
Eminem achieved mainstream success in 1999, popularizing hip hop music in middle America and instantly becoming a hugely controversial figure. His songs can be humorous, with tongue & cheek lyrics, but also dark and violent. He has been called a misogynist, a homophobe; and has had hordes of parents claim he was corrupting their children. Yet he is also widely recognized for breaking racial barriers in hip hop, being a voice for the disenfranchised, and one of the most talented lyricists of all time. A truly polarizing and contentious individual. In The Real Slim Shady he critiques the manufactured pop music that was so popular at the time. Poking fun at everyone from NSYNC to Will Smith; even going as far as to claim Christina Aguilera preformed oral sex on Carson Daly & Fred Durst!!
Christina Aguilera – “Beautiful”
Speaking of Christina Aguilera! She eloquently signs about insecurity in her song “Beautiful”. Lending support to anyone who has ever felt rejected for being less than perfect: too fat or skinny, ugly, gay, etc. She focuses on the fact that everyone is beautiful, no matter what people say. The music video features a stripped down Aguilera singing in front of a mirror and is intercut with self image related sequences of other people. As she sings the chorus “Words can’t bring me down”, the characters in the video conquer their own insecurities. It’s such a strong and positive message to send to teenagers who are at a time in their lives when confidence issues are unfortunately all too common.
Fat Boy Slim – “Weapon Of Choice”
Although all know this song, few could probably tell you the song name or who it’s by. Everyone, however, remembers the music video with Christopher Walken dancing around the empty hotel. Start typing Christoper Walken into your Google search and undoubtedly this video will be one of the automated prompts. If going viral was a thing in 2001 when this song debuted, this music video certainly would have. It has nonetheless spawned countless memes and gifs in the twenty years since its release. Probably because, at the end of day, you don’t get much cooler than Christopher Walken!
Korn – “Freak On A Leash”
Lead singer, Jon Davis, sings about the controlling nature within the music industry. In this scenario he is the “freak” being paraded around by big business and feels it’s taking away a part of him. The video itself begins in a cartoon where an accidental bullet is fired. It breaks from the cartoon and into the real world where it causes destruction on everything from a lava lamp to a jar of cookies before flying around the band members. The second half of the video follows the bullet’s path in reverse. Undoing all the wreckage and back into the cartoon.
Blink 182 – “Adam’s Song”
What’s My Age Again is certainly the more flashy video since it features the band members running around naked. But Adam’s Song resonates because it’s about teenage suicide & depression. Although the subject matter is serious, the song’s message is a positive one: finding the strength to get through difficult periods in your life. Similar to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”, the message to the youth of the world couldn’t be more powerful and beneficial. Don’t become despondent during bleak times, there is always hope, because as the song says, “tomorrow holds such better days.”
Outkast – “Hey Ya”
Inspired by the Beatles performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Hey Ya! features a fictional band performing on a TV show as a bunch of women scream in excitement. André 3000 plays all eight characters in the band. The song’s lyric “shake it like a polaroid picture” caught on like a wildfire and eventually, even your grandmother was saying it. The energy, enthusiasm, and excitement (alliteration anyone!) displayed in the music video are down right infectious. Coupled with the catchy tune made for an instant classic.
The White Stripes – “Fell In Love With A Girl”
The one with the LEGO’s is most likely how everyone remembers this music video. Coming in at under 2 minutes it’s brash garage rock at it’s finest. The song, which is about young love, pairs well with the toy, as the mini block characters are not clear cut, similar to the confusion found in first love. This is exemplified in the line “the two sides of my brain need to have a meeting”. Overall, the simplicity of the video is most impressive and what makes it cool. However, the making of the video was much more complex, reportedly, the video was shot frame by frame, requiring the LEGOs to be rebuilt each time. Talk about tedious – good thing the song is only 1:55 long!
50 Cent – “In Da Club”
One of the biggest songs of 2003 and a guaranteed party starter. Different from the majority of other 50 Cent / G-Unit music, which focused on drug dealing, gang life, and violence. From it’s catchy chorus to 50 Cent hanging upside down and working out in the lab in the music video, all combined to make it an unforgettable hit. It also became the unofficial hip hop birthday anthem because of lyrics “Go shawty, it’s your birthday, we gonna party like it’s your birthday.” The song dominated airwaves and was cranking at every bar, club, and house party at the time. Dr. Dre, who produced the song, put it best saying “We just made some shit we wanted hear.” Turns out the rest of the world wanted to hear it as well.
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For more nostalgic TRL content, this article provides another fun perspective of the epic TRL era.