The Week In Pop

MTV’s New TRL Is A Vapid, Obnoxious Mess

What a time to be a live television program. The only TV many people watch in real time these days is sporting events, Game Of Thrones, and maybe primetime political talk shows — and even that last category you’re far more likely to encounter excerpted on social media after the fact. Saturday Night Live’s ratings are up again in the age of Trump, but our shared cultural experience of the show still mostly consists of video clips shared among friends on Sundays and Mondays. Late-night talk shows, which tape in advance but which approximate the live experience, basically exist as content factories for YouTube, with Colbert and Kimmel and (especially) Fallon aiming to create clips that will circulate well beyond their TV viewership. The skew toward online video is even more extreme among teens, who at this point would rather watch YouTubers approximating old MTV shows than MTV itself.

So when the people at MTV announced they were bringing back TRL, the iconic afternoon video countdown that was ground zero for teen culture at the turn of the millennium, they did not hide their if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em objectives. They hired a bunch of popular YouTube and Vine personalities to host the show — a move in keeping with the network’s notorious new focus on web video at the expense of editorial content and its longstanding predicament of trying to catch up with the youth culture it used to dictate. And they explicitly set out to create “moments,” ostensibly extending the lineage of Carson Daly’s most montage-worthy hijinks but basically just trying very hard to generate viral videos. (#Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for virality.) With that in mind, dreadful ratings aren’t necessarily a problem for the fledgling TRL revival, but it should be disconcerting for Viacom that nothing remotely memorable has happened so far.

TRL, which airs weekdays at 3:30PM ET, is one of several classic MTV shows getting a reboot this year. They also brought back MTV Unplugged for the umpteenth time, and the new reality soap opera Siesta Key is basically Laguna Beach for a new generation, brought to you by the producers of Laguna Beach. But whereas those other recycled intellectual properties are basically the same in substance — a popular artist performs acoustically, beautiful young people cavort by the beach — the new TRL is missing the original show’s key ingredient. TRL stands for Total Request Live, which referred to the daily fan-voted video countdown that served as the program’s spine. Although the original TRL became destination TV in part because of the daily parade of celebrities that made their way through MTV’s Times Square studio — which turned the show into sort of a hangout spot for viewers at home — at least some of us tuned in to find out whether Korn or Backstreet Boys would reign victorious on any given day.

The new TRL does not have a video countdown. Until Wednesday, when brief snippets of Fat Joe and Rita Ora videos were interspersed with The Grind-style dance footage, the new TRL didn’t feature videos at all. Instead there’s the TRL Guestlist, a playlist comprising hits nominated by the show’s guest performers. One of TRL’s in-house DJs mentioned Wednesday that the playlist will involve some kind of fan voting component, but as of now it exists as a series of YouTube videos embedded on the MTV website. That’s a bummer; the daily clash between artists and genres added some stakes to the old TRL, and even if the initial results turned out to be a bit wonky as TRL finds its audience, a countdown could be a ratings driver as A-list artists watched themselves get outvoted by pop strivers with fanatical street teams. And for us grownups, it would be another handy window into which musicians have become youth culture royalty. A rep for MTV did not respond to repeated inquiries about why the show has abandoned its cornerstone feature.

Without the connective thread of a video countdown, TRL is a directionless mess. These first three episodes have been a procession of loud noises and shiny objects presented with no apparent rhyme or reason. Ringleader DC Young Fly, a 25-year-old Atlanta actor and rapper who made his name on Vine before appearing on Nick Cannon’s sketch and improv show Wild ‘n Out, has mostly done a lot of Chris Tucker-esque shrieking. Matt Rife, a YouTube star whose old problematic tweets became a minor internet scandal last year (he once wrote that due to his rising follower count he’d be “able to rape someone and get away with it in no time”) seems to be doing his best impression of Biff from Back To The Future; in addition to being an objectionable human being, he’s very bad at TV. Former Complex video host Tamara Dhia and YouTuber/aspiring pop star Gabbie Hanna have handled the spotlight much better, but their ease in front of the camera has done little to elevate vapid segments like Hanna choosing a “meme queen” from among two uninspired contestants, or a Taco Bell promotion for National Taco Day that required Dhia to utter the phrase “Seasoned beefings!” with a straight face, or when the lot of them were expected to vociferously praise a little girl for rapping a few bars of “Bodak Yellow” as if it was a prodigious display of talent.

Cardi B, we should note, has been the subject of gratuitous on-air shout-outs but has not yet guested on the show, perhaps realizing she’s very much above slumming it on basic cable these days. The genuine superstars who have deigned to appear — Ed Sheeran, Migos, Lil Uzi Vert — seemed to realize a little too late that they were lending their credibility to an undeserving enterprise. Demi Lovato missed her scheduled appearance Wednesday due to an alleged illness; perhaps next time she’ll say the dog ate her homework. Even some mid-level celebs such as Noah Cyrus and Playboi Carti flinched their way through their appearances. The performers who looked more comfortable in the TRL environs were the ones who shared the show’s desperation for attention. Lovato’s perennially thirsty pal Nick Jonas was thrilled to fill in for her Wednesday alongside Rita Ora, who did not perform but was happy to profess her bottomless love for more famous people like Cardi (“I live for Cardi B!”) and Uzi (“Be my friend!”). Rising boy band PRETTYMUCH danced their way through some unexceptional single and played some Fallon-reminiscent parlor game, but all that was mostly overshadowed by one of them wearing a FILA fanny pack across his chest like a messenger bag.

If there was ever a time for this nonsense, this week is not it. Any chance the new TRL had of not coming across as hollow and facile went out the window when a gunman on a balcony mowed down dozens of people at a Las Vegas musical festival the night before its debut. The following night, former MTV mainstay Tom Petty died from a heart attack. Meanwhile Puerto Rico remains in crisis as the US government struggles (or refuses?) to mobilize sufficient hurricane relief efforts. A self-consciously woke MTV couldn’t afford to ignore these crises, but TRL mostly handled the stories clumsily. Monday, DC Young Fly explained to viewers, “You know today, we had a crazy tragedy, with the, with the Las Vegas” before DJ Khaled sat in a white throne and professed some of his incoherent “wisdom.” Tuesday, MTV News correspondent Gaby Wilson, tasked with contextualizing Petty for kids born after Y2K, explained, “Someone as big as Tom Petty, he’s definitely influenced, like, Haim, John Mayer…” Wednesday, while discussing news that Oprah Winfrey might run for president, Rife riffed, “I want Oprah as president, I want Gayle as first lady, and I feel like she knows how to deal with North Korea: ‘You get a bomb! And you get a bomb! And you get a bomb!'”

Just about the only news story they handled with some degree of adequacy was President Trump’s disastrous visit to Puerto Rico. Surprisingly, given showrunner Albert Lewitinn’s insistence that he’d “love” to have Trump on the show, TRL’s hosts — even Trump-in-training Matt Rife — laid into the president Wednesday for tossing packages of paper towels into a crowd as if shot from a T-shirt cannon. “No paper towel is gonna bring nobody’s house back,” DC Young Fly said. “No paper towel is gonna bring nobody’s life back. So what you need to do is take that paper towel and wipe that bullshit.”

That led directly into Uzi performing “XO Tour Llif3,” his song about an intense lover’s quarrel with the chorus that goes, “Push me to the edge/ All my friends are dead.” The track’s relentless bleakness plus Young Fly’s frank Trump takedown added up to a refreshing break from all this oppressive artificiality — never mind that Uzi’s DJ falsely introduced “XO Tour Llif3″ as “the #1 song in America” or that Young Fly doesn’t seem much better at his job than our president does. The flickers of gravitas and authenticity were a reminder that most talk shows come out of the gate shaky and there’s still hope for the new TRL to find its groove. (For one thing, they wouldn’t have to fill so much air time with mindless drivel if they added, I don’t know, a daily fan-voted video countdown.)

That’s assuming MTV doesn’t cancel this shitshow immediately and pretend like it never happened — a course of action that seems plenty reasonable after suffering through this first week of shows. Or who knows, maybe ratings will rise organically as teens start hate-watching TRL to cackle at some bloated corporation’s latest pathetic attempt to appeal to youth culture. Even within the media hellscape that is YouTube it’s hard to find a clusterfuck this epic unfolding in real time.

The Killers
CREDIT: Erik Weiss

CHART WATCH

The Killers claim their first #1 album this week as the not-so-wonderful Wonderful Wonderful (hey, I really liked “The Man” at least) debuts with 118,000 equivalent album units and 111,000 in pure sales. The album’s sales figures were boosted by a promotion bundling album sales and concert tickets, a tactic that has been employed by many acts this year including Arcade Fire, Katy Perry, and LCD Soundsystem. Per Billboard their previous chart peak was #3 for 2014’s Battle Born, which opened with 113,000 in sales.

Macklemore enters at #2 with 51,000 units and 27,000 in sales for GEMINI, his first album in 12 years without producer Ryan Lewis. After Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2 at #3 comes Kevin Gates, whose By Any Means 2 jumps up from #100 to #4. The album was only available for one day of the previous charting period, but in its second week it did 40,000 units and 15,000 in sales. Then comes another debut: Jhené Aiko’s Trip tallied 37,000 units and 10,000 in sales for a #5 start. The rest of the top 10 comprises longstanding popular titles from Post Malone (#6), Imagine Dragons (#7), Kendrick Lamar (#8), Khalid (#9), and Ed Sheeran (#10).

Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” rules the roost for a second straight week. Actually, the top six songs in America all hold steady from last week: Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” at #2, Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” at #3, the Logic/Alessia Cara/Khalid collab “1-800-273-8255″ at #4, the Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee/Justin Bieber smash “Despacito” at #5, and French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” at #6. Our first change of the week is Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” pushing up to a new #7 peak, bumping Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” and Yo Gotti and Nicki Minaj’s “Rake It Up” down to #8 and #9 respectively. Lastly, Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” reaches #10, becoming her first top-10 hit since “Heart Attack” reached the same chart ranking in 2013.

POP FIVE

PARTYNEXTDOOR – “Damage” (Feat. Halsey)
I like PND when he is in full-scale pop mode — as opposed to literally and figuratively in Drake’s shadow — and that’s how we find him on this Halsey duet.

Charlie Puth – “How Long”
Charlie Puth season is approaching, I’m afraid. But if he’s going to be promoting a new album, at least he’s moved on from the last album’s faux-Motown shtick to this ’80s computer soul sound.

Pink – “Whatever You Want”
At this point every Pink song is fairly generic, but some of them have little quirks that set them apart. This one, for instance, sounds like Radiohead’s “High And Dry” and therefore I dig it.

Lukas Graham – “Off To See The World”
The Danish pop-rock band that seems to exist exclusively for FM radio filler and corporate retreat bookings also apparently is a good fit for children’s movie soundtracks. Once they were seven years old, you know.

Tove Styrke – “Mistakes”
In case you’re wondering about Lorde’s other opening act besides Mitski and Run The Jewels, here’s her latest single.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Jennifer Lopez postponed her residency shows in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting earlier this week. [Billboard]
  • Lionel Richie has been confirmed as an American Idol judge, alongside Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. [Twitter]
  • The Weeknd teased a Marvel collab coming to Comic-Con. [Complex]
  • Taylor Swift leads the 2017 MTV Europe Music Awards nominations with six. Shawn Mendes nabbed five and while Kendrick Lamar and Ed Sheeran have four each. [Hollywood Life]
  • Also, Swift (who once covered “American Girl”) paid tribute to Tom Petty in Rolling Stone, saying he “represented a kind of songwriting I idolized: complex simplicity. It said so much in the lyrics, the concepts, the stories, the message, the nuances … but always brought you back to a hook that got stuck in everyone’s head.” [Rolling Stone]
  • Nicole Scherzinger is reportedly reuniting with the Pussycat Dolls for a tour. [The Sun]
  • Quavo is writing a movie script for Migos. [Twitter]
  • Becky G ran on to Fifth Harmony’s stage in Argentina to try to help Dinah Jane when her outfit ripped, but security thought she was a crazed fan and pulled her away. [E!]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME