For adults of a certain age, MTV’s TRL (or Total Request Live to those of us of an even more certain age) was a television event that was both musical tastemaker and locus around which a teen could define her musical identity. Budding snobs could align themselves against it, pop lovers could be validated by it, and, for a brief moment in time, angsty nü-metal bros could wrestle for control of the show’s vote-in top 10 countdown format, as writer and former MTV VJ Dave Holmes recounts in an new essay on Stereogum.
As clean, factory-fresh pop music began to fill up the new generation’s American Bandstand, the young girls swooned. And as usually happens when young girls get into something—pierced ears, My Little Pony, bisexuality—young boys muscle their way in and try to find a way to ruin it. For those boys, there was nü-metal.
Holmes supposes part of the reason for nü-metal’s seemingly diametric opposition to the rest of TRL’s fare came from young men’s “innate need to upset their little sisters” influencing the vote. But that’s not his only theory.
My other explanation is that the boys simply wanted to watch TRL, and were afraid of being called gay for it. There was a barrier to entry, but as long as there was something aggro and filthy onscreen for a few minutes an hour, they felt safe to watch the countdown and pretend not to enjoy Christina Aguilera’s “Come On Over Baby.”
Holmes sides with the virtues of pop music, noting that TRL’s nü-metal phase—a “grim” genre of “loner music … fully co-opted by the jocks”—was a flash in an otherwise extremely safe and mainstream-friendly pan.
Inside the studio during TRL, everything managed to stay copacetic between the two warring sides. The girls in the audience were more gracious; they’d sing along to every song, regardless of whether they liked it, while the boys would only pump a fist at the rock songs. Enthusiasm and decency were gendered back then.
But out in Times Square, the young mooks of America felt more free to speak their minds. “Play some more real shit,” they’d tell me, forgetting both that the vote was really more theirs, and that even the most generous definition of “real shit” cannot include [Limp Bizkit’s] “Rollin’.”