My fascination with music videos started in high school, when MTV started airing it's iconic countdown show, Total Request Live, or TRL. My somewhat-accidental career as a music video director began around the same time TRL aired it's final episode. Since then, videos have migrated to the internet, budgets have dropped, and boy bands have traded choreographed dancing for rock instruments. I started This Day In TRL as a way to revisit the show's classic videos, with added insights from my day job as a music video director. In the spirit of my site, here are a few ingredients that defined videos from TRL's heyday.
Nothing exemplifies TRL-era excess like gigantic constructed sets, a luxury that modern music videos can no longer afford. Constructed by massive crews in airplane hangers, they took the cinematic ambition of Janet Jackson's expansive warehouse from Rhythm Nation (dir. Dominic Sena) and super-sized it into a theme park ride. Britney Spears' gargantuan performance backdrop for Oops!… I Did It Again (dir. Nigel Dick) is a multi-tiered set that looks large enough to house it's own ecosystem. NSYNC's soundstage for Pop (dir. Wayne Isham) comes with multiple rooms, rotating turntable stages and so many programmable lights you could probably see it from space.
When physical stages weren't big enough, directors leaned into computer generated locations, like the bizarre combination of Blade Runner and Sim City that Jessica Simpson dances through in Irresistible (dir. Simon Brand).
The same post-FX company must have also designed the intro to Evanescence's Bring Me To Life (dir. Philipp Stölzl), which looks identical, but with the tone dial switched from "Sleek Futurism" to "Dystopian Goth".
When the goal was to showcase a male pop singer's irresistible charisma, directors turned to a concept best described as "Sexy Stalking". It's a simple pitch: the artist becomes so taken by a stranger's beauty that he drops everything to pursue her with the eerie persistence of the T-1000 in Terminator 2. You can trace this concept back to Michael Jackson's classic The Way You Make Me Feel (dir. Joe Pytka), a 7 minute prelude to a restraining order that was replicated ad nauseam in the early 00's. Justin Timberlake dabbled in it with his 2003 video for I'm Lovin' It (dir. Paul Hunter), where mere fleeting eye contact with a woman from across a bustling Manhattan street motivates an arduous, day-long chase sequence across the five boroughs. R&B underdog Mario doesn't take a hint from the title of his own song in Just A Friend (dir. Diane Martel), where he corners his reluctant crush in a packed movie theater, and forces her to sit through his endless choreographed pleading.
You can leave it to Enrique Iglesias to stretch the concept to it's logical extreme with his aptly-titled, Escape (dir. Dave Meyers), which features Enrique slyly trapping his girlfriend, Anna Kourniqova, in a women's restroom and pinning her against a sink.
It's interesting to note that when the tables were turned, videos usually depicted equally smitten women as crazy-eyed psychos. In NSYNC's Bye Bye Bye (dir. Wayne Isham), an attractive model pushes the boundaries of clingy-ness when she chases the band across the top of a moving train and even sicks attack dogs on Justin Timberlake.
Limp Bizkit's video for Nookie (dir. Fred Durst) features a scenario where lead singer Fred Durst is followed, pied-piper-style, by a crowd of beautiful women. Durst looks perplexed, and addresses the camera with an expression that seems to say, "Scary, right?"
Maybe it was TRL's crowd-sourced nature or just the vague feeling that the emerging internet was about to change the music industry forever, but a lot of videos on the countdown experimented with early notions of viral marketing. The concept behind The Black-Eyed Peas's Where Is The Love (dir. Will.I.Am) revolves around a two-pronged guerrilla marketing campaign: as a group of anonymous teenagers wheatpaste posters emblazoned with a question mark across LA, the band drives around the city, blasting the song from a conversion van. There are a bunch of wires and computers in the van, so maybe they're hacking something too? That seems about right.
In SK8r Boi (dir. Francis Lawrence), Avril Lavigne anticipates the internet's short-lived fascination with flash mobs by throwing an impromptu concert in the middle of a downtown intersection. A team of punky looking Avril fans draw a crowd via a mishmash of branded e-mails, street graffiti, flyers, and cryptic text messages. It's basically every scattershot marketing plan lazy ad agencies use to create buzz about new energy drinks, the difference being that Avril's concert wasn't accompanied by a press release in AdWeek.
When record labels needed extra insurance in their quest to connect with TRL's audience, they turned to their most reliable signifier of relevant youth culture: Extreme Sports. Looking for a wholesome way to add grit to homeschooled pop-trio Hanson? Put them at the helm of a Motorcross road trip in If Only (dir. Dave Meyers). Need to add a hint of danger to Pink? Include a moment where she longboards to a dance club in Get The Party Started (dir. Dave Meyers). My favorite example is from P.O.D.'s
Alive (dir. Francis Lawrence), in which a teenager sees his life flash before his eyes during a car accident. It's a poignant, heartfelt concept, but the whole first minute of his flashback is dedicated to a montage of the teen expertly surfing, followed by another minute of him executing skate tricks in an empty swimming pool. The video is almost half over before the guy recalls a single memory that doesn't look like a Mountain Dew commercial.
There were two flavors of rock music available on the TRL countdown, and here's a handy way to tell them apart- Nu-Metal bands visualized their existential angst through shots of their lead singers experiencing painful migraines. Pop-punk bands visualized their existential angst by jumping around in empty swimming pools. It was a confusing time for rock music.
Although artists like Missy Elliott, Ludacris, and Outkast released some of TRL's most innovative visuals, my favorite hip-hop video from the countdown will always be P. Diddy's (as he was known at the time) Bad Boys For Life (dir. Chris Robinson), an underrated 6 minute haters-gonna-hate gif that alternates between being a subversive criticism of suburban white flight, and a tribute to Diddy's networking skills.
There are plenty of cameos that make sens – Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Xzibit – and a whole list of famous faces that seem like they were plucked at random from the deepest regions of Diddy's Blackberry. Ben Stiller shows up to do a dynamite Ben Stiller impression, Mike Tyson and Shaq combine to create an unholy alliance of rap's most name-checked athletes, and Dave Navarro and Travis Barker mime the song's beat in Diddy's minimalist modern garage.
The most bizarre cameo is reserved for the end of the video, when the punchline – a crew even rowdier than Diddy's moves into the neighborhood – is given to Alt-rock footnote Crazytown. Oh, and Pat O' Brien shows up for a few seconds to do this:
It's TRL at it's finest.
Born in the coldest city in Japan and raised in the blazing hot suburbs of Phoenix, Isaac Rentz now resides in Los Angeles. A VMA-nominated director, his diverse body of work includes music videos for Paramore, Cage The Elephant, Tegan and Sara, and Eminem, and Commercials for clients like Red Stripe, The Gap, and HP. You can read more of his thoughts on Peak TRL here.
Images via screengrab