For anybody who did not live through the peak of MTV’s Total Request Live, it’s difficult to understand just how important that show was to pop culture. Every day after school, TRL host Carson Daly would not only unveil the 10 most-requested videos of the day, but he would also interview movie stars, call his celebrity friends, and facilitate awkward exchanges between unlikely bedfellows. Before everybody cared about tween culture, TRL was the center of that universe.
It was also the last time MTV was truly committed to music videos. Though as time went on they showed less and less of the videos on the countdown, the early run of TRL featured full clips in all their glory, and for some of the most definitive acts of the late video era—including Eminem, Backstreet Boys, Blink 182, and Britney Spears—it was the only place to catch their work (remember, this is in the era before video on the Internet was a viable option).
But before all the Mariah Carey ice cream drop-ins and Tom Green-related conspiracies, it had to start with the first episode of Total Request Live, which aired on this day in 1998. It was a hybrid of two shows—MTV Live and Total Request—that had been running intermittently. The first show didn’t have a live studio audience, but it did have Daly’s low-key charisma and 10 great videos. On the 15th anniversary of the show’s premiere, let’s take a look back at the inaugural top 10.
10. Monster Magnet, “Space Lord”
In 1998, Diddy was still called Puff Daddy, and his vision ruled music videos. Unfettered avarice was the stock in trade in hip-hop videos, and in their biggest mainstream moment, New Jersey hard rockers Monster Magnet went to Vegas for a pomp and fireworks parody of rap music that also begins as a send-up of metal videos (dig the random old man). The satire doesn’t hit as hard as it did in ‘98, but it still rocks. B+
9. Monica, “The First Night”
In her follow-up to the chart-topping Brandy collaboration “The Boy Is Mine,” Monica hops aboard a Jermaine Dupri beat and hits the club, apparently fresh from a shopping spree at Banana Republic (so much khaki!). Like “The Boy Is Mine,” “The First Night” went to number one, but doesn’t this look a little cheap? And why is Monica rubbing her opera glasses in that dude’s armpit? Too many unanswered questions! C
8. Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”
The Nicolas Cage/Meg Ryan film City of Angels came out all the way back in April of ‘98, but the soundtrack was still a juggernaut at the end of the summer. There’s no footage from the movie (a trope we’ll see later on this list); instead, frontman Johnny Rzeznik obsesses over telescopes despite the fact that the most compelling thing in the video is his hair. C-
7. Usher, “My Way”
Man, Jermaine Dupri really ran everything in ‘98, didn’t he? This early Usher hit is a great example of late ’90s video overkill, as every idea at the brainstorming session seemed to make it into the final cut. Bouncy castle? Sure. A Clockwork Orange makeup? Indeed. Gigantic boom box? Bring it on! Add a little Tyrese cameo and you’ve got a super-absurd (but fun) four minutes of R&B. Plus, that dancing is pretty killer. B+
6. Marilyn Manson, “The Dope Show”
Don’t we all miss Marilyn Manson’s Bowie-biting, asexual alien with fake boobs period? Those were heady days. Manson was a TRL staple, and this might be his greatest MTV moment. A-
5. Will Smith, “Just the Two of Us”
Fifteen years later, we’ve only just begun to deal with Jaden Smith. D
4. Aerosmith, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”
Now this is more like it. Another soundtrack smash (this one from summer’s big Michael Bay hit Armageddon), Aerosmith’s Diane Warren-penned power ballad was inescapable across seemingly every radio format. Everything here is genius: Steven Tyler’s hair coat, a couple of meta-gags about Armageddon star Liv Tyler and her rock star dad, and the fact that NASA is apparently more interested in monitoring Aerosmith’s orchestra-assisted performance than watching Bruce Willis’ space crew destroy an asteroid. They really don’t make’em like they used to. A
3. Aaliyah feat. Timbaland, “Are You That Somebody?”
Another soundtrack selection (this came from Dr. Doolittle), “Are You That Somebody?” would earn an A+ even if it was just four minutes of the hawk staring at the camera, because this song is perfect. There’s the sample of the baby cooing on the beat, Aaliyah’s sweet ride over the melody, and a memorable Timbaland rap. But the video happens to be super cool, and features some top shelf Timbaland mugging. A+++++++
2. ‘NSYNC, “Tearin’ Up My Heart”
Just a couple of bros hanging out, hitting a heavy bag, trying on shirts, and dancing for a photo shoot. These boy band videos were all made for about 12 bucks, but they were carried by the charisma of their members—and even in their uber-youthful state, the ‘NSYNC boys had it. Bonus points for that scene of Justin Timberlake on a bed underneath that ceiling fan, as it had to have led to a strange awakening in hundreds of thousands of girls on the verge. A-
1. Backstreet Boys, “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”
BSB wins the first of many head-to-heads with their ‘NSYNC rivals. “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” puts the Boys in some sort of desert-motif tower and lets them belt out a ballad. It’s a little more expensive-looking and polished than “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” but something seems off. Is it the strange cameo by the dog in Brian Littrell’s room? That’s part of it. Is it Howie Dorough’s fake-ass guitar playing? That doesn’t help either. B+