It was July 19, 2001. It was business as usual for Carson Daly, who kept the madcap proceedings of the music video countdown series so breezy each day that one occasionally was forced to wonder if the somnambulant host was, in fact, doing it in his sleep.
Then came the cooing off-stage—the deranged siren call of a diva in distress, jolting the TRL hero out of his had-enough-of-this-shit slumber.
“Loverboy, come on love me.” Daly stammers, confused and scared, as the pop supernova struts on stage, his frosted tips practically turning grey in real time as we watched; his flipped bangs frightened into standing on their own.
Then, wearing stilettos, hot pants, a halter top, and a migraine-inducing high ponytail, Mariah Carey enters pushing a cart filled with ice cream. (Fun fact: this is how I plan to walk down the aisle at my wedding.)
“If you don’t have ice cream in your life, sometimes you might go a little bit crazy,” she says. Daly keeps insisting all of this is unplanned. “Mariah Carey’s lost her mind,” he says. The singer reads a love letter written by her mother to him. “You’re my therapy right now,” she confesses.
A nation of tweens, teens, and college students with nothing to do at 3 p.m. on a weekday but see famous singers introduce their new music videos watched in bafflement and concern. Is Mariah Carey…alright? The singer would, weeks later, be admitted into a hospital for exhaustion. Mariah’s ice cream incident would prove a formative moment for all of us. We had collectively witnessed an iconic celebrity meltdown.
It’s prudent to revisit this seminal moment in TRL’s ten-year history (and, hell, MTV’s existence in general) partly because it’s a demented, delightful piece of entertainment—Carey, of course, rebounded on a high greater than her whistle register with the blockbuster success of The Emancipation of Mimi in 2005 coupled with a revivified celebrity image embracing her loopiness.
But mostly it’s timely because MTV announced Monday that it will be reviving TRL this fall.
For all the generation-defining joys of TRL’s 1998-2008 run, it’s easy to understand why it ended.
It’s run marked the last vestige of a mass pop culture audience, in which the mainstream was powerful and it was united. The current zeitgeist is fractured in all kinds of ways, making the mirror reflected back at society shattered, and people left gazing at the piece of the reflection that most appeals to and resembles them. TRL was the last wild time a Britney Spears, Korn, Destiny’s Child, DMX, Eminem, ‘N Sync, Dixie Chicks, Rage Against the Machine, and, yes, Kid Rock could commingle.
Those who would watch TRL religiously each afternoon aged out of the demographic. Live shows became less popular. Music videos became irrelevant. The same things that led to a decline in ratings for TRL—the rise of different technologies and entertainment outlets, and accessibility and community through social media—also completely changed the way fans and celebrities relate and interact, not to mention the TMZ way stars are covered.
Mariah Carey’s ice cream episode 16 years ago seems tame by the measure of celebrity meltdowns and scandals today.
Britney Spears’ shaved head, Mel Gibson’s drunken antics, Chris Brown’s awful temper, Johnny Depp’s downward spiral, Rob Kardashian’s revenge porn ambush: we’ve had 24/7 access to celebrities, celebrity news, and celebrity drama right at our fingertips—not to mention their music and videos.
TRL was the way that celebrities talked to us. Because it was on MTV, it even felt like they were talking to us, unlike those publicist-choreographed interviews with Matt Lauer or Barbara Walters. This was pre-Twitter, pre-Vine, pre-Instagram. To get in touch with the fans, they’d show up to TRL, hang out with Carson, and, sure, maybe go full-on cuckoo and pass out some ice cream bars.
More, it was how we talked to celebrities. Was there a greater thrill than waiting hours in the cold outside TRL’s Times Square studio and then getting chosen to screech your 7-second testimonial as to why you voted for Mandy Moore’s “I Wanna Be with You” to be on the countdown?
Even if you were never chosen, the palpable energy radiating from LFO’s biggest fan when Carson handed him or her the mic spoke to the lightning in a bottle that MTV captured. It was the kind of electric jolt you could vicariously feel even if you voted for Limp Bizkit that week, or, hey, thought you were above the whole thing.
Now, the opportunity for that expression of fandom is so readily available as to almost render it meaningless. All anyone has to do is log onto Taylor Swift’s Instagram page to tell her how much you love her. Fan videos on YouTube sometimes go more viral than the artist’s videos themselves, often landing the creators their own 15 minutes on the Ellen show. Fan armies rule Twitter, with direct access to the star.
You don’t need the middleman anymore. That’s why Carson Daly is over on The Voice.
Interestingly, in the world of splintered television and infinite delayed viewing options, live TV has made an unlikely resurgence as one of the few ways a network can demand an audience. And if TRL’s original audience has aged out of the MTV demographic, a new one has certainly aged in, bringing with them new VJs, new social platforms for accompanying content, and different ways to interact and engage with the show and the celebrities who will appear on it.
It sounds arguably exciting and definitely exhausting. (There’s a reason older millennials, including yours truly, are bah-humbugging all over this planned revival.) But what TRL specialized in a decade ago was moments—be it the thrill of seeing the Backstreet Boys debut a new video, the confusion over what the hell was going on with Mariah Carey, or even just being a part of a cultural moment frozen in time.
The best MTV can hope for today is a fraction of that collective youth interest, and the network is deluded if it thinks anything even remotely resembling the spontaneity of the Mariah moment—the kind of “expect the unexpected” pop culture phenomenon that has gone extinct not just on MTV, but in the industry itself—will ever happen again.
It’s hard to believe that our Mariah meltdown is a teenager now, just the age MTV hopes will tune in for this TRL reboot. Time flies. And sometimes, it should fly away and stay there.