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Goodbye, ‘TRL’ — We’ll Miss You!

My first year of professional life in New York was spent on the 32nd floor of Times Square’s Bertelsmann Building, the one that houses the gigantic Virgin Megastore just across the street from MTV’s studios at 1515 Broadway. Back then, I was a smoker, and on hot summer afternoons, I often took advantage of the European-owned building’s very European-like air-conditioned smoking lounge on the 8th floor.

And while the lounge’s windows afforded a decent view of Total Request Live‘s daily proceedings, you didn’t need a direct line of sight to know the show had started taping. It was the screaming. Shrieking like you have never heard. For the non-indoctrinated, it was unnerving as all hell. Was there a roller coaster in the Square? Or, more disturbingly, had terrorists struck again at the heart of American commercial excess? It was the summer of 2002, after all.

But no. It was not Osama Bin Laden. It was Carson Daly. It was hundreds and sometimes thousands of young people — not just teens, mind you — participating in a pop culture phenomenon. And then there were the millions who watched on TV, taking an hour each day to teleport themselves into the heart of America’s coolest city to hang out with all the artists and celebrities that they had to know.

I used to take aim at TRL at the beginning, bemoaning MTV’s decline into lowest-common-denominator celebrity-driven programming that only promoted the basest pop music (and the slow death of my perennial fave, 120 Minutes). Of course, MTV’s lowest-common-denominator got much lower. But two things became clearer to me later on, and I was reminded of both while watching last night’s TRL sign-off.

First, a lot of bands played on TRL since its Sept. 14, 1998, debut — bands we’ve put on the cover or featured extensively at SPIN. Green Day. U2. The Killers. Outkast. Eminem. My Chemical Romance. I was stunned to find out that Of Montreal, the Kills, the Gossip, Hot Hot Heat, and even Paul McCartney visited TRL in recent years, after most of us stopped watching. So while loads of viewers were gobbling up whatever hip-hop track, boy band, or teen movie happened to be hot that week, they also probably watched (and maybe even became fans of) some really good bands.

Watch: The Best Performances On TRL Ever

Second, I realized that TRL, for a several years at least, helped keep the major labels afloat by boosting pop artists sales numbers on the Billboard charts: NSYNC sold 2.4 million copies of 2000’s No Strings Attachedin one week. Christina Aguilera sold 12 million copies of her debut. And Backstreet Boys equaled that number with Millennium (an album with, in my opinion, one of the most perfect pop songs ever written, “I Want It That Way”). Blink-182 sold 15 million copies worldwide of 1999’s Enema of the State. All of these were TRL acts. And no band comes close to those kinds of numbers these days.

All that money — at least some of it — helped labels spend more on indie acts. RCA, for example, used Christina Aguilera money to sign and develop the Strokes, Kings of Leon, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The TRL-fueled pop music cushion allowed labels to take more risks.

Watching last night’s parade of stars, both in the studio and in archival footage from the show’s run, made it easy to place TRL in the pop culture pantheon with American Bandstand, Midnight Special, Soul Train, and basically all of MTV’s programming in the ’80s and early-’90s, TRL was a virtual hangout, a place to share in the hysteria-filled discovery and consumption of pop culture.

Why did the show meet its end? For one, the quality of music declined, with the labels ultimately spending too much money in a losing battle against illegal downloading instead of investing in new acts. The audience also got older, and followed some of TRL‘s edgier bands out onto Warped Tour, or started watching the increasingly more relevant music programming on late-night TV, particularly on Conan and Saturday Night Live. The era’s biggest acts disbanded, disappeared, or dissolved into personal chaos. Oh, yeah, and there’s that neat little thing called the Internet.

But we still need something like TRL.

We’re all online, communicating in smallish friend groups, self-promoting with Facebook status updates and photo galleries. Bands are direct-marketing to audiences on MySpace. We’re blogging. But it’s all small-scale, without any shared, communal experience. There’s no clubhouse anymore, nothing propelling music to the masses.

That’s why one of these days I hope to hear choruses of shrieking voices outside of 1515 Broadway again. I’d be comforted to see a mob of bright-eyed teens peering into the giant glass window, pressed up close for a glimpse of their new favorite superstar. Heck, I might even join them, if they’d let me.

Watch: Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way” live at TRL’s Total Finale Live