Four doors (and one burly guard) separate the outside world from America's prime purveyor of teeny pop. PopMatters' Andrew Phillips walks cautiously through all four to face his demons at MTV's TRL awards.
I've never liked Times Square.
The midday sun adds a strange smell to that section of the city, exposing the gleaming lights and glossy ads for what they are: sinister, sticky-sweet corporate confections with an overwhelmingly sugary stink.
It's a wonder your feet don't gum to the sidewalk in a mid-August melt, and that the summer sun doesn't reduce the whole double-fudge sundae to a pool of tepid goo. But then, if it did, MTV's TRL would still float eye-catchingly to the top, like an invincible Maraschino cherry.
Of course, that's the old me talking, the one I'm trying to silence (Back! Back foul elitist!). Such adolescent assessments are as hollow as the supposedly empty shells they split. I'm an adult now. It's time to face my juvenile demons; to learn to appreciate major-label music and its many machines for what they are. How else can I silence the unthinking, beastlike punk rocker within? How else can I bring praise to pop?
* * *
Nestled below the neon marquees and flickering TV screens, at the corner of a giant building in the heart this mess, is MTV's now-infamous Times Square studio. It's from a relatively small room in this building that the folks at Total Request Live beam America's teen dream-boats, shiny-toothed and smiling, to the world.
As I approach the building, I notice that cigarette butts line the outer door, Viacom employees (and their affiliates) flicking ash into drifts collected along the edges of the concrete.
By my count, a series of only four doors (and one burly guard) separate the outside world from this Mecca of the teeny elite. And it's my plan to walk through all of them. I've been invited to the taping of MTV's fourth annual TRL Awards -- an event honoring rising pop stars who've made a name on the program -- and I intend to make the most of it. What better way to test my new creed -- that all things have value and can be appreciated for what they are -- than to dive head first into this, corporate culture's biggest pool?
* * *
Ashlee Simpson has small feet. I'm tempted to say they're hoof-like, but that's not really fair -- pressed into sporty gray flats, they probably just look tiny. Still, as I stand before the moment's fallen (and newly risen) pop-punk princess, I realize that just because someone's of small stature, doesn't mean they're not bigger than you.
I've crossed the threshold, and I'm one door from the TRL studio itself. MTV's cadre of publicists and producers has lined us up along the length of the hall behind a long velvet rope. This is the "red carpet", the event that precedes today's taping, and it's not what I expected. Rather than a screaming outdoor affair packed with petty prank-journalists and a serious showing of skin, it's a more calculated, controlled procedure.
Reporters are lined up in no particular order. Each has a printed piece of paper at their feet proclaiming their journalistic affiliation. No one told me I was supposed to print something out, so I appear to be a miscreant floater, sneaking my tape recorder around the backs of these more serious gossip-hounds. As the stars arrive, they are to walk the line, answer questions, and make small-talk with each reporter. Or so I'm told as I nestle between the woman from MTV radio and the large cameras of Showbiz Tonight.
Some of the reporters have the kind of probing eyes and serious expressions you'd see in the White House press corps, while others look like they spent the afternoon thoughtlessly primping and curling their hair. Each time the folks at Showbiz finish their round of pre-scripted banter -- including in-depth queries on music downloading, the Oscars, and clothing -- they ask the celeb to look deeply into the camera and say, "If it happened today, it's on Showbiz Tonight." Then it's my turn to face confused glances as the star decides whether to say something to me or make directly for the more welcoming eyes of the MTV Radio reporter to my right. Most go with her.
Which is fine. I'm happy to let someone else do most of the talking. She doesn't mind if I ape her quotes, and -- knowing that this is my first time at one of these things -- she's kindly offered to show me the ropes. I've done plenty of interviews, but never this type of express lane, five-questions-or-less meet-and-greet. But, if I follow, the rules go something like this:
1. You start with a softball compliment about the star's recent film or album, layering your voice with excitement. This turns the celeb on to you. They mug quickly, and make either a silly jab or a quiet, "sincere" response.
2. You talk about the success of their last/current project and ask them about their next one. They respond saying they are just lucky to be involved and possibly mumble something about God-with-a-capital-G.
3. You ask them about TRL and their relationship to the program. They say that TRL is awesome and that the show has been great for their career.
4. You ask a general question or two about Hollywood gossip or the upcoming awards show. They say that they haven't really had much time to read the news or hit the movie theaters, but that they've heard that Brokeback Mountain is amazing.
5. You say, "Thanks so much," and, if you're cute enough, get a little back-pat of a hug.
This is how things go as Simpson, Laguna Beach's Stephen Colletti, teen actress Amanda Bynes, and pop sensations Ne-Yo and Chris Brown pass by. I'm not really here to dance the dance -- that's just not the type of piece I'm interested in writing -- but it's fascinating to watch others do it.
As time goes by and more tanned bodies walk the carpet, I learn there's a hierarchy to their procession. Rather than enter the line willy-nilly, each celeb steps on only after the previous one has made enough headway through the crowd. The bigger names are held for last; that way they spend less time sitting in the make-up room at the other end of the red carpet waiting for the real festivities to start.
If there's a camera involved, the celeb affects a jib-jabby tone with the reporter. Some mug for the cameras and do little dances -- the guys from Fall Out Boy are particularly into these types of super-expressive antics. When the lighting deck above the video cameras flicks on, they burst into action with witty banter and calculated squirming. Of course, when they're talking to a print person like me (and the cameras aren't watching), they're far more personable, less obviously obsessed with creating usable soundbites.
Snide comments are made on occasion as celebrities pass, but it's nothing too serious -- the camera-men are the only truly cruel ones. It's mostly all in good taste (mostly), and the atmosphere on the carpet is strangely invigorating. Sure, it's all basically scripted, but it's kind of fun all the same.
When Mariah Carey shows up -- visible for a second at the studio end of the hall -- I get the wild paparazzi moment I'd been expecting. In a flurry of flashes, cameras explode and loud questions ring up and down the hallway. Mariah is much too big for this type of stop and go, so she sashays by the lot of us.
This snub signals the end of the red carpet. Now it's just a hallway floor again.
The cheers of children filter from the room beyond the corridor; so far their presence had only been implied by the racks of tiny jumpers lining the coat area by the entrance. Now those designer coats have voices attached to them. It's clear that things inside are about to get started.
I turn to my new-found comrade -- that rather nice young lady from MTV radio -- in search of guidance. "So, uh, what happens now?"
"We go home. Or rather, I go back upstairs and get to work."
* * *
In the studio I'm feeling less like a fly on the wall and more like some spindly insect with a thousand legs. I keep getting snagged in thick, black wires as they slither back and forth on the floor. It turns out that the rest of the reporters were only in it for the short-run -- they all left quietly after the red carpet reception. As such, I'm the only one of them watching the actual taping, and I've been corralled into a spot directly under the long reach of a crane-camera.
This is it, the TRL studio. The room is relatively small, divided into two distinct sections: the front and back stages. I'm standing just along the divide, where the blue tile of the tech area meets the main stage's floor. The studio itself is smaller than I'd expected (which is why there's barely any room for me to stand).
Streamers dangle from the ceiling, glittering under the light. There's a proper stage in the back-center of the room, reaching about a foot above the floor, and long rows of box-like benches on either side. Every aspect of the set segues seamlessly into itself -- it's all rounded curves. Behind everything looms a full wall of windows that overlooks Times Square. A huge TV billboard across the street flickers with images beamed from the camera above my head.
On all sides bouncy teens are being corralled into different positions around the room. A woman in a black shirt with a headset (who looks startlingly like Janeane Garofalo) directs them, occasionally calling for the group to clap or laugh. A portly kid with a minor mullet and an Ashlee Simpson T-shirt is always the first to respond; he's absolutely brimming with excitement. The woman might be directing these cries, but there's no questioning the crowd's sincerity. Like a faucet, she's just turning them on and off.
While this show (unlike a normal TRL) isn't actually live, it is filmed in long patches to give things a more impromptu air. To start things off, Susie and Vanessa -- two skinny female VJs -- read plucky monologues that tout the virtues of TRL and its chosen celebs. The stars that passed earlier on the carpet appear off and on, summoned to a shiny, wiry podium (which is moved all around the room during breaks) to present awards with names like "Best Band that Actually Plays Instruments" (My Chemical Romance) and the "Fake ID" award (Chris Brown) to one another. A lot of celebs are pulling double-duty.
American Idol Kelly Clarkson is beamed in live via satellite. The hosts try for some light banter but, perhaps because of the few seconds of time lag, she's slow to respond. When she does, it's with little of the hurdy-gurdy tone that runs rampart in the studio. It makes sense: she can't see the room, so how can she hope to match its energy?
Ashlee Simpson emerges during one of the few breaks, laughing with a group of gathered fans as a tech with a long, two-pronged pitchfork beard sets the live stage. Wrestled away from her fans (whose company she honestly seems to enjoy), she's ushered into position. Filming resumes, and it's announced that she is the winner of the first ever TRL "Bounce-back" award.
For those of us in the studio, the announcement is hardly a surprise; she and her band are already in position, ready to kick out a jam. The kids are quickly ushered to the foot of the stage. They're lined up about four rows deep, and as Simpson performs, I watch the monitor, seeing that with a few clever camera angles you can easily make 75 kids look like 400. This whole process, including the song, is then repeated.
During the second go-round, I glance to my side to find TRL host Damien (Carson Daly has been gone for ages) leaning next to me. He drops me an uncomfortable glance as I give him the once over. On camera his kiddish features make him look like the boy that time forgot, but right now he seems a rather tired 'ole fuddy-duddy. Maybe it's because he hasn't gotten much camera time. Or maybe his boyish charm needs resting.
Later he steps up to tease a set of pre-recorded segments with the show's bigger awardees. It's clear that he was flown out to LA earlier in the week to tie up a few loose ends.
I watch as the cameras go dead and the monitors kick over to interviews with Christina Aguilera and Bono. Damien admits on camera that meeting the latter was a longtime dream, and this is evidenced by his lack of casual cool on screen. While the clip rolls, the real life Damien stands with his back to the darkened cameras, watching his (literally) larger-than-life self as it's projected over Times Square alongside the U2 singer. When the camera pans back, he'll put back on that lovably mischievous grin, but for now his face is blank, staring uncomfortably at himself.
Meanwhile, the girls in the room are freezing. Clad in a skimpy dress, Vanessa is actually going goose-bumpy from the low temperature in the room -- one can only assume this has something to do with keeping the stagelights (or all the pubescent Don Juans in the audience) nice and cool. The taping pauses while she's escorted off to de-bump, leaving the room with a notable deficit of brazenly-bared flesh.
Cue Carey! Mariah steps out later, positively beaming as she accepts her title as "TRL's First Lady." She gushes over the gigantic (I'm talking four feet by four feet) plaque that declares her triumph and explains that she cut her vacation short just to accept it. Well shucks.
Ok, so it's a moment for the cameras, but to her credit she does seem honestly excited both on and off. And while she may have been cold to reporters, she's warm with her fans, laughing between breaks as they serenade her with one of her hits.
Other celebs and bands float in and out and the kids clap wildly with each appearance. Veteran MTV commentator John Norris (Kurt Loder and Carson Daly must have been busy) emerges towards the end of the show to help send the ceremony on its way. His weathered skin makes for a stark contrast to the other presenters' perfectly pulled features. But that's why we love him (seriously, I always thought he and Kurt were kinda cool) and why he's lasted so long.
I walk along as the kids are escorted out of their seats, out of the studio and back across the red carpet. They're brimming with kiddy glee, minds absolutely blown from all the stimulation (and not just from the VJ's see-though get-ups).
I'm filled with a similar giddy excitement. All the flashes, pops and bangs have affected me in an entirely unexpected way.
I make my way quietly back through the four doors and into the street, staring again at the high-rises and flashing ads. Sure, a lot of gloss and glitz, a lot of surgery schmoo went into this whole thing, but what's it matter? Is something really phony if everyone knows it's fake? It's not like anyone's deluding himself here. From the VJs to the reporters, everyone knows they're not saving lives with this stuff. It's just fun, and to their credit, they are making a lot of kids happy. What's more, when you see it from the inside, everyone involved seems totally sincere -- even if what they're making isn't.
So sure, I don't really dig many of the artists and celebs I saw. But there's a kind of simplistic excitement that comes with indulging in this kind of un-reality. It's sort of fun. Maybe I haven't completely conquered my pretentious airs, but at least I'm on my way.
Well, sort of. I still think Times Square smells like shit.