Blame Dick Clark

What, Hilary Duff was unavailable?

What, Hilary Duff was unavailable?

2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday

On any given weekday, teenagers flock to MTV's gleaming Times Square compound like ants to an errant drip of ice cream. Assembling on the sidewalk below the studio, these pubescent dumplings loiter for hours, gawking at the Naked Cowboy's briefs, baring their braces to MTV's roving camera, and shrieking at every passing limousine as if it were ferrying Lindsay Lohan, Jack Black, and the guy from My Chem. Some of these fanatics even loft signs declaring their love for whichever famous guest is scheduled to appear on Total Request Live that afternoon, never mind the fact that lugging an "I HEART JAMES BLUNT" poster through the human chaos of 42nd street is no easy feat—trust me.

Anyone who dismisses MTV as irrelevant needs to witness this hormonal storm cell firsthand. And if you can resist its cyclonic pull—well, as Eddie Vedder once shouted in a less-trusting era, this is not for you.

Total Request Live, or TRL, as the kids call it, hasn't changed much since its inception. Original host Carson Daly, now a relic compared to his Clearasil-smeared congregation, shuffled off to Buffalo several years ago in search of late-late-night fame. Hosting duties are now shared by a gang of perpetually smiling VJs, including dreamboat Damien Fahey, saucy Lala, and of course, Quddus, who may have landed the gig by virtue of the fact that his name is fun to say. These VJs are professional fluffers, stripped of any Kurt Loder-esque objectivity and trained to aggressively pimp even the most crass and hopeless acts. (How else to explain MTV's on-air support of the Pussycat Dolls, who are essentially the Spice Girls unseasoned? Or the evil, tween-baiting Jonas Brothers, who sound like Hanson played at 78 rpm?)

Those of us who recall the early, charmingly low-rent days of MTV (sticks, strings, sealing wax, spacemen, Martha Quinn, etc.) might be surprised by how cold-blooded the whole operation has become. A recent episode of TRL featured teenage popster Rhianna listlessly performing her megahit/distress call "S.O.S.," which is basically a retread of "Tainted Love" with more booty-popping. The choreography was robotic (and not in a cool, self-aware Missy Elliott way), and Rhianna's lip-syncing was so sloppy that it failed to create any illusion of vocal performance. (Why was Ashlee Simpson so pilloried for her SNL snafu? She's Patti Smith onstage compared to this Rhianna babe.) Watching this canned fiasco, I felt nostalgic for Soft Cell. Same beat, sure, but those guys showed indications of being alive.

Yet, upon returning from the commercial break, Lala turned to the camera, saucer-eyed with awe, and declared, "Did y'all see Rhianna's performance? Wasn't that unbelievable?" The crowd whooped in affirmation, as if they'd just seen Phish at Red Rocks and were blown away by those dueling solos. It was chilling. MTV could have plucked any girl from that very audience and trained her to replicate the entire performance, step for measured step, with relative ease.

This is not to say that Rhianna is undeserving of her success: She has a lovely, buttery voice and looks awesome in white jeans. However, she definitely cheated the in-studio crowd that day, and no one acknowledged the slight with so much as a snicker or hiss. Since when is the average teenager so passive? And if TRL is a democracy, what does this pap say about its constituents? (Could there be a political metaphor hiding in this tale of the easily gulled public? Nah...)

Perhaps the most twisted example of TRL's postmodern allure is the recent successful re-branding of Ashley Parker Angel. This man, whom you've probably never heard of, was once in a boy band called O-Town, which was conceived and created by MTV for a reality show called Making the Band. Still following me? O-Town scored a hit in 2000 (a song about nocturnal emissions called "Liquid Dreams"—really) and sold a few million albums before predictably dissolving.

Flash forward six years: MTV recently aired a series called There and Back: Ashley Parker Angel, about the trials and tribulations of the now-broke Angel, who blew his "Liquid Dreams" wad years ago. The show depicted Angel sharing a small apartment with his pregnant girlfriend and applying for minimum-wage jobs. Naturally, MTV commissioned a new Angel solo single to accompany the show. Guess who's now one of the most-requested artists on TRL? That's right, Ashley Parker Angel. It's like the musical equivalent of a pity fuck. (Wonder what cut of the profits MTV collects for playing the part of panderer.)

Teens used to want idols. Now they are the idols, making and breaking celebrities with text-messaged votes and MySpace pages. Maybe the fundies are right after all: Kids nowadays just don't make good choices.