Carson Daly chatted with Eminem, Beyonce gave a show-stopping performance, girls shrieked at the sight of Justin Timberlake and hundreds of fans lined up outside in Times Square for a glimpse at superstars.
For few hours, it seemed like old times at MTV's "Total Request Live" — back when the show was not only music's most powerful force but a dominant part of pop culture. Unfortunately, it took the show's demise to make it relevant again.
MTV pulled the plug on its most influential franchise Sunday night following years of declining ratings, but not before marking the occasion with celebration and nostalgia, as some of pop's biggest stars paid respects to the show that helped launch their careers.
"I feel like they're kinda tearin' down my home," Eminem said via phone as he and Daly, "TRL's" first and most famous host, commiserated during the live, three-hour broadcast from the show's headquarters.
"It's a bittersweet moment," Diddy, the show's most frequent guest, said as he cried mock tears and gave one of the final waves to the Times Square audience from "TRL's" glass-encased studios above.
MTV has had other shows that will be remembered for changing the musical landscape, including "Yo! MTV Raps," but perhaps none greater than "TRL." It made its debut in 1998, just as the teen pop phenomenon was about to explode, when the rap-rock hybrid was bubbling over, and groups like Destiny's Child were considered emerging acts.
While its concept of a video countdown show wasn't new, its model — which included a live show, an audience full of enthusiastic kids and viewer feedback — helped energize the teen fan base and made them music's tastemakers. Soon, "TRL" would become an integral part of boosting the careers of superstars like Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Eminem and Christina Aguilera. It's no coincidence that their biggest sales, and pop's huge sales boom in the new millennium, came during the show's most potent era.
"If it wasn't for 'TRL,' I don't think I would have this launching pad for my career," said a cigar-smoking Kid Rock, who came to prominence as a raucous rap-rocker on "TRL" with his baudy hit "Bawitdaba" but has since morphed into a country-rock career that is more CMT than MTV.
"It's a big loss, not having this as a platform to promote our music," said 50 Cent in the show's waning moments.
The moments weren't always cheery, though. The Backstreet Boys broke news of member A.J. McLean's drug and alcohol rehab on the show; Mariah Carey's bizarre moment involving a striptease and ice cream defined her time of emotional instability.
Both of those moments were replayed during Sunday's show, but the event mostly recalled its musical legacy, highlighted by performances from its most important alumni. Beyonce opened the show with her new singles, "If I Were A Boy" and "Single Ladies," but also gyrated to one of her superstar-making hit "Crazy in Love," which got endless plays on "TRL."
"This show obviously launched the careers of so many people," said Daly, the now late-night talk show host who could include himself in that category. "This is a sad moment."
Timberlake didn't perform, but arrived with JC Chasez, his fellow 'N Sync member, and hailed the show for making his launching-pad group one of music's best-selling acts.
"This is like a high school reunion in a way," said Timberlake. "I feel like we all grew up together. 'TRL' was so integral to our careers."
Like all reunions, the show featured appearances from its past graduating classes, like former VJs Vanessa Minnillo, Hilarie Burton (now an actress on "One Tree Hill") and trivia game answer Jesse Camp. Snoop Dogg, Nelly and Ludacris rapped some of their biggest hits in a hip-hop melody; Fall Out Boy performed in Times Square without the services of soon-to-be-dad Pete Wentz, who spoke later via phone (Wentz is the host of the video show that is taking the place of TRL — "FNMTV.")
But TRL's greatest claim to fame was a no-show. Spears entire career, from its meteoric rise to tragic downturn to recent resurgence, was chronicled on TRL, but she didn't attend the goodbye gala. Still, her presence loomed large: As the show did its final countdown of all-time videos, her now-iconic first hit, "... Baby One More Time," emerged as the top video, and played as the credits of the show ran for the final time.