We Went Behind The Scenes Of MTV’s Super Ambitious Reboot, ‘TRL Australia’

What does the turn-of-the-millennium's biggest music show look like in 2019?

Baker Boy TRL Australia

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It’s just past 5pm on a Tuesday, and right as I walk up to MTV’s office reception desk, it’s wheeled away from me.

The foyer is halfway through its transformation for tonight’s taping of TRL Australia, featuring two-song sets from both Baker Boy and Thelma PlumThe wires have been laid, lights are being secured around me, and people in lanyards blitz across the room as they make their way from A to B, ensuring everything’s in place.

While I wait to meet three of TRL Australia‘s four hosts — radio personalities Ash London and Angus O’Loughlin and DJ/MTV presenter Flex Mami, with MTV Australia’s online editor Lisa Hamilton elsewhere — I turn to the foyer’s mounted stage to watch Baker Boy and band blitz through a soundcheck of latest single ‘Cool As Hell’. He’s decked out in a bright yellow MTV bucket hat, and saves his more physically exerting dance moves for the real deal.

The song travels through the near-empty room, and undoubtedly up the foyer stairs to the open-plan office where people are trying to knock out the day’s last few emails — hopefully with noise-cancelling headphones. Then again, maybe not: TRL Australia is five weeks into its initial ten-week run, so they might be used to the interruption.

In an hour, eager punters will start blitzing through the doors — when I visited a few weeks back to catch Thandi Phoenix and Cub Sport, the room was packed by 6.05pm.

Tonight’s crowd is a steady mix of those hardcore fans and a few music industry types with a free Tuesday — as well, of course, as those who are just keen to get on TV or have a free feed and drink (or three), with KFC and Young Henrys sponsoring the show. They shout on cue (and off it, sometimes) and dance on and off-camera, pausing only to take videos and pictures for Snapchat and Instagram.

Welcome to TRL in 2019.

DJ and TRL Australia host Flex Mami. (Photo: Paigge Warton)

DJ and TRL Australia host Flex Mami. (Photo: Paigge Warton)

Not Just Nostalgia

TRL Australia was announced last year, a reboot of one of MTV’s flagship shows in the ’90s and ’00s hosted by Carson Daly, featuring interactive, phone-voted countdowns for number one songs, ‘favourite stars’, ‘most iconic music videos’ and more.

At the turn of the millennium, the US show would feature performances from massive artists, such as Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Outkast, and Destiny’s Child. Its impact was monumental to making careers: back in 2000, New York Times critic Ann Powers said that “TRL is certainly maybe the most important thing at the moment for these top ten artists.”

The effects were far-reaching for both chart placement and the viewers. TRL told audiences what was cool, and what other people their age were passionate about. It was a chance to prove your taste reigned supreme.

That meant it mobilised fan-clubs and message boards, and provided the battleground on which to forge communities (all the while MTV profited from the dial-ins), and feel connected to the cultural moment — even if you were a teenager watching along in Australia.

“MTV was my conduit to pop music,” TRL Australia host Ash London tells me. “I was 13 when ‘Hit me Baby One More Time’ came out, at that age when I was discovering pop music and also it was also when pop music, in my belief was, the strongest it’s ever been. *N’SYNC, Backstreet Boys and all that… MTV was for me was the epicentre of that.”

“I remember being in Cairns, in Far North Queensland,” says fellow host Angus O’Loughlin. “My dad had Foxtel and I thought it was a huge thing. [Living with my mum], I didn’t have Foxtel, so I remember staying up super late the first night that I got it and a song came on.”

“It was the year 2000, I was 12-13 and it was Snoop Dogg, ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’. It’s my favourite song still to this day, because watching MTV and TRL they had it on and I remember going, “Okay I love hip-hop”. I remember that moment: I remember the colour of my dad’s couch, all the memories that apply to that moment in time.”

Thelma Plum performs on TRL Australia.

Thelma Plum performs on TRL Australia. (Photo: Paigge Warton/MTV)

Meanwhile, Flex Mami, at 25, says she’s experiencing “TRL IRL” for the first time (“TRL came out when I was five-years-old, and I feel like I’ve repressed every memory before 14, so…”). It’s a similar position to most of the show’s audience, many of whom might be a little confused by what the show is.

In 2019, we aren’t looking to television for those same communal music experiences TRL once offered. Fanbases mobilise daily online, sparring in Twitter wars defending flops, or pulling out all the stops (and several devices) to break streaming records across YouTube and Spotify.

While it’s easy to overplay the role of streaming algorithms in how we find music — radio plays, media support, and good ol’ label money still go a long way — it’s undoubtable that we don’t rely on television for music as we did 10-15 years ago.

Part of that was MTV’s shift into reality TV — soon, a 30-second snippet on the massively popular show The Hills became more coveted than TRL. 

TRL Australia, then, is quite ambitious — especially when you add in that things didn’t work too well the first time it launched, in 2004. Originally hosted by Kyle Sandilands and 2DayFM personality Maz Compton, it was shuffled around in time-slots during its two year run, reduced from five nights a week to weekend slots, before abruptly ending.

This reboot is one of a wave of new Australian shows centred on live music TV. There’s Jam Live, a small Adelaide-focused show. During Aus music month last November, The ABC debuted The Set, which transformed Aunty’s Ultimo studios into an Inner West house party — if the party had performances from Wafia and Vera Blue in front of the Hills Hoist, performance art, and Dylan Alcott hanging out.

Hopefully it’ll be back, but either way, we still have ‘Like A Version’ (which has become a full video production in past years), plus MTV itself is pretty committed to live music at the moment.

Last year, they launched MTV Unplugged Australia, which has seen full sets from Gang of Youths, Amy Shark and The Rubens. Talking to Music Junkee in September, MTV Vice President and Head Of Asia Pacific Simon Bates confirmed Unplugged was sticking around until at least 2021, with 12 shows planned over the three years.

TV Still Matters

TRL is another step forward, though O’Loughlin knows that doesn’t mean that audiences will necessarily sit down every Friday night at 6.30pm to watch it. The show’s pushed out in a few ways — on TV, obviously, but also repackaged into short, sharable snippets.

And while social media algorithms can help you discover new music — Cub Sport’s stunning rendition of tender-ballad ‘As Long As You’re Happy’ popped up in my Facebook feed for weeks — it’s not quite the same as the serendipitous moment of stumbling upon it on television.

Cub Sport – As Long As You're Happy

This moment gave us fricken CHILLS

Posted by MTV TRL Australia on Sunday, 17 March 2019


“Someone who is hanging around to watch Ex On The Beach might actually catch Baker Boy and be like, “Okay, ‘Mr. La Di Da Di’ is a banger’,”says O’Loughlin. “‘And I watched sort of five minutes of TRL, but I got a great five minute little snippet’.”

“Or who knows? Someone’s genuinely could be just thinking, ‘Catfish is on’, and catch us instead. And we’ve got a new fan of an artist that they would never have heard of.”

London agrees, and compares it to catching the support act of a gig and accidentally finding your new favourite band.

“[At this age], everything is self-curated which I think is awesome, but often it means that we limit ourselves,” she says. “It’s listening to the same genres: often won’t let these algorithms give us music that they think we will like given our histories.”

Each episode has at least two performers, often pairing a headline act with someone smaller the audience might not be across. Previously, the show’s teamed up Meg Mac with Jack River, Baker Boy with Thelma Plum, and Hottest 100 winners Ocean Alley with rising-star Kwame. Coming up, The Veronicas are playing with Perth’s synth-rock eccentrics Methyl Ethel, combining pop-royalty with indie-darlings.

Kings TRL Australia reboot photo

Kings performs on TRL Australia. (Photo: Paigge Warton/MTV)

“It’s nice sometimes to let the taste makers — a network, the label, a TV show — have that [ability to say], ‘Well we’ve found something. You might like it.'”

But TRL isn’t just for the audiences. We don’t have the same late-night circuit that the US does, which means that when an Australian act breaks big, their first TV performance might be on the likes of The Late Show with Seth Meyers or Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Not to say TRL is merely a practice run, but it is an opportunity that’s all-too rare in Australia.

Both times I visit, there’s only one go of each performance, despite the fact it’s pre-recorded. There’s simply no need for take two.

Baker Boy adds in his trademark slides and dance-moves effortlessly; Thelma Plum sounds a star (and looks it too, wearing a gorgeous gold tinsel jacket) and shines in interviews; Tim Nelson of Cub Sport’s voice soars through the foyer; and newcomer Thandi Phoenix gained a whole new set of fans in the audience.

Unlike a few other in-show segments where the crowd is a little too focused on the free feed, chatting to their friends, or getting a picture in front of MTV’s iconic Moon Man statue, they don’t have to be prompted to pay attention or cheer for the music. It’s what we’re all here for on a Tuesday night, and it’s no surprise when every act absolutely nails it in one-take. They’re professionals, after all.

Feature image by Paigge Warton.

TRL Australia is on weekly on MTV at 6pm AEST each Fridays, with episodes streaming online, too. Next week’s episode featuring the live debut of The Veronica’s new song, ‘Think Of Me’.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.