In the early 2000s, MTV’s genre-indifferent music video popularity contest, Total Request Live, was my identity. In high school, I wasn’t passionate about shit. I did sports, but f*cking sucked, got straight C’s & D’s in my studies, and tried backyard wrestling but couldn’t take a chair shot. I was the opposite of every teenager’s depiction in TV & Film–save for wanting to be acknowledged by the social ruling class, having volatile emotions & a face chock-full of tyrannical acne. While others enlisted in their respective cliques, I was a man without a homogenized-faction; TRL was a demilitarized zone in ninth-twelfth grade’s pop culture war that granted refuge to a draft-dodging phony like me.
My then-girlfriend was fanatical in her appreciation of that period’s preeminent boy band, *NSYNC. She was pink Starburst-sweet, brilliant (in both the regular way and “British” sense of the word–innit), a dynamic dance-squad dancer, and her type was a guy with nary a particle of self-esteem or discernable ambition. I adopted “being a boyfriend” as my personality, and it suited me well. Since I wasn’t confident or emotionally stable, I figured I’d play the part and resemble the 5-piece from Orlando that had a hold of her heart; I frosted my tips, wore bedazzled bandanas, and donned Y2K euro trash duds.
My younger brother, who I had a minimal relationship with, was v into Nu-Metal pioneers, KoRn (pronounced cOrN.) There is no way to overstate KoRn’s significance in the musical landscape of this era, they’re likely the last metal band to EVER crossover into the mainstream, and mi hermano was their biggest supporter. My kinsperson rocked hieroglyphic logo’d band tees, played guitar, blasted lyrically-indistinguishable songs in his Mustang, and had lengthy locks optimized for headbanging. He had a vibe; I was a poser.
There was a common thread that tied what m’lady and m’bro were into, eyebrow-piercings. The baritone bad boy of *NSYNC, Joey Fatone, had a ‘brow earing. The Drop-D heartthrobs of KoRn practically had six eye socket punctures apiece. This middle bit of the Venn Diagram about the two people I cared to connect with most was perfect for a unique-less teen such as myself. I too shall love *NSYNC & Korn, and I must bury a banana-shaped scrap of alloy in my skull and let the metal barbell dangle off my organs of vision awnings just like the KorNsync lot.
The Claire’s at the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, IL, was where everyone in the Chicagoland Area got their first rush of accessory theft and was the holy site of the suburban body scarification ritual of piercings. Who better than a teenaged minimum wage hourly employee from the privileged suburbia to disrupt your body’s skin casing?! Claire’s is where I would get a sickle implanted in my over-plucked brow. (Or wait maybe it wasn’t a Claire’s, perhaps it was an ICING retail location, I can’t remember–I hope it was Claire’s, ICING is for losers.)
Speaking of the desire to adjust my image, I had a Blumhouse-horrific acne scene of a kisser. The pimple-roni on my pizza-face sliced any shot I had at being conceited. Said blemishes The Purge‘d my self-esteem, made me want to Get Out of my skin, and do a Happy Death Day 2U to myself. Every day I would avoid eye contact with the mirror to not repulse my reflection. Bad acne makes you feel invisible, but also like everyone is staring at you with disgust.
TRL was a “cultural” moment (or lack thereof) at the turn of the WILLENNIUM. It felt as if, whoever you were into musically (of the non-Country & non-hipster shit variety), you’d have a seat at the table. From pop princesses to rap-rockers, O-Town to Outcast, Destiny’s Child to Papa Roach, Blink 182 to 112, Brandy & Monica & K-Ci & JoJo, Slim Shady to Sisqo, Latin balladeers to former Mickey Mouseketeers, all were welcome to the top ten if the toll-free phone number dialing & online voting public saw fit.
That program made me feel like I was hanging with the upper echelon of popularity that I so desperately wanted to be “seen” by. Even though it was a music show, no one waxed poetic about the quality of the resonant content. New was usually “better,” and the video’s themselves didn’t matter much (no disrespect Joseph Kahn or Wayne Isham), what was essential about the show was that the teenaged fans felt “represented” — in the most commercialized/shallowest way imaginable.
My paramour was bashful but had things to say, high-key funny, too compassionate to ever infiltrate “cool kid” circles, had glow in the dark stars all over her room, and wore a pair MUDD jeans better than anyone else. She never cared about my appearance. After school, we would hurry to one of our homes and watch TRL. Once settled, it was time to shit-talk the other’s enemies, microwave things, makeout, and daydream about her dancing in a TRL vid one day. My insecurity, undiagnosed bi-polar-ness, and some unprocessed traumas would occasionally interrupt our regularly scheduled programming with an emotional breakdown episode where I couldn’t “even” (deescalate myself.) She was always kind to me when navigating these moments. Despite our struggles, during that pre-homework, TRL happy hour, we escaped together, *NYSNC.
My broski mastered his adoration of metal music more than most ever “get obsessed” with anything. As a metalhead, he was distant from anyone who wasn’t a part of his black on black-uniformed brethren. We barely communicated but were always in on the joke together when sharing a tension-breaking laugh during humdrum obligations. He was never not himself, is there anything cooler than that? The rusted, tetanus-exposing melodic hooks of Bakersfield, CA’s Korn, was my “in” to connect with m’sibling. The aggression of their art spoke to my internal instability, angst, and forlornness. No one is alone in a mosh pit, not even pustule covered imposters like me.
During 1999, *NSYNC and KoRn had a back-and-forth rivalry atop TRL charts that was as mesmerizing as a thirst trap boomerang on insta. Within a 14-month period, I attended both *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached tour, and the Korn headlined Family Values tour. No one does that. You can’t like NSYNC AND KoRn. TRL forced you to pick a side; I was a conscientious objector.
In the early aughts, only rockstars “pulled off” eyebrow piercings. Joey Fatone, the manic-panic redhead of the NON-boring-street-boys (*shots fired* *Cancun beef revisited* you now have 24-hours to respond, Howie D!), always stood out to me as the blue-collar fashion maven of NSYNC.
Chris Kirkpatrick’s ensembles were on shuffle, Lance Bass fit was choir boy amenable, Justin Timberlake and JC Chaez were hot so whatever they wore worked, but Joey, he had to sing for his supper in the “popstar lewks” department. I swooned at his symmetry-defying face adornment right above his left eye.
KoRn was so metal that it was impaled into their faces. I initially gravitated towards original drummer, David Silveria, who was a Calvin Kilen model— but lead singer Jonathan Davis was too mysterious not to idolize. He had more charisma in his double eye-piercing sitch than the rest of his rap-rock contemporaries (P.O.D., Limp Bizkit, Crazy Town) combined. His lyrics, while rage-y, occasionally toxic and didn’t age well to this 36-year-old, often spoke to the disenfranchised of an aesthetically-fixated culture–“Here I am different in this normal world/Why did you tease me?/Made me feel upset..I am ugly.”–you can’t convince me that dude didn’t write this song about a whitehead-blemished outlander like me!
With the blessings and bankroll of my folks, the nudging of my turn-of-the-century AIM-Away-Message-official girlfriend, and an unconcerned “cool” from my brother, it was time to get some intrusive mall-bought body modification.
It would be dishonest to say I remember what the Clarie’s (#Claries4Lyfe #AbolishICING) associate appearance resembled. But I’ll never forget what they said, “uh, we don’t pierce faces here, we like, pierce kids ear lobes.” I was flatlined. As a first-gen child of an immigrant, I didn’t question shit.
However, I wasn’t leaving this tween accessory bazaar without some infection-prone token of self-expression. I opted for the next hardest core thing, the oppressively painful cartilage piercing. The associate cocked her earing gun like Villanelle, and that remorseless psychopath Killing Eve‘d my ear as if it was some unsuspecting mark.
*INSERT 17-year-old pimple boy ugly crying loudly at a Claire’s (ICING sucks shit)*
“Why did you get that girly piercing?” was the diplomatic political messaging of my extended friend’s coalition. My rivals were more forward with their disdain of my disruption of what a male’s ear should look like, “Donny is a (insert slurs),” I (over)heard on multiple occasions. My faux-diamond stud did not receive enough votes to make TRL’s Top 10, but at least it diverted everyone’s attention from my zits?! I was humiliated.
For the teenage ilk, even the slightest criticism of when you put yourself out there feels like a catastrophic personal attack that you can never come back from.
My girlfriend and brother were supportive of my stylish laceration. Not overwhelmingly, like I unfairly needed them to be to overcome my self-doubt, but in a pure soul way. The consensus of my bro and my girl was all I needed. I fit in with them. I belonged with KoRn and *NSYNC. I wasn’t my acne that made me avoid taking photos for 18 months until I took Accutane. I kinda dug that dumbass foreign object in my ear.
My TRL-era romance was like an exploitive Lou Pearlman contract; found null and void after a few years. Post-graduation, like Lance Bass and Topanga, we went our separate ways. I didn’t possess the tools to love myself back then–thusly, I never was able to love m’partner.
Though I tried to overcompensate my shortcomings by passing her romantic notes between-classes, I emulated the charming movie scenes that made her smile, and became consumed with all that piqued her interest—she didn’t need me to put her on a pedal stool, she needed me to put myself on one. She gave me hope; I broke her heart. She accepted someone who was challenging to love, and I’m still trying to do the same. Sure, love is messy, but I didn’t have to be such a sloppy bitch.
Having a brother when you’re a hot mess is like being in Korn. Y’all made it out of an era that should have killed you, but here you are, still on the road together decades later. You’ve seen them at their best, and they’ve seen you at your worst, and vice versa. You look forward to the briefs moments together and grow to appreciate one another when apart. And while the crowds are getting smaller and you’re NOT collaborating like you used to, if you’re ever in search of applause from a dependable source, there’s comfort in reuniting for a couple of nights and just playing the hits.
I wasn’t the front person or even lead guitarist of my own coming of age tale. My identity was forged in the likeness of those who I adored and whom they admired. I was OG TRL host Carson Daly, an observer. In a way that is cringy to me as a “woke”-passing adult–cancel me in the comments bb—TRL showed a self-absorbed teen like moi, that we all deserve visibility (as a young consumer-conformist) and our voices to be heard.
While some things haven’t changed–I’m still a poser–I am more focused on making the Top 10 in using my emotions to strengthen my relationships (instead of straining them) and landing in the number one spot of “accepting myself” on the daily charts.
Maybe eventually, I’ll relinquish the control that rejection and belonging have on me, but the prospects of an *NSYNC reunion tour (only happens if Justin runs out of money, BET) or my elder ass joining a Korn general admission pit, is more likely. And though music videos, hormone face plagues and ineffectively trying to impress people with piercings are a thing of the past, nostalgia and self-discovery are forever. In the words of pop-hit-murder-for-hire Swedish Producers: bye, bye, bye!
(Also, oh shit, you know what, it was an ICING, fuck Claire’s, Claire’s is trash!)