If you were a teen in 1999, the church bell rang each day at 3:30 p.m.
You would race to your living room, drop to your knees and find salvation in your daily dose of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and 98 Degrees, dreaming you, too, were a screaming tween in a studio overlooking Times Square. Your church was MTV's Total Request Live. And church was something you never, ever missed.
"People used to come home from school and plop down in front of the TV and religiously watch TRL," said Nick Lachey, the eternally hunky TRL idol and breakout star of 98 Degrees. "It was a moment in time that I think a lot of people have a lot of fond memories of. It's a fun trip to take down memory lane because it was a great time for a lot of people, bands included."
Evidently. Because in case you haven't been paying attention, the TRL era is back in a big way.
Here in 2016, we find ourselves awash in nostalgia for the decade stretching roughly from 1995 to 2005: O.J. Simpson, Independence Day, Pokémon Go, revivals of boy bands like 98 Degrees and O-Town, whose "MY2K Tour" hits Tampa on Friday. Lest we forget, it was 2004 when NBC first launched a little reality TV competition called The Apprentice, starring Donald Trump.
This decade isn't quite the '90s, and it isn't quite the aughts. Call it the Naughties: our final free days before the War on Terror and the dawn of social media, when it seemed we all could get away with anything.
"It just seemed like happier times," said Lachey, 42. "Music was in a happier place, the world seemed to be in a happier place. It's a fun era to go back and relive for a night."
The Naughties craze fits right in with the long-held maxim that cultural nostalgia operates on a 20-year cycle.
"It seems like the nostalgia gene doesn't really manifest itself until your early 30s, and then you become crazy nostalgic for what happened when you were 13," said Dave Holmes, the ex-MTV personality who finished second to Jesse Camp on TRL's "Wanna Be a VJ" competition in 1998. "That's what's happening now. Millennials are hitting their early 30s, the world is literally on fire all around us, and we want to harken back to what we perceive as a more innocent time."
In some ways, it was. The terror of 9/11 changed that — "Leading up to that, it was almost a carefree kind of world," Lachey said — but so did the advent of a new digital universe. MySpace debuted in 2003, Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, the iPhone in 2007. Can you even imagine life without them now?
"It was a time where when you wanted to interact to people, you had to do it face to face," said Holmes, author of the new Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs (Crown Archetype, $26). When he returned to New York for the book launch, "literally everybody was eyes down, swiping," he said. "There were moments when I looked around and it was like everybody, young and old, was in their own little world."
Especially in its early days, Total Request Live was one of the last safe places teens could go to engage with the day's pop culture live, in person, all at once.
"You could all sit in front of the same thing and experience it together," Holmes said.
And it takes time to put the importance of that experience into context. Take the O.J. Simpson trial, which arguably kick-started this decade of Naughties nostalgia. The "trial of the century" was the subject of the two best things on TV this year: the FX miniseries The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and the ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America. Both capitalized on nostalgia, sure, but also offered fresh, eye-opening takes on a ubiquitous cultural experience we all thought we knew.
"At the time of the O.J. trial, we all knew that it was significant," Holmes said. "We were all glued to it. But I don't know that we could necessarily verbalize why. You need a couple decades of distance to get the full picture."
For Lachey, a boy band revival always seemed inevitable. 98 Degrees went on hiatus in 2003 but reformed in 2013 for a tour with New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men.
"We've been very lucky and fortunate to have some really diehard, passionate fans who've stuck with us from the very, very early days," he said. "That was a big part of the reason that we felt good about getting back together."
It doesn't hurt that there's a surprisingly direct line between the pop music of that era and the pop music of today. Beyoncé, formerly of Destiny's Child, is one of the biggest stars on earth. So is Justin Timberlake, formerly of 'N Sync. Swedish pop maestro Max Martin co-wrote not only Britney Spears' Baby One More Time and the Backstreet Boys' I Want It That Way, but also Taylor Swift's Bad Blood and the Weeknd's Can't Feel My Face.
"Talent is talent," Lachey said. "If you're talented the way those guys are, you find a way to evolve and stay relevant."
At shows these days, Lachey mostly sees fans in their early 30s, who would have been teens or younger in the heyday of Total Request Live.
"A lot of them have grown up with us and now have their own families," he said. "You look out in the audience, and you see some familiar faces from years and years ago, and they're there with their own kids now. It's a very cool passing of the torch."
TRL may be long gone, the music industry in shambles. But for those who grew up worshipping their boy-band idols, the MY2K Tour might still feel a little like church.
"This is a time for people to go back and relive a time when it seemed a little lighter," Lachey said. "It seemed like there was a little less stress and a little less ugliness in the world. Whether that's true or not, maybe it's just my perception, but it sure felt like it. That's why people are excited to go back and revisit that moment in time."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.