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The Challenge: All Stars Puts the 'Music Television' Back in MTV

Season 4 feels like a homecoming, for contestants and viewers alike.
  • T.J. Lavin and the Road Rules TV in The Challenge: All Stars (Photo: Jonne Roriz/Paramount)
    T.J. Lavin and the Road Rules TV in The Challenge: All Stars (Photo: Jonne Roriz/Paramount)

    For many longtime fans of The Challenge, MTV’s longest-running reality competition franchise, the fourth All Stars entry feels like a homecoming. For starters, the Paramount+  competition — which brings back some of the series’s earliest and most memorable contestants to battle it out for a shot at the championship title — pays homage to its Real World and Road Rules origins, which have all but disappeared over time. Season 4 has been an especially satisfying trip down memory lane with production going as far as to bring back the beloved Winnebago RV, an emblem of the original Road Rules, for a brief cameo.

    Perhaps the most celebrated element of All Stars has been the return of the series’s formidable soundtrack — a robust playlist of pop hits spanning decades, from the synth-powered rock anthems of the ’80s to the much revered Britney era of the aughts. Fans who have followed the franchise throughout its over two-decade run took immediate notice of the spin-off’s wall-to-wall music, beginning with its 2021 opener, which underscored the mighty return of legendary (and in some cases, long absent) competitors like Mark Long, Yes Duffy, and Aneesa Ferreira with crowd favorites like Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” and Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack.” 

    With scene after pop-drenched scene, Season 4 has marked the strongest departure from present-day Challenge seasons, which have long since ditched employing licensed popular music in favor of generic, unremarkable tunes that fade in the background behind the show’s amped-up drama. 

    For four seasons, All Stars has managed to strike a winning balance between drama and sentimentality thanks in no small part to the show’s clear investment in its incidental music. The tunes aren’t just karaoke-worthy needle drops; they work to enhance the emotional undercurrent of each scene as well as anchor the show in the franchise’s multi-generational legacy. All Stars is now one of the last remaining bastions of MTV’s former relevance as a pop cultural archive.

    When it launched in 1981, MTV was the ultimate authority on music and must-know artists. Video jockeys, or VJs, were the cultural arbiters that guided the audience toward all things cool, and the VJ-hosted music show was, at one time, the channel’s centerpiece. Whether they tuned into Headbangers Ball, Yo! MTV Raps, or MTV Top 20 Video Countdown, viewers were assured expert curation in a space that operated as a modern-day jukebox.

    When the network moved to incorporate more original programming into its then-steady stream of music shows, producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray considered developing a scripted series to compete with the popularity of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. The duo ultimately decided the effort would be far too costly, opting instead to launch a reality series following seven young artists and strangers living together and navigating life in New York City. 

    The Real World was a peek into the day-to-day lives of young American adults, zooming in on their deepest passions and the political climate that informed them. Largely inspired by the 1973 PBS docuseries An American Family, Real World was a scrappy production held together by a few persistent cameras and the roommates’ occasional tension, leaving little room for the high-level production and gloss that characterizes a lot of today’s reality landscape.

    The show’s raw honesty and timely ethos struck such a chord with its young, hip audience that much of the Season 2 premiere focused on the outgoing cast’s adjustment to their newfound visibility, including political activist and writer Kevin Powell, who noted the inherent power of the medium as the public regarded the roommates as if they were rock stars. Suddenly, the sound of the show changed: what was once mostly outfitted by nondescript, Gen X-era mood music in Season 1 was now boosted by the popular sounds of generational staples like C+C Music Factory, Mariah Carey, and Big Audio Dynamite. 

    A scene of the roommates getting along could be set to TLC’s “What About Your Friends,” or discussions of country teen roommate Jon Brennan’s chaste upbringing might be backed by En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind.” With time, needle drops became as much a part of Real World’s action as any hook-up or fight, immediately setting it apart from anything else on TV at the time, including the hit network dramas that tangentially inspired its origins. That’s because unlike any other network, MTV granted its original series unfettered access to the music it played elsewhere on the channel, meaning it had the ability to infuse much of its programming with some of the year’s hottest records. 

    As the network expanded its offerings to include everything from animation to prank shows, music remained an integral part of each show’s DNA. This was especially notable as music shows, ironically, started to really dwindle from MTV’s airspace in the mid-’90s. The presence of licensed popular music became the channel’s most prominent tether to its musical roots as music videos began to trickle down its list of priorities. It marked a sort of compromise within MTV’s noticeable — and, for the generations that grew up on it, fairly maligned — evolution.

    Music videos alone didn’t bring in enough ratings to stave off MTV’s growing list of competitors, but the music curation in each original show still allowed the network to be a tastemaker, pointing audiences in the direction of worthwhile artists. This was especially evident during commercial break bumps and closing credits, which often highlighted the artists that were featured in the episode. 

    The already-shaky relationship between MTV and music crumbled as the media landscape began to shapeshift in the early aughts. With the DVD reigning supreme, studios began exploring the potential of hooking new audiences for their beloved TV series through physical media. Releasing sweeping DVD collections became much more common, and for fans, owning those sets became a must. It also pointed to a new problem for MTV: translating its musically dense programming into different mediums meant paying royalties — which became prohibitively expensive. 

    It was a dilemma that plagued fan favorites like the animated coming-of-age wonder Daria, which had little to no original score and often leaned on popular songs for its incidental music and, in certain cases, its storytelling. Music played a hefty role in the show’s identity, from its raucous theme song by Splendora, “You’re Standing On My Neck,” to the way it was often used for character cues and plot points. The show largely championed the alternative sound (though it never shied from the mainstream pop hits, especially when it came to scenes that featured Daria’s bubbly younger sister, Quinn), making it a standout in the network's programming. Daria earned a large, devoted following throughout its five-season-and-two-movie run, and its youthful sound was a major reason for that. 

    But when it was time to release the show on physical media, securing music rights became a costly hurdle. When episodes were released on VHS in the late ’90s, most of the incidental music was replaced and the show’s Splendora theme only played during the closing credits. When the complete series was finally released on DVD in 2009, the music was removed almost entirely and replaced with generic, royalty-free tracks, impacting the overall energy of the show as well as a few very specific, built-in music cues.

    One well-known instance of this was in the Season 1 episode “Road Worrier,” in which Daria, best friend Jane, Jane’s brother, Trent, and his bandmate, Jesse, head to a music festival. As they moodily and silently sit in traffic, the scene parodies the music video for R.E.M’s “Everybody Hurts.” Trent even goes as far as to mention how the moment mirrored the classic music video in a slight fourth-wall break. With the removal of the R.E.M. song, the mostly sonic joke falls somewhat flat.

    Soon after, the growing digital space rendered MTV’s original purpose as a music source obsolete. Not only did the rise of streaming platforms further complicate matters surrounding music licensing and royalties, YouTube made access to music videos easier than ever. At that point, no one needed MTV to tell them what music to listen to anymore. Instead, they turned to MTV to indulge in guilty pleasure reality moments from ratings goldmines like Jersey Shore, Catfish, Teen Mom, and, at one inexplicable point, 113 hours of Ridiculousness — all of which mostly opt for generic incidental music. Despite carrying on with Video Music Awards, MTV has largely abandoned its toe-tapping roots. 

    So, when ViacomCBS initially announced Paramount+’s extensive library in 2021, which would include decades of original MTV favorites and present-day revisits of cultural tentpoles like Real World and The Challenge, the streamer managed to tap into the Gen X and millennial audience’s sentimentality for the old MTV they once knew. But despite its dense catalog of old favorites, nothing has quite encapsulated the platform’s guided nostalgia tour quite like The Challenge: All Stars, which returned to the stars and sound that cemented the show’s legacy. 

    The Challenge has long surpassed its Real World and Road Rules predecessors by expanding its qualifying pool of athletes to include alumni from across Viacom’s reality shows, including Big Brother, Survivor, and Are You the One?, as well as professional athletes like Olympian bobsledder Lolo Jones and retired NFL player Kamerion Wimbley. All Stars, however, returned to casting Real World and Road Rules alumni almost exclusively. Additionally, licensed music has returned as a method of enhancing emotional clips.

    Most notable among those moments was the elimination challenge in the Season 2 episode “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye.” Challengers Ayanna Mackins and Leah Gillingwater faced off in a make-or-break test of strength and intelligence in a game called “Deadweight,” which required them to solve puzzles and pull 300 lb. coffins across the arena. 

    Ayanna beat Leah in a complete shut-out after the latter had difficulty moving a single coffin across the grounds. Rather than bask in her victory for too long, Ayanna empathized with her defeated competitor, who was a fellow mom who had also returned to the game after a lengthy absence. In an effort to help Leah regain her confidence and pride, she joined her and side-by-side, the women pulled the heavy coffin across the arena in solidarity. On its own, the moment was a touching show of female empowerment. With the appropriate backing of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the scene turned into a working metaphor and veritable tearjerker, as well as one of the most iconic moments in The Challenge’s ongoing history. 

    Today, current music has virtually disappeared from MTV’s day-to-day programming, but the musical torch has been picked up by plenty of programs since. Shonda Rhimes’ hits, from Scandal to Bridgerton, have been praised for their creative and memorable needle drops, along with Lee Sung Jin’s Beef, which soared with its deployment of millennial tunes. The Bear, RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Mindy Project, and countless shows throughout the years have served unforgettable TV moments bolstered by the perfect soundtrack. Still, there are few networks that can match the sheer breadth of the legacy MTV has willingly left behind, and All Stars lives on as a welcome reminder of it.

    New episodes of The Challenge: All Stars drop Wednesdays on Paramount+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Shannon Miller is a cultural critic, editor, and podcaster who focuses on the societal impact of TV, film, music and advertising.