1980s

Everybody Wants Something

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Caitlin dumps Joey for Claude (pronounced “Clowde”).  Don’t worry, they’ll get back together … eventually. Image courtesy of Degrassi fandom Wiki.

First of all, hold up. Has it really been three and a half years since I did a review of a Degrassi High episode? Well, so much for keeping a commitment. Or maybe I’m keeping it because I am here and I am finally picking this up again.

 

At any rate, when I first realized this a few months ago, I did a rewatch of Degrassi High and decided to pick my ten favorite episodes that I watched when PBS first ran the show back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I intend for this to lead up to a podcast episode covering the show’s TV-movie finale, School’s Out! And before I get to the episode I’m going to cover in this entry, I should say that most of the Degrassi High episodes I am covering will be from the first of the show’s two seasons–at some point, WNET moved its Degrassi airings to Sunday morning and since my mom was dragging my ass to church, I caught bits and pieces of episodes from the show’s final season.

Here, I’m starting a strong one, and with one that is one of the most memorable for me based on the number of times I saw it on television back in the day and how honestly I connected with those characters. “Everybody Wants Something” is the fifth episode of season 1 and has three landmark moments: the Zits’ first (and only) music video, Erica and Liz in an epic fight, and Caitlin dumping Joey for Claude.

As detailed in the last episode I wrote about, “A New Start,” Degrassi High started with Erica finding out she was pregnant and then choosing to terminate the pregnancy, despite her and her sister’s religious beliefs. And unlike a teen-centered show like Saved By the Bell, this serious matter was not left completely unresolved (yes, SBTB had its ongoing plots, but they were usually the romances between characters and the only time anything serious got mentioned again, it was during a clip show). The after effects of Erica’s abortion were C-plot sutff for a couple of episodes, as someone was writing nasty things about her on bathroom mirrors and leaving things on her locker.

Toward the end of this episode, Erica finds a picture of a fetus with “Abortion Kills Children” on it and after getting upset, turns around to see Liz (best friend of Spike, who is famous as having been pregnant on Degrassi Junior High) was the person who planted it. We knew from an earlier conversation between Liz and Spike that Liz is decidedly antiabortion because her father tried to beat her mother into getting one while she was pregnant. Liz doesn’t tel Erica this, but instead calls her a murderer and Erica goes right at her.

It’s a fight that is pretty quick and ends with the two of them on the floor pulling at one another’s hair, and while it was obviously staged, I saw enough girl fights in the halls of my junior high and high school to know that it looks like these two were actually fighting. The way Erica goes after her, a crowd gathers, and they dig in and won’t let go of one another, even on the ground, suggests that someone had been paying attention to an actual high school.

And while it is not the end of Erica’s abortion arc or even the main event of the episode, it fits nicely with everything else, which is what this show always did well. There were something on the order of 10-20 characters on Degrassi High, so having this happen while something totally unrelated was going on and having those not directly affect one another is exactly what happens in a high school.

The main story is actually a two-in-one that centers around Joey Jeremiah, who I guess we could say is one of the core characters of the series (especially considering how things play out toward the series’ end). Joey’s taking yet another shot at fame with his band, The Zits (formerly The Zit Remedy) and has badgered Lucy into finally letting her shoot his video, even if he blows most of the guys’ money on getting two girls to wear bikinis (and then has that fall through). All the while, his girlfriend, Caitlin, has started hooking up with Claude (pronounced “Clowde”) and right before the video shoot, she dumps Joey.

Pat Mastroianni won awards for playing Joey Jeremiah and you can see why in episodes like this where he has to switch between having been dumped and being a goofball on camera, putting on an act for his friends. The final still of him looking consternated, while not dramatic, encapsulates the performance and was actually the kickoff to a PBS pledge break that I sat through when I saw the episode one time on a random weekend afternoon. The emcee said that if we wanted to see more of Joey, we should give money, and also showed some behind the scenes stuff about the show. I don’t know if this is an honor or not, but perhaps somewhere Mr. Mastroianni is proud that he was used to advertise public television.

My connection to this episode has little to do with Joey and Caitlin’s relationship or Erica’s abortion; instead, it’s the video the band shoots that resonates with me. When this episode aired, YouTube didn’t exist and while people did have video cameras, the ability to edit a video and give it a soundtrack required equipment or time in a studio that was cost prohibitive. oh, I’m sure you could do that with two VCRs, but even then, things were crude. My friends and I used to make stupid, silly videos–skits, lip-syncing, and other things that will never see the light of day–and in our minds, what we were putting together was more epic than the low-rent camcorder footage shot in my basement.  In other words, my friends and I could have been The Zits.  I definitely think that we could have milked that one song, too.

Next Up: “Just Friends”

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Jesus Jones Wept

[This post addresses current-day politics and expresses some of my political views.  If you care not to read that, please skip this.]

I saw the decade end

when it seemed the world could change

in the blink of an eye.

mv5bmdg3nzg2otatogu2zs00zwe0lthhodytnja3mjbinwvkm2nkxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjuyndk2odc-_v1_sy1000_sx1000_al_Those are the first lines of the second verse of “Right Here, Right Now”, a song by Jesus Jones that hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 (and topped the alternative chart) in late July 1991.  Written about a year earlier, it is an optimistic song that celebrates what lead singer Mike Edwards describes as “watching the world wake up from history.”  Even though the song is approaching its thirtieth anniversary, it still gets some airplay, especially on alternative radio stations that cater to the aging teenagers of the Nineties.

The song’s melody has aged well, especially compared to the pop that accompanied it at the time–an era in which pre-“grunge” alternative was seeing some mainstream success (EMF’s “Unbelievable” was also in the top ten) and D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released “Summertime,” but that was dominated by Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush,” Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, and the constant chart presence of Color Me Badd and Amy Grant–but its lyrics are very much of its time.  The line about the world waking up from history is a reference to the end of the Cold War, which had begun in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and would continue until the Soviet Union finally disbanded in December 1991.  And while I’m sure that anyone who actually takes music seriously would look at it and scoff at the sentiment, I thought then and still think that it encapsulates the feeling of the time (with apologies, of course, to “Winds of Change” by The Scorpions).

Granted, when I was seeing the world change in the blink of an eye, I was in junior high school and to me, it did seem that everything was happening at once.  When you’re a ‘tween (I guess that’s the official term now–it really didn’t exist in the early 1990s), you don’t have a deep understanding of how the news that you catch glimpses of between your favorite shows is the result of years of policy decisions and other tactics taken by leaders, some of whom long ago left the world stage.  Sure, maybe I’d get the Weekly Reader condensed version in class every once in a while, but for the most part, my context for the Cold War was mostly the action movies I was renting from the video store. The Soviet Union (or “Russia”, which is what we tended to say) was a big bad that our action heroes and action figures fought against.  When we were on the playground, we weren’t having long discussions on the ramifications of Glasnost; we were pretending that the swings were F-14 Tomcats or we were hunting Gaddafi through the deserts of Libya.  At the same time, though, we were being taught that not everyone over there was like what we saw on TV.

I am from the last Cold War generation and occupy a unique part of it because while my early childhood came during the first part of the Reagan era–that of the “Evil Empire” speech, The Day After, and the “Star Wars” plans to blow nuclear missiles out of the sky–my formative years truly began as it was all ending.  I saw the threat of nuclear war but started to come of age when the teens in the U.S.S.R. were not zombified commie youth, but blue jeans-wearing, Coca-Cola drinking, heavy metal-loving kids.  So, this song, with its catchy hook and bright lyrics, matched my perspective that everything was going to be great because we had gotten through a tough time in our history, but the Wall came down, all those countries were free, and we didn’t have to worry about a Third World War.

Flash forward to when I recently heard “Right Here, Right Now” on my local alternative station and thought about how much of a contrast the world politics of 1991 are to the situation in which we currently find ourselves.  I know that not everyone thinks we have been living a waking nightmare since 2016, but I find it hard to think otherwise as I have tried to navigate the news, social media, work, and everyday life without having a complete breakdown.  And I realize that compared to many other people out there, I am saying this from a place of extreme privilege, but I still feel that people who cheered with me when the Berlin Wall fell slammed me with a folding chair because heel turning on their tag team partner was more lucrative.

Yes, I realize that I just made a pretty clunky professional wrestling comparison and also realize that I’m the Marty Jannetty of said metaphor, but watching people go after one another online because “owning” them and declaring themselves some sort of “winner” is more important than actual conversation or a relationship makes said comparison apt.  When I finally studied how the Cold War ended, I saw way more nuance and complexity than I was seeing in junior high and became more appreciative of it.  At 41, I struggle with being someone who wants to see the same nuance and complexity in our world, knowing that’s a losing battle.  I’ve watched people throw away their core values (though they don’t see it or won’t admit it) and let the doublethink take over and this makes me just want to toss my hands up and walk away because we’re completely fucked and quite frankly, I’m exhausted.

For decades, we’ve let pop music be the soundtrack to the times, but right here, right now, it’s tough to figure out what that soundtrack should be.  At our most positive, maybe we could find comfort in the bittersweetness of “Let It Be”; at our most negative, we’re a teenager slamming the door to our room and blasting The Downward Spiral.  Jesus Jones’ sentiment is quaint and maybe even trite, especially considering the cynical, toxic world in which we live.  Maybe, though, listening to it now can provide us with some hope that there can be another time when we can say “I was alive and I waited for this.”

A New Year’s Eve on the Brink

When you trade in nostalgia, the idea of a milestone anniversary for something you cherished in your formative years is constantly on your mind.  Since starting this blog, I have watched the 20th, 25th, 30th, and even 40th anniversaries of pieces of popular culture that were personal milestones come and go.  Some, I have celebrated; others, I have acknowledged but decided not to cover because the idea of constantly chasing such anniversaries sounds exhausting.

That being said, today marks 30 years since New Year’s Eve 1988.  Nothing significant happened exactly on this day, but when I was thinking about what to write for my annual New Year’s Eve post, the thought of the 1988-1989 school year kept popping into my head and the more and more I thought about it, I discovered that in hindsight, this was a year that was more important than I once thought, both personally and culturally.

Why?  Well, for a number of reasons (and not just mathematically), 1988 was the beginning of the end of what we commonly celebrate as the 1980s and as we moved into 1989, we would see our culture shift into that odd post-1980s hangover that was the pre-Nevermind early 1990s.  It was, as the title of this post suggests, a time when we were on the brink.  The Cold War was ending, we were heading toward a new decade, I was hitting puberty, and there were other societal shifts that we as a culture were both seeing and wouldn’t realize were there until they were over (or in my case, 30 years later).

So, to take us out of 2018, here is my list of … Eight Significant Things about 1988-1989. (more…)

When Clothes Shopping Became Cool

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The Kids R Us in the Nassau Mall in Levittown, NY.  Image from siteride on Flickr.

Based on the commercials from the decade, I wonder if today’s youth is under the impression that the 1980s were just one protracted neon-lit dance number.  There are several commercials from the era that were obviously a product of an advertising executive’s viewing a six hour block of Staying Alive, Xanadu, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun while hoovering cocaine because it’s the only way that anyone would think that kids singing and dancing their way through thirty seconds of television like they were auditioning for Starlight Express was cool.  And ridiculous as that protracted sentence sounds, so many of us fell for it, even to the point where we would willingly go shopping for clothes.

 

Now, hitting the mall for clothes at some trendy store may have been a rite of passage for teenagers in the 1980s, but when you’re a kid, clothes shopping can be agony.  I am not going to go through all of the details of what I was put through as a child except to say that I still only trust one person enough to accompany me when it comes to buying clothes, and that is my wife.  Otherwise, I go clothes shopping completely by myself or not at all.  But for a brief period in the 1980s, this wasn’t the case and that’s because Kids R Us opened up across from the Toys R Us in Bay Shore.

Existing from 1983 until it eventually went defunct in 2004, Kids R Us was the Toys R Us corporation’s foray into children’s clothing retail.  This, according to a New York Times article I found from 1983, was already a very competitive market and Toys R Us was taking a big risk, especially since they were going up against huge department stores like Macy’s.  From what I could tell, it worked at first because they were able to undercut their competition by offering some popular brand names at lower prices, and they made the stores themselves attractive to kids.  The NYT describes one of the original Kids R Us stores in Paramus, New Jersey, as “a place that seemed to blend the essential elements of an upscale children’s clothing outlet and a suburban theme park.”

And that much was true–the color scheme of the store was bright with kid-friendly “cool” colors, there were at least a couple of distraction stations where you could play games or look in funhouse mirrors so that you forgot for a moment that you were there to try on clothes and had gotten sucked into those awesome dance numbers on the commercials:

When you watch this, you can see that it’s vibrant.  Moreover, if you listen to it, it sounds like so many of the other commercials of the 1980s–in fact, I’m pretty sure that the “Kids R Us” song from this commercial is the same tune as the “Coke Is It!” ads from around the same time.  This one even has a similar start to the one that I looked at a number of years ago in that it begins with set design.  But then … then … THEN … it gets SO FREAKIN’ COOL.

These images are everything that was awesome about the 1980s:  killer sax solos, wearing leotards 24-7 and Sha-Na-Na cosplay.  People, these clothes weren’t your siblings’ or older neighbor’s hand-me-downs.  Oh no.  These were the clothes that you knew were going to make you be seen on the first day of school–that is, until you actually wore them to school and realized that you looked like a total moron.

Popped Collar Kid

Unless, of course, you are this kid.  I mean, he pops his collar and doesn’t even need to ski the K-12.  He just is.  And I really don’t need to say much more than that.  This, guys, is the impossible benchmark of cool that you will never achieve.  Not back in 1985; not in 2018.

Weep for your lack.

Group Shot

Anyway, the commercial goes on to show more kids dancing and showing off the clothes–there’s even a couple of dressed-up nerdy-looking kids in there because there was always one parent who was always on the lookout for a new place to buy slacks–and we get to the big finale.  Said big finale?  A freeze-frame jumping group shot, the type that leads us kids to believe that shopping at Kids R Us will be this fun, this exciting, and that we will want our parents to bring us there right away.  The reality, of course, was that we would walk into the store while catching a glance of Toys R Us and would spend the next hour wondering why we weren’t getting any toys.  It was all a cruel joke perpetrated by the lies of Corporate America and our parents, who for at least a few years found clothes shopping to be a little easier.

“That’s Not a Star Wars Movie”

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The Return of the Jedi bedsheets I had as a kid.  Image courtesy of “Mighty Jabba’s Collection.”

It’s late August or early September 1995.  I’ve just started classes at Loyola and I’m sitting in my freshman seminar course for the college’s Honors Program.  Our professor is doing a classic icebreaker where we talk about ourselves.  I listen to all of the smart and worthwhile ways my classmates spend their time and immediately feel like the dumbest person in the room–after all, renting movies and playing roller hockey are not the most academic pursuits–and then hear another guy in the room profess his love for Star Wars.  After class, I catch him the quad and tell him that I’m into Star Wars as well and just watched Return of the Jedi the other night.

He pauses for a moment and said with a sniff, “That’s not a Star Wars movie.”

I don’t exactly remember how I reacted at the time–I might have laughed it off or half-agreed with him–but that moment stands out to me because it was the first time I encountered a snobby nerd.

It seems odd that it took me until my freshman year of college to have such a moment, especially since reading comics and watching science fiction movies was not the domain of the popular crowd in junior high and high school, and I had dealt with a number of rock snobs by then, but this was the first time I had run into one of my own looking down upon the way I approached a shared interest.  It was also one of the first times that I realized that there were people who had a problem with Return of the Jedi.

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The Return of the Jedi trash can that sat by my bed for a few years.  Image from DJbrian.net

I have always had a fondness for Return of the Jedi.  That movie, which came out 35 years ago today, was the only film in the original trilogy that I saw upon its initial release (twice if you count the 1985 re-release).  Sure, I watched my copy of Star Wars on VHS endlessly and I had a number of toys from the first two films, but Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were movies that came out when I was unaware of movies. Jedi was the one that I was old enough to go see in a theater and the one I talked about with my friends on the playground at school and whose scenes we re-enacted during recess (especially the speeder bikes and the lightsaber fights).

Moreover, it was the film whose logo was emblazoned on just about everything I owned. This isn’t hard to picture, of course, considering that the merchandising for the movie was a juggernaut that I think was so unavoidable that parents were issued at least one piece of Jedi merchandise for Christmas in 1983.  And while this isn’t a comprehensive or accurate list, I am sure that I owned, used, or consumed, in addition to toys: bedsheets, a garbage can, a calendar, posters, a lunchbox, an iron-on sweatshirt, records, books, Dixie cups, wrapping paper, cookies, and party favors (for my birthday in 1984).  I wore out the “read along” book/cassette and played my picture disk record with sounds from the movie endlessly on my parents’ stereo.  I was six years old and in heaven.  It was, to say the least, my Star Wars movie.

Return of the Jedi Fan Club Poster

A special Return of the Jedi poster that was available only to Lucasfilm Fan Club members.

A critical look at the film will tell you that out of the original trilogy, it is the weakest–I personally consider Empire to be the best, which isn’t controversial–and it suffers from the pressure of what it had to do after its predecessors, which is wrap up loose ends and complete the saga in a way that was bigger than anything that had come before.  It doesn’t do its job as well as it could have–for instance, there are two particular adventures in the movie that feel like two separate movies shoved into one and I wonder if it were made today, Jedi would have either been a three-hour movie or two movies altogether.  Plus, Han doesn’t have much to do aside from being comic relief, and the Tattooine stuff does drag up until the battle on the sail barge (and that’s before the godawful “Jedi Rocks” segment from 1997’s Special Edition).

But “That’s not a Star Wars movie?”  It certainly felt like Star Wars when I was six; it feels like Star Wars now.

If this were an isolated incident, I would probably be able to let it go.  But even before I graduated college, I remember being fansplained to about the way the Ewoks were the worst thing ever to happen to Star Wars (I never had much of a problem with the Ewoks), and since then I have seen more than a few “Here’s How Return of the Jedi Ruined Star Wars Forever” takes on the Internet.  I even had a moment in my LCS around the time of The Force Awakens when a guy scoffed at my then-eight-year-old son’s saying he loved the Ewoks and I had to say, “Well, he’s eight, you know.”

And while I understand that there were earlier versions of the plot that kept the tone of Empire and that the movie is criticized for the sheer amount of tie-in products that were available, I still can’t look down my nose at Return of the Jedi as less-than.  It’s disappointing that its legacy seems to range from snark to sneering that it’s “not a Star Wars movie” because when I sit down to watch it, I’m always taken back to being six and listening to my records, reading the storybook, and looking at the poster that I got from the Lucasfilm Fan Club.

For the next four years of college, I don’t think I had another conversation with that guy from my honors class.  Apparently, since I couldn’t Star Wars right, that gave him license to be a total prick to me whenever we were in the same class.  I’m sure he’s out there somewhere, perhaps lamenting the presence of a little kid holding a porg or something.  I’d rather not think about his pretentious ass and instead will laugh at an Ewok stealing a speeder bike.