It’s the first part of an EXTRA-SIZED CROSSOVER with Fire and Water Records! Ryan and Neil, The Brothers Daly, join me for a look at cover songs. What makes a good cover song? Which covers are iconic? What covers have surpassed the originals? Which ones do we personally love? Join us as we each go through a list of five cover songs and talk about what makes them stand out. Then, in May, go over to Fire and Water Records to listen to part two!
If I can point the true origin of my comic book collecting career to one point in time, and especially one character, it’s the spring of 1990 and the character is Batman. For this episode, I’m going to take you through “My Batman Phase,” starting with how I first got to know the character, and walking through my experience with some of the biggest Bat-related events of the 1990s.
When you start reading comic books decades into a character or even an entire publisher’s existence, how do you go back and find out all of the stories that got them to that point, especially when it’s 1991, you’re fourteen, and you don’t have money, a car, or the Internet at your disposal? Well, join me as I talk about how I learned about Marvel and DC’s histories through their “official” history accounts: The History of the DC Universe, Marvel Saga, The History of the Marvel Universe, and The Other History of the DC Universe. Plus: listener feedback!
So I’m sitting here on the second snow day of a week where I was supposed to return to teaching after a two-week winter break. I’m not exactly upset or stressed about any of that, to be honest, especially since I was lucky enough to not lose power and aside from two large branches that fell off of a tree, there’s been no huge damage to anything. Meanwhile in my closet sits the sweater I got for Christmas and was going to wear when we got back on Tuesday.
That was always a weird flex when we were in school, wasn’t it–showing off the new clothes you got for Christmas, as if you were reminding everyone of the prowess you displayed back in September when you rolled up to first period wearing what your parents had taken you to buy at the mall at the end of summer. At least, that is, if you were one of those kids who cared about such things that you had to make showing off a priority.
I’d say that this was at its worst when I was in junior high school. Oh sure, it was there in high school, college, and even during my time in the work force, but something about the insecurity everyone was feeling during those years combined with the Lord of the Flies-like pressure to come out on top (in what competition, I don’t know) meant that even when you didn’t realize it, you were constantly trying to be noticed. I’ve done enough of a post-mortem on those days to know that there were shirts I wore or stuff that I owned that I was hoping would help me score cool points (again, in what competition, I don’t know) but usually went unnoticed or got me laughed at.
So yeah, I wasn’t successful at showing off. But I was pretty observant about how people were successful at it, a combination of the right stuff, good timing, and nonchalant attitude. I could acquire the first, might learn the second, but would never have the third. Plus, they’d earned that attitude, emerging in fifth and sixth grade from the primordial sludge into the higher echelons of cliquedom while dorks like me were still completely clueless.
Sounds ridiculous? Well, you have to consider how they’d been practicing almost daily since we were kids. When I think back on my time in the public school system, especially in my hometown, Sayville, kids were always showing off, as my students used to say six or seven years ago, their swag. Let’s look at five of them.
The shirt of a “cool” brand with extra points if you were repping a “cool” local business. This started in late elementary school and wound its way through junior high school and may not have applied everywhere, but definitely was a big deal in a town like mine, which had a full-on Main Street and a number of successful local businesses that weren’t just gift shops and drug stores. Being that Sayville had one of the three large Fire Island Ferries terminals, we had shops that catered to the beachgoer. One was Summer Salt, which was a store that I guess you could call a “beachwear boutique” and that carried merchandise for just about everyone.
You’d see a few kids in the hall–usually girls–with pastel-colored Summer Salt T-shirts from time to time and they were enough to garner a momentary turn of the head, but I’d say that if you were walking around in a shirt you bought from Bunger–the skate and surf shop on Main Street–then you were a heck of a lot cooler. My hometown had a deep skateboarding and surfing community (that often overlapped) and I’m pretty sure that Bunger (or “Bunger’s” as we called it) was where they got their Vision Street Wear and Sex Wax T-shirts as well as the store’s own shirts, which at least a few people could be spotted in the hallways wearing. In fact, the store was so cool that I remember there was a painted mural on the wall of the purple side of the junior high cafeteria that showed a bunch of kids hanging out in front of the store’s entrance. That’s cache.
While Summer Salt went out of business years ago, Bunger is still in town, so for all I know there are kids walking the halls of Sayville Middle School (after 30 years, it’s still weird calling it that) in Bunger shirts, perhaps wearing their parents’ vintage ones from the early Nineties.
A Gap bag for your gym or swim clothes. Keeping with clothing, Gap was ubiquitous by the time I started junior high school in the fall of 1989 and I don’t think I’d stop shopping there until maybe the early 2000s. And man, Gap antique washed jeans are still my favorite jeans of all time. ANYWAY, I’m not talking about Gap clothes here because tons of people went to the Sun Vet, South Shore, or Smith Haven malls for school clothes; I’m talking about the navy-colored plastic drawstring bag with “Gap” on the front. On the days when you had to bring a change of clothes to school–you were switching out the stank-nasty mess that was in your gym locker or your gym class was at the junior high pool that day (yes, we had a pool at the junior high and there was a swimming unit in gym class … it’s still too traumatic for me to write about)–you peacocked a little by bringing those clothes in one of these bags.
And by “little”, I mean that this was a minor flex, a reminder that you fit in, even though the reason you brought the bag with you was because your parents had the bag lying around the house and it was sturdy enough to endure being dragged from classroom to classroom while containing a damp bathing suit and a towel. Plus, you could tell that a person walking around school with a Gap bag was trying to show off by the way they carried it, making it incredibly obvious. And yet? That shit worked for some people (read: people who weren’t me).
A Friendly’s bag for your lunch. Speaking of bags that were flexes, this went as far back as elementary school in the Eighties. Sayville has a Friendly’s and that place has been in business for at least the 44 years I’ve been alive, and unless that company completely goes under, I can’t imagine it ever closing. Too many post-school function sundaes were eaten there in my lifetime and I’ve had more than a few fateful meals with friends and girlfriends there (when, that is, we weren’t at a diner). But back in the day before the chain’s ice cream was available in supermarket freezer sections, Friendly’s (which was still just “Friendly”) did a steady take-out business. You could walk in, grab a rectangular half gallon from the self-serve freezer, pay, and leave. Sometimes, your parents even sprung for hot fudge (which was freaking amazing). When they bought the ice cream, the person behind the counter put it in a thick paper bag with “Friendly” on front. And since that ice cream was going in the freezer when you returned home, you could ask your parents to pack your next day’s lunch in the Friendly’s bag and not your lunchbox. Oh sure, that Voltron lunchbox was mint, but a Friendly’s bag? People noticed.
Drawing the “S” correctly. You know the “S.” We all know the “S.” Believe it or not, even my students know the “S.” Now, it’s not really hard to draw the “S”, but you’d be surprised at how easy it was to screw up, so that meant the really cool people could draw it really well.
This drawing is an old graffiti-style S that was, at one point, incorrectly attributed to the Stussy brand (and some will tell you was a Stussy logo at one point, although I think that’s some sort of Berenstein/stain Bears Mandela Effect stuff), and was everywhere throughout the country’s schools back in the day. That’s pretty amazing considering that the Internet didn’t exist and it wasn’t something in a television show’s logo. It was just … all over the place.
That being said, it was really popular to draw on notebooks and binders where I grew up because the name of the town was Sayville and people would basically draw the “S” and “ayville” after it.
Because of course we did.
I think the “S” was passé by the time high school rolled around, and I saw more people writing the logos of bands they were into on notebooks, desks, or lockers than the ubiquitous character. But I’m sure that if you asked anyone from my generation to draw it from memory, they could do it in a heartbeat.
The Bic four-color pen. Need I say more? If you had this in elementary school, you were a god. Bic introduced this pen–a retractable pen where you could choose between blue, black, green, and red–in 1970 and it was still going strong through the Eighties (and still is–you can buy them on Amazon). These were especially powerful before the fourth grade when we were mostly using pencils to complete our work and hadn’t transitioned to pens.
Someone having this in class was as if they’d brought a toy to school. Everyone wanted to try it. Furthermore, it brought a new dimension to pen fidgeting because you weren’t just clicking the pen on and off, you were clicking between four colors. And like I said, we were all still using pencils, so having a pen in, like, the third grade was so cool.
These may not exactly be Lacoste sweaters, Gucci bags or rolling up to the first day of your senior year in a brand-new BMW, but they definitely did their job, and if I remember, I’ll try and notice what my kids are doing.
Without fail, every year, we take down the Christmas before on on New Year’s Day. Symbolically, it represents the fresh start that January brings, even if the rationale behind it is more practical and we just want to get all the crap put away before going back to school and work. It’s not an exciting activity either, unless you find spending a couple of house putting things back in boxes and then hauling heavy bins up the attic stairs exciting. But honestly, how could this be more exciting? It’s just putting away decorations.
Unless, however, you’re a Canadian music video channel. I give you the MuchMusic Tree Toss:
While I obviously didn’t grow up in Canada, Cablevision began carrying the channel sometime in the mid-1990s, giving us Long Island teenagers a welcome third option for getting music video content. And it couldn’t have come at a better time since VH-1 was still playing lighter fare, MTV had The Real World and Road Rules stuck on permanent rerun, and as the decade wore one would turn into a solid retro music channel* and the other a showcase for boy bands, teen pop princesses and faux-edgy nu metal.
I could go into everything I found cool about Much or all the bands I discovered because of it, but I’ll save that for a future podcast episode and focus on just the tree toss. I will say that the fact that Much had veejays broadcasting from a street-level studio who actually had personality (because, let’s face it, Carson Daly always looked like he was counting seconds on the clock and waiting for the check to clear) made the music video experience in Toronto seem so much cooler. Or maybe it’s because they were a lot like the MTV I remember going over to watch at my friends’ houses in junior high and high school (before my parents got cable). At any rate, tossing a used Christmas tree off of the studio’s roof seemed like the type of stupid that cooler, fun-loving people would want to do or that my friends and I were likely to try.
That’s because we sort of did.
While we never had the pleasure of throwing a Christmas tree off of a building, my college roommates and I did spend our sophomore year living on the eighth floor of a hi-rise apartment complex that our college had converted into a dorm. And right below the living room window of that eighth floor dorm room was a construction dumpster. I don’t know whose idea it was, but once we discovered that the window opened all the way out, we’d cap off a night of drinking by throwing bags full of empty beer cans out the window and into the dumpster.
It wasn’t the wanton destruction of property that you would expect from your average fraternity house, but it was something that probably would have gotten us into some sort of disciplinary trouble (okay, definitely) and may have even resulted in our ejection from campus housing (which was less likely). And I wouldn’t be writing about it if we did it one time and then moved on to games of quarters, around the world parties, and sneaking kegs into the dorm**. Instead, we decided to do this the nerdiest way possible, which was to have a procedure to prepare the bags for deployment and then track our throws on a poster we hung up in the dorm room kitchen.***
Trash throwing was strictly a late-night activity done usually on a weekend and very often after many beers–we had bought and drank the 30-pack of Icehouse, and we didn’t want our RA to find a garbage can full of empties in our room****. We had one of those huge Rubbermaid trash cans, the ones you would store in your garage, and used lawn and leaf bags for the trash. This was key because the volume the bag could hold combined with the bag’s thickness meant that the throw was more likely to be accurate and the bag would most likely stay intact upon arrival in the dumpster. And to ensure that the bag didn’t open up on the way down, my engineering-major roommate would reinforce the bag’s opening with duct tape. That way, there wasn’t any mess to clean up on the street below.
Preparing the bags was followed by lookout. We’d check the hallways for anyone who might get us in trouble (i.e., another floor’s RA doing rounds), then shut the lights off and look out across the building’s parking lot to see if we could see any campus security or passers-by. When given the all-clear, each of us would grab our bags and take turns tossing the trash.
Now, just as there was a specific preparation procedure, there was a technique to successfully landing a bag. We weren’t just chucking stuff out of an eighth-floor window for the fun of it; we were actually taking out the trash. If any of us missed the dumpster or the bag exploded and trash landed on the ground, a few of us would go downstairs and clean it up. The dumpster was about 14-16 feet long and 7-1/2 feet wide***** positioned perpendicular to the building. So we had a margin of error when it came to length but a tighter fit when it came to width.
A good throw, therefore, required finesse. You couldn’t just drop the trash because you risked it falling short of the dumpster, and you couldn’t heave it too hard because it might go too far forward or drift sideways. After all, this was a contest of precision and not strength, so what you had to do was hold the bag out in front of you using both hands, position it over the dumpster, and give it a quick shove as you let it go. This would send it forward just enough for it to float over the dumpster’s center and hopefully guaranteed a straight shot. Heavier bags were better because you could feel the force of the shove against their weight as opposed to the lighter bags, which often led to an overthrow. At least that’s what I found to be the case.
When the bag left your hand, it arced for a moment and seemed to hang in the air for a millisecond before it began the plunge. Sometimes, we’d hear the flapping of the plastic bag as it dropped; other times, there was a whoosh. But each time, there was the sound of impact, which would be a soft crash if the dumpster was full or an incredibly loud boom if it was empty. And if you listened closely enough, you could hear the cheers from the eighth floor.******
In fact, one of those incredibly loud booms nearly got us caught one night, as we threw a bag, shut the window, and a few moments later saw flashlights pointed in our direction. We all hit the deck and scattered to various corners of the dorm room as the phone started ringing. Despite being drunk and scared, I managed to sound completely baffled when someone from campus police mentioned things being thrown from our window and the front desk attendant reporting an explosion. While I was on the phone, another campus police officer knocked on the door and I heard my friend telling him the same thing, then inviting him in to take a look. I panicked for a moment and then got off the phone to see him checking out no evidence whatsoever–in the time it took for me to answer the phone and bumble my way through that conversation, my friend had put the screen back in the window, set up the display of empty beer bottles we kept along the windowsill, and hid everything else.*******
To bring this back to the MuchMusic Tree Toss, I was home on winter break during my senior year in December 1998 and channel surfing when I came upon Ed the Sock dressed in a tuxedo anchoring that year’s events. I was immediately transfixed–they weren’t going to do what I thought the were going to do, were they?
Oh, they were.
The crew–one of whom included Rick “The Temp” Campanelli, went up to the roof of the studio, positioned the tree on the ledge, and then tossed it over, setting the tree alight (and one year–either ’98 or ’99, almost took Rick’s face off). It would then land in the dumpster. Okay, if you watch the clip above, you know that it rarely actually made it into the dumpster. Then again, I can’t imagine that the Much crew put as much thought into the accuracy of their toss as we did our trash tossing. Had we been in charge, my roommate would have done the proper equations to compensate for the thrust of the pyrotechnics. Still, the motivation for the Tree Toss was obvious–we’ve got the time to fill, we’ve got nothing better to do, and the tree and the dumpster are there.
I am not sure when Much stopped the Tree Toss–the last one I remember seeing was probably 2000. I did get the channel in Arlington for a while, but it was only at certain times of the day and was gone pretty quickly. The same was true for trash tossing–after the police incident, we didn’t toss it very much except for a “last hurrah” right before spring semester finals. The following year, we were in a different building without any accessible dumpsters.
But I did get the chance to go to my old dorm room one day in my junior year when one of the residents called me to say that they had received some mail with my name on it. I headed over, thanked them for hanging onto the mail for me, and before I left, I pointed to the dumpster window and mentioned that it opened out all the way.
“Oh, we know,” one of them told me.
“Nice,” I replied.
* That is, when VH-1 wasn’t playing Shania Twain videos between reruns of the Shania Twain episode of Behind the Music.
** I’d held on to the box for my computer’s monitor and we quickly discovered that it fit a pony keg. One roommate’s fake ID got us the beer; the box got us past campus security.
*** Lest you think we bought poster board for this, we tore down one of those ubiquitous “get a MasterCard” posters that were all over campus in late August and wrote on the back of it with a Sharpie.
**** To be fair to my sophomore year RA, she was awesome in that she didn’t give a shit as long as we didn’t draw too much attention to ourselves.
***** Just to be clear, I never measured the dumpster. I simply Googled “dumpster dimensions”.
****** Watching it from the ground was hilarious, and I’ve often wondered if anyone from the floors below ever glanced out the window to see a random bag of trash go whizzing by.
******* Oh don’t look at me like that, every college dorm room had its “various brands of beer bottles” display. Sometimes there were several varieties of empty Absolut bottles.
It’s the tenth and final chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe in December 1991 with a special focus on the final days of the Soviet Union. Then, I take a look at my two favorite Cold War films.
I’m one of those nerds who will spend loads of time flipping through old publications. When I was a kid, I’d flip through the back issues of TV Guide that my grandmother was hoarding. I would go to the library and look up old issues of The New York Times on microfilm. And until they sold them off, I would spend some of my planning periods flipping through the perma-bound copies of Life magazine that my school library had in a study room. And while the articles and photographs in these magazines were always fascinating, it was the advertisements that I spent the most time poring over. I have always been fascinated by what people bought in the 20th Century and how those products were sold.
So it’s no wonder that I’ll spend hours scrolling through scans of old Sears catalogues, and because nostalgia tends to run my life at times (okay, most of the time), it’s no wonder that most of the time when I’m scrolling, I’m peeking at the phone book-sized “Wishbooks” from my childhood in the 1980s and remembering what my sister and I used to circle around the time our parents were asking us to make our Christmas lists. If you don’t believe me, check out WishbookWeb or one of Dinosaur Dracula‘s many posts (and Matt over at DD is an amazing writer who’s been finding wonderful nostalgic bits for more than 20 years, so you should read all of his posts). So the Sears books (and by extension JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, and even Toys R Us) are well-worn territory in the nostalgia blogosphere, and as much as they were part of my formative years, there were others that were a regular presence in my life during the late 1980s and early 1990s that had even more of an impact.
Now, I still get a fair amount of catalogues delivered to my house, but thirty years ago we were not yet inside the dot-com bubble and were certainly not shopping online yet, so if you wanted to get something that was physically unavailable to you at a local store or the mall, you either accepted the fact that you were probably out of luck, or you filled out an order form or called a 1-800 number on the back of a catalogue. Living on Long Island afforded me many commercial options, including no fewer than four malls within a 20-mile radius, so clothes, toys, and media weren’t exactly hard to find. So what catalogues I do remember paying the most attention to were as niche as they came–and I don’t just mean Mile High Comics, which I ordered from pretty regularly.
Because we got the catalogues. We got all the catalogues. We even got a catalogue of catalogues. No, really. it was the size of the booklet you’d get from Columbia House or BMG and had listings of catalogues that you could get sent to your home. In fact, such a thing still exists in the form of Catalogs.com, where you’re just a couple of clicks away from having various catalogues sent to your house. For all I know, it’s the same company that was sending us the catalogue of catalogues thirty years ago; and yes, I’m pretty sure I circled catalogues in the catalogue of catalogues for my parents to order. I don’t know if they ever did. But I do know that a day didn’t go by when they were in the mail: Plow and Hearth, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Spiegel, Victoria’s Secret, Talbot’s, Chadwick’s of Boston, Abercrombie & Fitch … International Male? Yeah I was perplexed by that one, too, especially since if I wanted a pair of Cavariccis, I could probably find them for sale within a mile of my house; I mean, it was Long Island.
Anyway, most of these catalogues were discarded within a flip-through. Some, such as Columbia House, BMG, and Mile High Comics, became research for possible entertainment purchases. But there were others that were just interesting enough to warrant an actual read through, and we even ordered from on occasion. In fact, I still get a few of these and may have ordered something for Christmas.
I have to go school supply shopping this week, and my kid has finally hit the point in his academic career where, after years of giant, unwieldy binders filled with reams of loose-leaf paper, he’s decided to just pick up some five-subject spiral notebooks. I knew this day would come and I’ve been praying for it. The spiral-bound notebook is such a perfect school supply. In fact, it’s so great that it’s the subject of two of my favorite poems, Eve L. Ewing’s “To the Notebook Kid” and Ted Kooser’s “A Spiral Notebook”.
I encourage you to read both in their entirety, starting with Dr. Ewing’s poem and ending with Mr. Kooser’s, because they reflect upon different ends of life. Ewing’s line about “the ocean/you keep hidden in a jacked-up five star.” is about potential, promise, youth, and sets up a great closing stanza; Koozer laments, “It seems/a part of growing old is no longer/to have five subjects, each/demanding an equal share of attention,” although even he hasn’t lost some sense of that youthful wonder.
To this day, I still write drafts in spiral notebooks. It’s mostly a comfort of habit, as I’ve been filling “creative writing journals” since I took Mrs. Taber’s creative writing class in my senior year of high school; however, it’s also something that has always felt right to me. There’s something more intimate to me about writing in a notebook than typing on a laptop, and even if you don’t agree with me there, I’m sure you can agree that writing in a notebook with its lack of open browser tabs is certainly less distracting than a laptop screen.
I made the notebook transition when I got to high school as well. It’s possible that I had binders in the ninth grade, but I was definitely full notebook by the time tenth grade rolled around, having started with that classroom-issued yellow paper with blue lines in first grade off of which you could never erase cleanly before moving on to huge binders full of college ruled loose-leaf and the “Midvale School for the Gifted” Far Side cartoon blown up to 8-12 x 11 as a cover and finally to the spiral notebooks. Yes, I occasionally had to use composition notebooks, which I hated because you couldn’t tear out the pages cleanly and couldn’t fold over as nicely as a sprial-bound; and I dabbled in the Wireless Neatbooks that were not neat and usually fell apart within a few weeks after they were purchased; but those spiral notebooks became the staple of my school supply shopping*.
Most of the spiral-bound notebooks I’ve purchased over the years have been your basic-model five-subject college ruled notebooks. But every once in a while, I splurge and buy a Five Star.
With a durable plastic cover that measures 9″x11″ with 8-1/2″x11″ sheets, the Mead Five Star maintains its neatness through quite a bit of abuse; plus, with pockets at each subject divider, it’s heavier than your average spiral-bound five-subject notebook. It’s a piece of equipment, not just a school supply, and the price shows in the craftsmanship, as it’s not going to look completely destroyed by February, something demonstrated in the commercials.
Now, I probably wasn’t thinking about that when I was in high school, but I did take note of how “together” everything stayed within a Five Star as opposed to the notebooks that I had whose covers had fallen off and were stapled to the books’ first pages. Also, the amount of crap that one can cram into a locker always astonished me. My high school had the lockers like you see in The Breakfast Club: a long locker with a coat hook but also an attached “cubby” for textbooks. That’s where you shoved your lunch bag and I’m sure where a number of my peers shoved whatever contraband they were bringing onto school grounds**.
Anyway, that durability was a trademark of Five Star’s ad campaign throughout the early Nineties, and in one commercial, they managed to not only hit upon all of the “silly ways this thing can be abused” ad trope, but also the “cool Gen-Xer ’90s teen” trope (I linked the commercial here, but play-through is disabled so you’ll have to watch it on YouTube).
Commenters on the YouTube video have pointed out that this is Todd Alexander, who played Rob on the PBS series Ghostwriter. That was a little after my PBS-watching days, but it’s still a cool connection to be able to make. Anyway, what I love about this is the way that Rob is yet another “cool teen in a cool room”, living the kind of suburban life that we were all sort of living, or at least wished we were living in 1994. He’s got his earphones in, he’s got his drumsticks going, he’s got a basketball hoop set up and always makes the shot. I was never this cool. Then again, you can’t exactly be cool when you ask your parents to buy you a two-drawer filing cabinet for your bedroom.
Mead would extend the whole Five Star concept into a line of school supplies, including backpacks, making the brand a huge flex for the teens … at least according to this commercial (again, play-through has been disabled so you have to watch on YouTube).
The actor is Christian Hoff, a former Kids Incorporated cast member who has had a long career as a character actor on television series throughout the last few decades. I’m not sure who the girl in the commercial is except that they were clearly going for a Career Opportunities-era Jennifer Connolly with the look. And he’s another typical ’90s teen guy, the douche who thinks he’s all that because a pretty girl looks at him for more than a split second. Of course, the joke being that it’s his school supplies that have her attention. Is the message here that having Five Star is going to get you noticed and maybe even in with the ladies? I’m … not exactly sure. If it was, then I missed my chance because had I bought a lot of Five Star back in high school, maybe I would have actually gotten a date.
Damn cheap basic notebooks.
* To this day, I remember my first trip to Staples in East Islip. My friend Rich had bought a three-inch Avery binder with a plastic window and that’s what I’d wanted for eighth grade. It was like Randall walking into Big Choice video in Clerks. I wanted everything.
** We had the privilege of not having to deal with overzealous local police departments who thought it would be fun to bring drug-sniffing dogs into the school on a semi-annual basis. At one school where I taught, this was the “code yellow” lockdown, and oh man, I could go on about the inequities of punishment that resulted from those searches.
I spotlighted this on an old episode of the podcast, but back in the late 1980s, there was a Roy Rogers commercial that satirized the nastiness of school lunches.
The ad was controversial because of the way it punched down on hard-working cafeteria staff and was pulled rather quickly. Having been a high school teacher for 17 years now, and knowing the amount of work it takes to feed more than a thousand teenagers on a daily basis for way less money than they should be paid, I completely agree that it’s an insensitive commercial*.
If you’d asked me about that ad when I was in my teens or even my twenties, I would have given you that tired line of “Ah, people are too sensitive/you can’t make fun of anyone anymore/why can’t people lighten up and take a joke?”** I thought it was the best commercial ever produced, the pinnacle of satire. I still think it is, objectively, a brilliant ad because of the way it plays off a reputation even though the punching down is insensitive and unnecessary. The meals served in my junior high and high school cafeteria were often nasty: soggy BLT sandwiches, hot dogs with a seafoam green tint, the steamiest of steamed hams, and industrial-grade rectangular pizza that we referred to as “Ellio’s” as a way to fool ourselves every Friday. In high school, we’d have a separate walk-up window for Domino’s pizza at a dollar a slice, which is one of the saddest things I have ever had to type.
I didn’t buy lunch often, although that wasn’t always an appealing alternative. The 1980s and 1990s pre-dated our current era of thermal-lined lunchbags with ice packs, and while we all carried bitchin’ lunchboxes at the beginning of elementary school, by the time you hit fifth grade, you were more likely to be made fun of for bringing your ham and cheese in a Snoopy lunchbox. So from late elementary school to the day I graduated, I literally brown-bagged it with lunches my dad made the night before. Now, to his credit, they weren’t slapped together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–he knew that PB&J was the worst thing to pack in a brown bag because it always got crushed at some point. These were turkey sandwiches with Alpine Lace Swiss chees on a semolina roll, ham and cheese on marble rye, or epic meatloaf sandwiches, all with a Yoo-Hoo box that had been frozen the night before so that it could thaw out in my locker and still be cold by the time I drank it for lunch. I ate well.
But I was, of course, the exception to the rule. Many of my peers had sad slices of bologna or boiled ham between half-stale pieces of white bread accompanied by a warm box of apple juice (or maybe a CapriSun if they were lucky) and a bag of Hydrox cookies. And this sadness went on for years in our school cafeteria.
That is, until Oscar Meyer changed everything.
Lunchables hit the market just as I was starting junior high school, and by the time I was in eighth grade, they were showing up more often among the “bringers” at the cafeteria table. A quick look at their history shows that Oscar Meyer developed them throughout the mid- to late-1980s as an alternative to the labor that cam with packing kids’ lunches every day. The company had conducted research with mothers, especially working moms who had school-aged children and whose commutes often made pressed for time. Oscar Meyer was the most well-known lunchmeat brand, and after the company merged with Kraft in 1988, they had the most well-known cheese brand to go with said lunchmeat. Add some crackers and you have an appealing, ready-to-go charcuterie plate that any kid would love.
At least that was the deal when they went nationwide in 1989, as the original Lunchables were a TV-dinner-esque box of cheese, crackers, and meat, although there was a “Deluxe” version that included extra meats and cheeses, condiment packs, and a mint. Those were meant to appeal to adults, as you can see in the commercial. In fact, I have to say that though I’d seen this commercial back in the 1980s, watching it now, I was struck by how basic it was. Then again, food companies in the late 1980s still thought the way to kids’ stomachs was through their parents and were aiming at them instead of the kids themselves***. That would change in the Nineties, as Oscar Meyer embraced the “Extremely Cool Extreme Kidz” school of thought.
You’ll also notice that by 1998 (when this commercial aired), Lunchables had expanded just beyond processed charcuterie. Varieties such as wraps, pizza, and hot dogs and hamburgers were part of the line, and their nutritional value was questionable at best. In fact, Lunchables became a poster child of sorts for the childhood obesity epidemic because of their fat and sodium contents****. But nutrition aside, you have to appreciate the Millennial that is this commercial. As well as this one, from 1996.
Now, I’m not going to generation shame too much here, but in the midst of all of Millennials’ current (and justified) crowing about economic hardships, we do need to remind them about how they basically had their asses kissed throughout their childhood and teen years.***** Commercials like these are presented as individualism in your lunch choices, but what they really are is a way to enforce the purchasing power that Millennials had as early as elementary school.****** They used to run minivan commercials where the kids were making the decisions on what car to purchase. You know, as opposed to having to suck it up and squeeze your gangly ass into the back seat of a Pontiac Fiero.
Anyway, Oscar Meyer really knew what it was doing here, even if these all looked really gross and I could feel my arteries hardening, blood pressure rising, and colon seizing as I watched the ads. Because it wasn’t about the food; it was more about making Lunchables seem cool to “kidz” and the thing that “kidz” wanted. Even at a young age …
This was probably the most famous Lunchables commercial, probably because it involved a cute little kid getting all hyped when he finally got the Lunchables that he wanted. And to be fair, he does fall on the “precious” side of the precious/precocious binary that commercials like this often had to navigate, but the parent in me is really annoyed here. I don’t want to crap on a kid, and I’ve never called my own kid ungrateful, but what an ungrateful little shit. Oh, I’m sorry that your mom or dad provides you with food every single day, food that’s probably a better nutritional choice than that road to a future stroke. I swear.
Plus, and this might be a “controversial” opinion here, Lunchables taste horrible. I speak from experience, having actually packing them a few times as a kid. Oscar Meyer’s cold cuts are B-grade at best, they are cut way too thick, and the crackers had less flavor than the pencils I tended to chew on when I was stressed. And the cheese? Oh yeah, thick-cut cheese left to sweat it out for four hours in a junior high locker? Who knows, maybe they have changed in 30 years, but back in the day, they were nasty.
I pack lunches every night before school and use better cold cuts; in fact, it’s possible my kid has only had a Lunchable once or twice in his entire life and didn’t like it either. But then again, it probably was never about the food and was always about the Lunchables experience.
* Huge credit, by the way, to my high school’s cafeteria staff, who did not slow down during the COVID lockdown and converted the high school cafeteria service to a drive-up, and went so far as to personally deliver lunches to classrooms during hybrid learning when the cafeteria seating was closed by mandate. They should be paid double and I’m not kidding.
** Somewhere, I have a long rant about the enormous amount of immaturity found in middle-aged men who constantly say these things that ties into all of the damage that bullshit sentiments like this causes.
*** This original Lunchables commercial also follows that annoying “rhyme time” trend of commercials from this era. I guess it was effective because I watched it and said, “Oh, I remember this rhyme.” But that didn’t make it any less annoying.
**** The turkey and cheddar Lunchables sold today, per serving contain 260 calories (100 cal from fat), 13 g of fat, and 670 mg of sodium.
***** I’m not kidding. Go read The Tipping Point.
******* And this should make them hate Boomers even more, tbh.
Toward the end of her documentary Kid 90, Soleil Moon Frye talks about how she watches video tapes that she made of her and her friends in the early and mid-1990s and considers how she never saw the warning signs regarding those friends who died by suicide or because of drug abuse. She also mentions that she is living a lot of those memories for the second time and (of course) with the perspective of a now middle-aged adult. It’s a moment that is predictable because of the way we naturally consider such things after a tragedy, but is sad nonetheless and tempers a very nostalgic documentary with a sadness, making it more than superficial fluff.
If you haven’t heard of Kid 90, it was born out of the fact that Frye spent much of her childhood and adolescence recording both audio and video of herself and her friends in their everyday live, intending it as a private keepsake*. A few years ago, she dug up the material and began going through it with the intention of making a documentary about being a child star and a teenager in Hollywood during the 1980s and early 1990s. She originally didn’t intend to put herself into the film (except for the aforementioned archival footage) but as she told Variety, she was editing one particular segment and realized that in order to give it full context, she needed to be interviewed. And that’s how we get the moment I just described.
I came to this film via Hulu’s recommendations and upon seeing the description, put it on my watch list. Plus, I’m a mark for any sort of late 1980s/early 19990s nostalgia, and am like every other person my age in that I immediately associate Fry with her iconic role as Punky Brewster. I also remember her showing up on a couple of random sitcom episodes–The Wonder Years and Friends, especially. What I didn’t know was that her circle of friends consisted of actors and actresses I was watching regularly during my early teen years and whom were also about my age (Frye is a year older than I am). So when people like Brian Austin Green, Mark Paul Gosselaar, and Jenny Lewis started showing up in both the footage and interviews, and also oddly connected to it beyond just recognizing those faces.
Over the past couple of years, I have spent time going trough my own personal teenage archive. Most of the stuff I have been looking at has been my teenage journal, along with various ephemera I’d thrown in a box or storage bin and held onto over the years. None of it is nearly as star-powered as Frye’s video and audio footage of hanging out with Danny Boy from House of Pain, but I could at least relate to it on the level of digging into what you had in the past. But as I watched Kid 90, I also had the passing thought:
This is what it must like like for the cool kids to reminisce.
Oh yeah, that is flat-out one of the most idiotic thoughts a middle-aged man could have about people from high school, but I couldn’t help it. As the movie rolled, my mind flashed to Facebook group threads filled with pictures of them at house parties, seventeen with 1990s haircuts, flannels over Gap jeans, with Budweiser cans everywhere. And really, that’s what Frye’s home movies look like–suburban keggers but with famous people. There’s a point she makes in the film that her mom tried her best to her and her brother (Meeno Replace, the star of the NBC show Voyagers!) as normal a life away from their jobs in Hollywood as possible and this is the proof. The rooms they’re in, the general silliness that they’re up to (especially when they’re 13 or 14) all looks s if it could be taking place in any number of my classmates’ houses, and a world that I never entered. I spent many Saturday nights playing video games with friends or renting whatever movie I could get my hands on and then watching Saturday Night Live.
And while I’d like to be nonchalant and say “Ah, who gives as shit about school popularity when you’re 44?”, I have to also admit that this lack of coolness dogged me for quite a long time. I wound up with more tan a few toxic “friendships” and a laundry list of embarrassing and awkward moments, which my anxiety loves to weaponize on occasion, just to remind me who I am … or at least who I was. The world of the cool kids in my immediate vicinity was as much a mystery to me as the world of these ultra-cool Hollywood kids in the film. Frye goes from hanging with the ‘tween and teen jet set of the early ’90s to heading across the country to attend college in New York and befriending cast members from Larry Clark’s Kids, showing that she always had a “crew” wherever she decided to live.
But in the midst of all of that, there’s a real darkness. At one point, we hear an audio recording of her talking to a friend and trying to figure out what happened the previous night because she woke up at home not knowing how she got there. At another point, she is discussing how a guy at a party clearly raped her when he kept going even though she told him she didn’t want to. You can’t dismiss those stories by saying that it’s some symptom of Hollywood excess or that it’s another sign of how former child stars often become cautionary tales. No, ask around and you are bound to meet a woman who has had one of both of those happen, maybe even more. And, to bring in Hollywood, add the way the film industry treated her because of her body (she had breast reduction surgery at 16, which was a People Magazine cover story) and you have a look at how monumentally screwed up our culture is.
Which brings me back to what I mentioned in the beginning of this piece–Frye’s perspective as a woman and parent in her forties. One of the reasons she began the project that would become Kid 90 is to see if how she remembered her teenage years was accurate, and I found myself relating to the honesty with which she approached everything as well as the bravery required to do it. You can always flip through an old yearbook and laugh at the silly or even heartfelt things people wrote to you, but there is a point where you have to decide if you want to cross the threshold into the uncomfortable and really meet the kid you were. As a parent, you want to see what you can learn from your younger self so that your kid doesn’t suffer the same fate. Sure, there are adolescent rites of passage that involve mistakes and regrettable moments and I know I can’t protect my kid from everything bad they might encounter, but I also know that part of my job as a father is to use the gift of hindsight to discern between true rites of passage and truly awful things that we are too scared to admit were wrong or even toxic.
Reopening old wounds, taking the blindfold off in the cave, digging into the past–whatever you want to call it–can suck, even when you know it’s going to be therapeutic and said therapy can last longer than intended. But it’s a testament to the fact that making it through any of it is a small miracle.
* A similar documentary from Val Kilmer is set to debut on Amazon Prime in August.