1990s

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 95: Stayin’ Alive in 1995

Episode 95 Website CoverIt’s the first of two “milestone year” episodes where Amanda and I sit down and take a pretty thorough look at what was going on in a particular year of the 1990s. First up, 1995. Join us as we talk about where we were in our lives in ’95 and then run through the television shows, movies, and music of that year.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

I Spent My Adolescence Wandering the Teen Movie Desert

Heather Duke

Shannen Doherty as Heather Duke in the film that killed ’80s teen movies.  She’d later play the iconic Brenda Walsh on the ’90s teen soap Beverly Hills 90210.

I’m in the middle of prepping for my next episode, which is going to be about the 1995 film Clueless. It’s a movie that is culturally significant because it was one of a number of movies that started a teen movie boom in the mid- to late-1990s and early 200s after a period that didn’t see many successful films in the genre, at least on the level that we saw in the previous decade with the Brat Pack films. If we take what Jonathan Bernstein says in Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies and say that 1989 is a benchmark for the end of the movie genre’s initial success because, as he puts it, Heathers killed it “stone dead” and that 1995 was the beginning of what was looking like a revival, we have a period where teen movies of many genres–comedy, drama, and horror–saw very little success.

 

This period also happens to coincide with most of my adolescence. I began junior high in the fall of 1989 and graduated high school in June of 1995, which meant that I was the target audience for what wound up being a dearth of flicks. Now, I can tell you that I spent a lot of time going to the comic store and my adolescence also coincides with the boom and subsequent bust of that particular collector’s market, but not everyone I knew was into superheroes and comics on the level that I was, so this long intro and cultural context does beg the question: what were we doing if we weren’t going to the movies in the early 1990s? I’m going to try and plumb the depths of my fuzzy memories of this period to give you … some sort of explanation, and it starts with the very place we were supposedly avoiding.

Because we were going to the movies; we just weren’t seeing those movies. I remember seeing most of those classic teen flicks like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink when I was in junior high and high school because they were rerun on television quite a bit and if what I saw seemed interesting enough, I’d hit up Video Empire so I could see the whole thing instead of the 45 minutes or so I caught on WPIX (or in the case of movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the whole, uncensored thing). But trips to the theater were, at least for me, reserved for Batman movies, Terminator sequels, Van Damme and Seagal action flicks, and blockbusters like Jurassic Park. The closest that I think I ever got to seeing a movie aimed directly at me and people my age in the theater were the two Wayne’s World movies and even then, those were SNL-based.

Pump up the Volume

Starring Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume was one of the few movies of the early Nineties with an impact.

Not that we didn’t have stuff like Pump Up the Volume (an episode that I swear is coming at some point) and Reality Bites (which I covered back in 1994), but when looking at what came out during that time period, most of the movies had characters who were slightly older or younger than me. Pump Up the Volume and two Brendan Fraser movies–Encino Man and School Ties–were probably exceptions to this rule, as they did take place in a high school. But when I watched Singles or Reality Bites, I was watching movies aimed at the heart of Generation X, which was the core audience for most of the original wave of teen movies and whom by then had more or less grown tired or grown out of the genre. These two movies, while they did moderately well, did underperform and are more on the edge of the “cult classic” than bona fide cultural touchstones. And there was always a “looking at the older kids” aspect to them. Concurrently, there were a number of movies that were made for the early Millennial set–Now and Then, The Mighty Ducks, Man in the Moon, My Girl–and were a nice set-up for movies like Clueless, Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Even the few that did match right up appropriate with my age, such as PCU (again, I covered this in 1994) and Dazed & Confused (another episode I will eventually do) were box office bombs that got new life on video and cable.

 

Besides, we were watching ourselves more on television. While the WB, which began in 1994, would unlock the secret to the teen audience in the latter part of the decade with Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, credit where credit is due needs to go to Fox and MTV for what they did in the early 1990s. MTV had already been around for a decade by the time I was finishing junior high and was the default station for teenagers; Fox was just starting out and had realized that they could use what was then a more “edgy” tone to some of its programming to attract audiences that the big three networks were more or less ignoring. So, you have stuff like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, 21 Jump Street, and Beverly Hills 90210 on Fox and MTV’s seminal reality show, The Real World. And while ABC would throw its hat in the ring with My So-Called Life in 1994, Fox and MTV had more of an impact–in fact, MSCL got a second life in reruns on MTV way into the later part of the decade.

 

Real World Cast

The cast of season 3 (San Francisco) of The Real World, which premiered in 1994.

90210 and The Real World really are the shows to consider because to people my age they were aspirational in a sense–90210 was full of the glamorous life and The Real World showed teenagers how cool it was going to be when you finally left home. Yes, there was drama on The Real World and in those first few seasons, people were dealing with serious issues and problems, but we all wanted to live in that house at one point or another (at least until we hit our twenties and realized that the real world was a lot more boring). There also wasn’t much beyond that as far as programming was concerned. Outside of what I’ve listed, we were kind of stuck between Full House and Seinfeld and usually chose the latter, even if we didn’t get all of the jokes. That is, until Beavis and Butthead came along.

 

Now, I realize that I’m simplifying for the sake of argument here and probably could do an entire series of posts or a book on this teen entertainment desert (which isn’t that half bad of an idea, tbh), so there were other shows and movies out there, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Beavis and Butthead was a seminal show. Like I said, there was an “older kid” aspiration to a lot of the leftovers from the Eighties or what was on screen in the early Nineties. Watching the Hughes flicks or any other movies from that era sometimes felt like you were rifling through the room of your older brother or sister who had gone away to college and left everything unguarded, or that you were Judy in American Graffiti or Mitch Kramer in Dazed & Confused hanging out with the older kids. But watching an episode of Beavis and Butthead was like looking around your own high school. No, I didn’t do nearly any of the crazy crap those two did, but I know plenty of people who were just as idiotic; furthermore, there was a lot of sitting around and watching random crap on TV at my house and my friends’ houses while making snarky comments at what was on television. Plus, they were often watching music videos and while MTV would taper off playing videos throughout the decade, this was around the time–at least in my life–that music seemed important.

Based on the content of my last episode, it’s not revelatory to say that music is important to teenagers–it has been since my parents’ generation–but after the latter part of the Eighties and its vapid pop-rock and hair metal, the pendulum swung back to music that took itself more seriously. Oh, there was plenty of vapid crap in the early 1990s (nobody is comparing “Baby Got Back” to The Beatles), but the messages (if there were any) in “Girls Girls Girls” and “Nothin’ But a Good Time” see seemed pretty empty considering how deep we were into a recession. The gloom of alternative and the anger of punk fit what many of us were going through or at least thought we were going through (in a Holden Caulfield sort of way) as opposed to songs about strippers and blow on the Sunset Strip. Plus, this was a time when you couldn’t access a song unless it was released as a single, so you had to make the conscious choice to buy an entire album on cassette or CD and that meant being smart about where exactly you put your disposable income and that also meant that the purchase held more weight and you sought out things that really did mean something.

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Mortal Kombat fatalities such as this one caused quite a bit of hand-wringing.

That is, if you weren’t bathing in the blood of Mortal Kombat opponents. If there’s one thing I have learned from being a late-period Gen-Xer (especially one with a tween of my own), it’s that video games are huge and can be all-consuming. The older part of my generation did play video games and they certainly had gaming systems in the house, but those of us who were tweens and teens in the late 1980s and early 1990s were really the first to take it to a level beyond novelty or something we would outgrow. Video games and systems were just as expensive in the early Nineties as they are now, and that meant an investment of money and time, and they began to reflect those costs. Games were become more complex and more adult–by 1994, they even had ratings on the packages to reflect that not all of them were for little kids–so fewer people were abandoning them as the novelty wore off or they got older. While I didn’t own my own system after playing on my NES, I spent countless hours at friends’ houses playing Street Fighter, F-Zero, Mortal Kombat, Madden, NHL, and a number of other games.

 

And in a few paragraphs, I just listed everything we were doing in lieu of watching the latest iteration of The Breakfast Club. And at the heart of it is that when I was a teenager, my friends and I were doing what we wanted and really didn’t care. We kind of shrugged at what was offered to us, which caused hand-wringing among a number of companies because teenagers and twentysomethings weren’t taking everything offered to them. The “Generation X” label tended to be a negative reaction to those groups’ unwillingness to part with all of their money after a decade of teenagers buying all of the shiny things corporations had to offer. It’s almost as if people forgot how adolescents tended to act.

As I look at my students and what they are into, I don’t know if things with teen movies have cycled back to the desert of the early Nineties or if things have diversified so much–after all, there are multiple platforms now on which to view or listen to things. I believe it’s somewhere in between, although my hitting middle age definitely doesn’t help.

Everybody Wants Something

EWS21

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”

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.”

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 93: Festivus 2018!

Episode 93 Website CoverIn what is now an annual Pop Culture Affidavit tradition, it’s time for us to celebrate Festivus, the holiday that is for the rest of us!  This year, I’m joined for the airing of grievances and the feats of strength by The Irredeemable Shag.  We complain about fandom and other things that irritate us and then follow that up by looking at War Dancer #4, which was published in 1994 by Defiant Comics.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

After the cut, a few extras from this episode …

(more…)

Your Wind Song Stays on My Mind

Throughout history, we have been drawn to the great love stories, both triumphant and tragic.  We cheered when Odysseus was finally reunited with Penelope and we cried when Romeo and Juliet met their fateful (though, I would argue, avoidable) ends.  Yet none of those compare to the epic saga of the two lovers in a Wind Song commercial from the early 1990s.

Wind Song is an inexpensive perfume produced by Prince Matchabelli, which has been around since 1926 when its founder, Norina Machabelli fled the Soviet Union for the United States.  It began making Wind Song in 1953 and the perfume has been available at drugstore counters ever since.  I personally have never smelled it, so I will post the description provided by FragarenceX, where a bottle is currently on sale for $15.70:

A unique woody perfume, Wind Song was released in 1953 and has been enchanting consumers with its bright combination of flowers and spice ever since. The top notes include coriander, tarragon, orange leaf, and neroli, with gentle hints of mandarin, bergamot, and lemon. The heart opens with a flush of carnation and cloves, gently spreading to reveal touches of rose, ylang ylang, orris root, jasmine, and rosewood. The base slips in softly with the poignant scents of sandalwood and cedar, along with the faintest hints of vetiver, musk, benzoin, and amber. This refreshing fragrance is lovely for a day out in the spring or summer.

If I personally have smelled it, I don’t think I would know, which is not a knock against the perfume and more a testament to my inability to distinguish any one perfume from another (except maybe Axe Body Spray, but that’s because I teach high school).  But I certainly remember the commercials that ran in the 1980s and 1990s and the famous jingle, “I can’t seem to forget you.  Your Wind Song stays on my mind.”

There were a number of variants of this commercial over the years, but they more or less had the same premise.  A woman wearing Wind Song perfume sprays a little bit on a letter or note and sends it a guy.  He opens it, smells it, and … well, “I can’t seem to forget you.  Your Wind Song stays on my mind.”

I’d imagine that if you aren’t familiar with the commercials, this description could provide you with a mental picture that is either very romantic or very awful.  Wind Song could remind the guy of his lover, it could cause a terrible allergic reaction, it could trigger a PTSD flashback, or it could result in something much worse.  For instance, in one of the commercials that ran during the 1980s, the woman spots her lover in a restaurant with a bunch of business colleagues and has a waiter send the note.  It’s meant to be a reminder of romance, but it could also be the framing device for a flashback in a Skinemax movie, or the note could also read “I will not be ignored, DAN!”

Anyway, the commercial that I’m most familiar with, and which I mentioned briefly in my VHiStory episode, was from the 1990s and did not involve restaurants or possible Fatal Attraction scenarios.

 

Wind Song Guy at Work

It is a simple plot, but one for the ages.  We have Rick, whose biceps strategically sweat while he shapes metal into various shapes.  He is just going about his day in whatever dusty shop this is, one that is run by Old Man Weatherby (a guy who has been trying to get at those meddling kids for years).  But then, the shaping of various metals must stop because the mail comes.

Flying Letter

And yes, the Maguffin has arrived.  It’s so important, in fact, that we get an artfully done special effect that even George Lucas is envious of with the letter flying toward him.  What could be in this letter? Is it his electric bill?  A notice that his metal shaping tools are being repossessed?  Could he have finally gotten into Harvard?

Wind Song Letter

No, it’s from Kate.  She misses him and she sealed the letter with a kiss.  I guess the perfume is strong enough to cut through all of the manly sweat and metal shaping smells, because Rick is definitely interested.  He takes a big whiff of that letter and we cut to Kate aimlessly riding her bike on a bridge.

Bored Kate

And she’s thinking: “Did I forget to turn off the coffee maker?  I think I did.  Wait, that’s not a big deal because it has an automatic shut-off.  The house isn’t going to burn down.  But did I lock the house?  I’m pretty sure I locked the house.  I remember getting my bike out of the garage, shutting the garage door, putting my keys in the … yes, I locked the house.”

Wind Song Guy in Car

Rick is so ready that he gets into his classic car and peels out of work.  He probably didn’t even put his tools away and left everything a mess.  Old Man Weatherby is going to be pissed.  But who cares?  Kate misses him, too, and that means someone’s gonna get lucky.  He then reaches the bridge where he just happens to know where Kate is riding her bike, and is all:  “Hey, baby.”

Kate Looks at Him

Kate:  “Oh, it’s you.”

Seirously, that’s the expression.  Like she’s the lady in Rupert Hine’s “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”

Bridge Kiss

Well, at first, anyway, because he eventually pulls over, they have this moment where he picks her up and swings her around and they kiss and then we end with the two of them standing on the bridge and kissing.  Totally blocking traffic, by the way.  What if someone else was commuting home and got stuck because of these two?  That’s really rude.

The commercial ends with a shot of the box and a voice-over and I have to say that I have a number of unanswered questions.  What kind of force is guiding that letter?  Is it supernatural?  I mean, Old Man Weatherby can’t have that good of a wrist, right?  And what is Kate really like?  Is she the good girl and Rick is the guy they can’t stand?  And where exactly are these two living where he can work in shaping metal all day and afford a classic car while she can spend her days riding her bike aimlessly across bridges?

There’s some untapped fanfiction potential in this entire 30-second ad, if you ask me.  I can see entire books being written on the moments that inspired her to send the flying letter.  I can see erotica depicting the ten minutes that follow these thirty seconds.  Maybe there’s a literary masterpiece detailing their suburban ennui years later.  Or maybe a fantasy trilogy where he actually wants to escape but she has him under the spell of her Wind Song.

The possibilities are as endless and unforgettable as their love.

Fizzy Fuzzy Memories

So I’ve relived my experience with Coke II and it really made me remember one of the things I love about writing this blog–digging up those odd, random things in the culture that I remember and poking around to see if I can find out anything else about them.  I will, of course, confess that the only time I ever remember seeing Coke II other than the can I had back in 2005 was at random on the shelf of Grand Union while accompanying my dad on a quick grocery run back in the day.  But soda as a part of my childhood–or maybe even as a not-part of my childhood (if such a term exists)–sticks out in my mind and as I reread my old blog post, I started thinking about how well I remember some of the more off-brand or random varieties of soft drinks rather than say the countless gallons of Coke or Pepsi products that I’ve gulped down in my lifetime.  On the occasions where soda would make its way into the house–at parties, for instance–I distinctly remember labels beyond Coke and Pepsi.  And when we went somewhere, there was a whole different world of beverage.  Looking at my list, it wasn’t EPCOT’s “Club Cool” per se, but I still think it’s a decent assortment.

Mets RC Can

A 1986 Mets World Championship RC Cola can.  (Image Source:  eBay)

RC Cola:  I’ll start with a soda brand that is actually pretty old and still well known.  RC has been around since 1905 and should be up there with Coke or Pepsi, but I’ve always put it in a distant third place behind the other two despite its place in cola history–for example, RC was the first company to put soda in a can (and later in aluminum cans) and in 1958 would introduce the first-ever diet cola, Diet Rite.

And yet, I will always associate RC Cola with the Mets, who sold RC and Diet Rite at Shea Stadium in the 1980s.  I can picture ice-less cola full to the brim that was guaranteed to spill at least a little when you bought it from the guy walking up and down the steps of the upper deck.  Which, by the way, was a feat in itself because those steps were so steep that you practically needed a Sherpa to make it up to the top of the stadium.

In the years since, the Mets have changed their main cola–for a while it was Pepsi and I think now it’s Coca-Cola, but it’s been so many years since I have been to a Mets game that I’m not entirely sure if that’s true.  I’m honestly not sure I’ve had it since the 1980s or 1990s, even though the brand is still around and is currently owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple company, which touts it as a “favorite of cola drinkers throughout America.”

Fanta:  This is neither an obscure or random soda–in fact, Fanta’s various fruit flavors are still around and popular and the brand had a pretty visible ad campaign featuring a group of singing, dancing spokeswomen called The Fantanas in the early 2000s.

 

The history of the Fanta cola flavor is actually fascinating, as it was created in Germany in World War II to be used as a cola substitute since the Coca-Cola plants in Germany were largely cut off from America and therefore couldn’t get shipments of materials they needed to make the beverage.  This, of course, is information I discovered when writing this blog post and had no bearing on my various encounters with Fanta over the years.  My personal association with Fanta goes back to the 1980s and its orange soda and root beer flavors.  The orange soda, I recall, was one of those sodas that might have been on tap at a restaurant in place of Sunkist or Crush and since orange wasn’t my go-to flavor, I never paid much attention to it.

Fanta can

A 1980s-era can of Fanta, which I admit I never actually saw (Image source: eBay).

Root beer, however, was my primary concern whenever I was allowed to get soda at a restaurant.  I’d, of course, get a Coke if I had to, but whenever root beer was on the menu, I was there.  And very often, it was Fanta, especially if the establishment sold Coke products.  Sayville Pizza was one such place and I remember its brown, white, and blue logo being on the soda machine behind the main counter whenever my friends and I would ride our bikes up there to get two slices and a soda for lunch during the summer.   It wasn’t a particularly memorable flavor of root beer, and the Coca-Cola company would replace it with the more distinguishable Barq’s in the late 1990s, but I always think of this soda more than other root beers like A&W or Ramblin’ Root Beer (remember that?) because what it did was set the “default” taste for root beer in my mind (which probably explains why I don’t like Barq’s very much.

Hires Root BeerHires Root Beer:  Speaking of root beer, a brand that I drank a lot of when I was younger but I have specific memories of is Hires Root Beer.  This, like RC Cola and Fanta, has a much longer history than I expected and is, in fact, the second-longest produced soft drink in the United States.  It was originally created in Philadelphia but I actually always associate it with New England; specifically, I place it in New Hampshire and the years my family spent vacationing on Kezar Lake in North Sutton.  And while I am sure that my time at the lake and time visiting Weirs Beach and Lake Winnepesaukee is a blog post and podcast episode to rival Rob Kelly’s “Mountain Comics,” I will say that Hires was a pretty popular brand of root beer up there and I think that we had at least one or two pieces of merchandise–trinkets, magnets, pencil holders–with the logo on it because we had cashed in a billion arcade tickets from playing hours upon hours of skee-ball.

I don’t have much to say about the taste of Hires, except that I drank a lot of it whenever I went up there, probably because it tasted like Fanta or whatever I expected root beer to taste like.  But those weeks in the summer spent pumping quarters into arcade machines new and old and walking up to the local general store to buy baseball cards or Mad Magazines are always going to be associated with this one logo or can of soda.  It’s all another story for another time, but at least worth a mention here.

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Photo by Paxton Holley (via Flickr)

7-Up Gold:  Now we’re getting into something that really no longer exists.  7-Up Gold was an attempt by the “Uncola” to actually create a cola and it was a massive flop.  Only available in 1987 and 1988, the company, which had previously had success with Cherry 7-Up (a soda that I could have also put on this list), decided to completely go against what it bragged about in its ad campaigns from the early 1980s (not a cola, never had caffeine) and basically tried to clone Coke and Pepsi.  In a 1989 New York Times article, then 7-Up president Roger Easley said that “The product was misunderstood by the consumer.  People have a clear view of what 7-Up products should be — clear and crisp and clean, and no caffeine.  7-Up Gold is darker and does have caffeine, so it doesn’t fit the 7-Up image.”

The cola is described in the article as having actually come from the Dr. Pepper Company, which had merged with 7-Up in the previous year, as having a “reddish caramel hue” and a flavor that doesn’t necessarily taste like cola but “tastes something like ginger ale with a cinnamon-apple overtone and a caffeine kick.”  I honestly barely remember that, but I do remember being lured in by commercials like this:

For me, who was so uncool in 1988 that I thought this was cool, I was sold and wanted to try some.  I remember that my parents did cave at one point at bought at least one bottle of it for my birthday party in 1988 and I actually bragged to my friends that we had 7-Up Gold.  It’s no wonder I went straight to the bottom of the social ladder over the next few years.

Schweppes Raspberry Ginger Ale:  As I mentioned, soda was not something you got in my house when I was a kid, but my parents did sometimes grab ginger ale off of the shelf and that would be the drink of choice for my sister and I after we had finished our chocolate milk at dinner.  Yeah, nothing says dessert at my house in the 1980s more than Sealtest Ice Milk washed down with Raspberry Schweppes.

Now, Schweppes still makes the raspberry ginger ale, although John Cleese is no longer used in its advertisements.  I don’t really drink ginger ale at all, unless I’ve spent the day vomiting.  So this is one of those that definitely is left in the past and is probably key in why I went buck wild with drinking soda my freshman year of college.

C&C Cola:  Finally, there’s C&C Cola.  Headquartered in New Jersey and still in production today, C&C is one of those near-generic “off brand” sodas that makes its way onto store shelves next to store brand such as Master Choice and other off-brand colas like Cott and Shasta.  C&C, however, was one of those off-brand sodas that actually made a small dent in the northeast.  No, it couldn’t exactly compete with Coke or Pepsi, but it made enough of an effort to gain what it could in the 1980s with a wide variety of flavors as well as commercials:

For my parents, C&C was the soda you got when you were having big family parties.  My dad would drive up to Thrifty Beverage, which was our local beer and soda “distributor” (i.e., a huge warehouse of beer and soda that also had a retail space) and buy several flats of C&C in various flavors.  And by various, I mean various:  cola, diet cola, ginger ale, root beer, cream soda, lemon-line, black cherry, grape, and orange.  These were packaged very basically, with each flavor getting a different-colored can (i.e., lime green for lemon-lime, brown for root beer, orange for orange, tan for cream soda, grape for purple).  I think that over the course of that party, my sister and I would try to drink one of every single flavor; then, we’d try to stretch out the leftovers for days.

C&C is still around and still independently owned and operated out of New Jersey.  I don’t recall seeing any of the soda down here in Virginia (although my local blood bank has plenty of Shasta on hand), but a look at its website shows that it’s still making all of the flavors that I enjoyed when I was younger as well as several novelty flavors like cotton candy.

At present, my main soda of choice is Coke Zero and Brett isn’t much of a soda kid–he likes orange soda and a few other things but will usually go for HI-C or lemonade whenever we’re at a restaurant.  We also now live in a world where I can actually order a number of these sodas online–I don’t know if I would or if it would even be worth it, but I can.  Still, who knows random liquid my local grocery store will serve up in the future?

 

The Object of Poetry

A quick note:  this post originally appeared on an old blog of mine.  Hearing the song that it is about made me want to re-post it.  -Tom

PHOTOGRAPH
Michael Stipe & Natalie Merchant / Night Garden Music ©1993
I found this photograph
underneath broken picture glass
tender face of black & white
beautiful, a haunting sight
looked into an angel’s smile
captivated all the while
from her hair and clothes she wore
I’d have placed her in between the wars

Was she willing when she sat
and posed a pretty photograph
to save her flowering and fair
for days to come
for days to share
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

I found this photograph
in stacks between the old joist walls
in a place where time is lost
lost behind where all things fall
broken books and calendars,

Letters script in careful hand,
the music to a standard tune by
some forgotten big brass band

From the thresh hold what’s to see
of our brave new century
television’s just a dream
of radio and silver screen
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

Was her childhood filled with rhyme
or stolen books of passion crimes?
was she innocent or blind to the
cruelty of her time?
was she fearful in her day?
was she hopeful? did she pray?
were there skeletons inside
family secrets sworn to hide?
did she feel the heat that stirs
the fall from grace of wayward girls?
was she tempted to pretend
in love and laughter until the end?

Born to Choose cover

The cover of the “Born to Choose” compilation, the CD released to benefit NARAL upon which “Photograph” appeared.

Over spring break, I was talking about R.E.M. with a friend of mine for a future episode of his podcast, and over the course of our conversation, this song that the band recorded with Natalie Merchant in 1993 (which is around the time the band was riding the success of Automatic for the People and Merchant was nearing the end of her tenure as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) was mentioned and while we didn’t spend too much time analyzing it, we both agreed that the song is excellent

After the conversation, I wound up listening to “Photograph” again, and while there are a lot of times when R.E.M.’s lyrics border on the indecipherable, the lyrics here are actually more clear even if they are pretty complex. My first thought, upon first hearing it, was to compare it to the Jackson Browne song “Fountain of Sorrow,” but giving it another listen, I realized that the beauty in this particular song is that neither Merchant nor Michael Stipe know who the person in the photograph is.

It all reminds me of the early 2000s when I would waste time at work by looking at things posted to Found Magazine, which was devoted to trying to tell the story of objects that users had found. Many times, they related the circumstances that led to finding and keeping the object; other times, they were more about trying to tell that object’s story, in the same way that the lyrics are doing here.

The English teacher side of me loves this song, as does the writer side, because it lends itself to such a great multifaceted writing exercise. Of course, there’s the idea that I could take the time to tell the story of the photograph and answer the questions that they’re asking, similar to how I have often used Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” as a springboard for a writing assignment. There’s also the possibility of describing the photograph based on the questions–as in, what about that photograph would lead someone to ask those questions?

And then there’s the objects that we own or don’t own that have stories behind them. Granted, you don’t need to study this song in order to create that assignment, but this would serve as a great model for any student looking to write the story of an object. If it’s something a student already owns, there is description and there is reflection; if it’s something the student doesn’t own (i.e., I gave them a photograph of people they didn’t know without any context), there is indulgence of curiosity and creativity, and also perhaps some self-reflection of the way that we judge people based on what we see.

I think poetry as a genre works really well, especially in this case, because it forces a person to stretch themselves. I could provide a prompt with a journal response, but that’s too simple and might result in some sort of bland description. This song, “Photograph,” and other poetry about the objects in our lives, goes deeper than that, asking questions that may not have answers and providing answers because it’s in our nature to want to do that.