music videos

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.

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 87: VH

Episode 87 Website CoverIn the Eighties, nobody was more awesome or rocked harder.  Join me as I take a look back on this band and its legacy through a top 5 list of what I think are the most memorable songs.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

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Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

 

My “Hot!” Music Video Origin Story

Hot LogoA pop star in a red jacket slowly morphs into a werewolf.  A young woman writhes on the floor against an all-white background.  A striking-looking woman with orange hair sings about how “Sweet dreams are made of these.”  Or was it “this”?  These are indelible images from the 1980s that I am sure most people can identify for me, they comprise my music video origin story.

My history with cable television is spotty (and my relationship with Comcast’s customer service is contentious), and I’ve beaten the “I didn’t have cable as a kid” horse enough but here it actually applies because during the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s, I didn’t have cable.  So when my friends were getting their musical education through 120 Minutes and Headbangers Ball, I was finding other sources, mostly radio stations, which explains my musical tastes were way more mainstream than a number of my friends and tended to skew towards older music at times (I mean, was anyone else listening to The Stranger and Born to Run as much as I was in 1994?).  But that is not to say that I was completely in the dark and didn’t  see a music video until 1996 when my parents finally got cable.  I had friends, they had cable, and when we had nothing better to do, we would watch MTV for hours.  But prior to even that, I saw some of the vanguard of early 1980s videos because of syndication.

Hot Madonna

Madonna was one of the few artists I remember from the time I watched Hot!.  “Lucky Star” was played quite a bit (even though I don’t think this still is from that video).

MTV launched on August 1, 1981 but was not available nationwide; in fact, it was not carried in New York City where segments were taped, so the veejays had to watch their debut in a bar in New Jersey that had the channel.  And up until about 1983-1984, the channel would remain relatively obscure, slowly building an audience before rocketing to the forefront of popular culture because of the stars it was making (or that made it) and its famous “I want my MTV!” marketing blitz.  By the time my friend Tom got cable in 1986-1987, MTV was pretty much the only source for videos (with VH-1 running adult contemporary videos right next to it) at any time of the day.

But in 1984, when the New York Times published the article “Music Video is Here With a Vengeance,” that wasn’t the case.  MTV wasn’t as ubiquitous but some TV stations were picking up on the fact that the music video was becoming important for teenaged consumers of pop music.  The article is clearly written for an older audience but makes an apt comparison to The Ed Sullivan Show, saying that this is this generation’s version of that.  It mentions MTV but also mentions a slew of locally syndicated or network-produced video shows:  Hot! on WNEW 5 at 4:30 p.m.; Great Record Album Collections on WOR 9 at 5:30 p.m.; Solid Gold Hits on WPIX at 6:00 p.m.; Friday Night Videos on NBC; and ABC Rocks, which also aired on Friday night.

Friday Night Videos is probably the most famous of these and wast he longest lasting, as it technically ran until 2002, even though its format had completely changed by the mid 1990s to a more traditional variety show.  I never actually watched it because it was on way past my bedtime–although I know people who were either allowed to watch it or had older siblings who did (and in hindsight, I probably could have taped the show).  In the very early 1990s, NBC would air a spinoff show called Saturday Morning Videos that was on right after Saved By the Bell and lasted until 1992 when the network decided to focus on mining the teen audience and began airing shows like California Dreams, which had its own “music videos” within the shwo.  I did watch this when I got the chance and specifically remember it’s where I first saw the video to George Michael’s “Freedom ’90,” which remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.

But in 1984, I was seven years old and would rush home to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe on WNEW Channel 5 (which would later become WNYW Fox 5) and at some point, the video show Hot! began airing at 4:30 and for whatever reason, I didn’t change the channel. Hot! (which sounds like a title thought up by someone who was marketing neon-colored trinkets to teenage girls) was a bare bones production counting down the … well, the hottest videos of the week.

While this clip only shows bits and pieces of videos, there is enough from the introductions from Claude Mann to let you know what the show was like.  And he was enough of a “generic 1980s white guy” to be the type of host of this show–all he had to do was give a little bit of information and then play the videos because that’s what the kids watching after school were there to see.  There were a few segments with interviews from artists, such as the one with Ray Parker Jr. about the “Ghostbusters” video (a song that even I was hip to in 1984) in this clip:

One other aspect of the show was its viewer contributions.  People could write in with their favorite videos and send a picture of themselves and the producers might put that picture on the air–I can imagine that seeing your picture and name was kind of like waiting around for the end of Romper Room when the host would hold up the magic mirror and you were dying to hear your first name (I rarely did).  That took some effort, too, when you think about it, because people like Scott Womack of Burbank, California, had to take the time to figure out what Van Halen video he thought should be at number one, then write a letter, get his picture taken, take it to Fotomat, wait a few days, get the pictures from Fotomat, put everything in an envelope, take it to the post office, and hope that by the time Hot! got his letter, that Van Halen song was still cool.  Oh, who am I kidding? Scott knew that Van Halen song was still cool.

Hot Scott Womack

If you are attending an ’80s party anytime soon, Scott Womack of Burbank, California, has given you exactly what you need for your costume.

Anyway, MTV would perfect this viewer voting technique in 1986 with Dial MTV, their own daily countdown show, which had viewers call 1-800-DIAL-MTV to vote on their favorite videos.  That number, of course, would be used to much bigger success in the late 1990s when Total Request Live took over the channel, and that particular show had its own huge impact on popular culture, which included the use of online voting in a huge way.

But in 1984, there was Hot! and whatever else kids could get their hands on, and with the exception of the “Thriller” video, which my parents taped off of Showtime before they cut the cord on that, this was the only place I saw music videos, at least for a few months.  Hot! didn’t last very long on WNEW–another cartoon, probably Voltron or She-Ra, replaced the show and Channel 5 would air Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life at 5:00 and 5:30 for most of the rest of the decade.  So while I went back to my cartoons, toys, and other things that dominated the life of a second/third grader, the small amount of time I spent watching Hot! was enough of a glimpse into the culture of older kids, something I clearly wasn’t ready for at seven, but would be sooner than I realized.

 

 

Origin Story Episode 21

Origin Story Episode 21 Website CoverGot a job?  Got a couple of bucks?  Need a car?  Come on down to episode 21 of Origin Story where I can sell you some Used Autobots in The Transformers #32.  That’s right … it doesn’t matter if you have bad credit or no credit, you’re going to get a fight between robots, humans, and other robots!

Plus, I take a look back at two classic music videos from 1987.  And talk about boobs.

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iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

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Transformers_Vol_1_32