Wednesday, June 30, 2010

90s Teen Pop Princesses: Then and Now

Current celebrity critics may be up in arms over the racy and overnight de-Disnified Miley Cyrus, but her path as a child-to-rebellious-teen pop star is pretty well-worn territory. Child stars have been reinventing themselves as alleged adults for years. In the 1990s, a wave of self-proclaimed virginal and innocent adolescent teenage pop stars paved the way for the downslide into inevitable controversy. These girls proved there’s only so long managers and publicists can capitalize on and profit from your jailbait allure--at some point, their public personas needed to grow up.

As some of these starlets have shown, the transition from bubbly teen to legitimate grown-up artist is not an easy one. While some may manage to endure the change relatively unscathed, most lose some marketability with each passing year and are forced to continually reinvent themselves. So next time you hear Miley tell you she can’t be tamed, you should probably just take her word for it. Looking at her predecessors, it seems like a likely outcome.

Britney Spears

We First Knew Her as: Mickey Mouse Club Member on the 90s revival of the children’s variety show, child contestant on Star Search, very brief stint as member of girl group Innosense

Achieved Major Stardom as:
Vaguely inappropriate but supposedly innocent school girl uniform-clad singer of “Hit Me Baby One More Time”

Foray into Film:
Starred in box office bomb and general cheeseball embarrassment Crossroadss

And Then:
Reinvented self as newly edgy Slave 4 us; dances with python

And Then:
Marries perpetually wifebeater-clad backup dancer Kevin Federline, procreates; divorces

The Downslide:
Endured a slew of personal struggles, shaved head, stint in rehab, embarrassing VMA performance in spangly bra--still managed to release popular CD

Number of Fragrances Released in the Meantime:
Seven, including one subtly called “In Control”

Under tight conservatorship by her father, released MTV documentary re:sanity and embarked on high-grossing Circus world tour

Christina Aguilera

We first Knew Her as: Spears’ fellow Mouseketeer on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” Star Search contestant, singer of “Reflection” from Disney's Mulan

Achieved Major Stardom as: A Genie In a Bottle, baby

And Then: Released a Spanish-language album. You know, because her dad is from Ecuador. Strangely did not release Irish music CD to celebrate mother’s heritage.

And Then: Got “Dirrrty” and “Stripped,” dyed hair black, wore questionably revealing outfits, shed teen bubble gum pop image

Followed by: Vaguely Marilyn Monroe-esque re-reinvention, more mature musical style, fewer morally reprehensible music videos

Now: Canceled pending 2010 tour in midst of underwhelming ticket sales

Jessica Simpson

We first knew her as: Small-town Texan Christian singer with unreleased album (her minor Gospel label went under)

Achieved Major Stardom: Sweet Kisses album with top-charting singles “I Want to Love You Forever” and “I Think I’m In Love With You”

Plus: Dated second-tier Boy Band 98 Degrees front man Nick Lachey

And Then: Married Lachey; the two costarred as newlyweds in the cleverly named reality series Newlyweds. Gained reputation as dumb blonde for inability to distinguish between chicken and tuna

Maintained Fame With: Much-publicized and scantily-clad role in the film adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard

Downslide: Divorce, dwindling record sales, straight-to-DVD movie roles, rocky romances with John Mayer and Tony Romo. Overly publicized weight gain exacerbated by sadistic stylist with an inexplicable penchant for skintight Daisy Dukes

Now: Return to reality TV with VH1’s The Price of Beauty, serves as general muse for hairstylist Ken Paves

Mandy Moore

Achieved Major Stardom as: Opening act for boy band Backstreet Boys; released top single “Candy” featuring a music video in which the then-15 year old Moore drives a green Volkswagon Beetle

And Then: Released lightweight album I Wanna Be With You; title single featured in teen ballet movie Center Stage

And Then: Appeared in numerous films including The Princess Diaries, A Walk to Remember, Chasing Liberty, and Saved; far exceeded cinematic success of teen pop princess peers

Also: Dated Wilmer Valderamma, Andy Roddick, Zack Braff, DJ AM; settled down and married singer Ryan Adams in 2009

Should be Noted: Moore deserves some form of 90s Pop Princess prize for maintaining her down-to-earth reputation through her journey from teen star to adult celebrity, though I call for a slight point deduction for her preoccupation with and persistent attendance at Ultimate Fighting Championship events

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lurlene McDaniel Books

If you’ve ever watched a Kleenex-depleting Lifetime movie of the week and wondered what sparked within you this desire to be entertained by tragic life circumstances, it’s pretty likely Lurlene McDaniel and her deliberately tear-inducing young adult books can shoulder some of the blame. A satisfying cry can do all of us some good at times, but even the most fervently feeling among us have our limits. It may seem sort of fun at first to wallow in tragedy and despair, but after forty books featuring taglines about teens who “died too young” or “never had a chance,” it becomes a tad tiresome.
McDaniel’s loosely related teen book series operated on the principle that if one is good, several dozen must be better. Quantifying death and heart-wrenchingly tragic disease is a major undertaking--no in-bad-taste death pun intended--and apparently a challenge to which Lurlene McDaniel saw fit to rise. Even her biography on her personal website acquiesces that parents often find the themes of her books incredibly depressing and tiresome, which doesn’t sound like much of a positive sales pitch. In defense of her sob-story novels, the Random House website offers the following quote from McDaniel:

“I write the kind of books I write because I want to help kids understand that nobody gets to pick what life dishes out to them. What you do get to choose is how you respond to what life gives you. No matter what happens, life is a gift. And always worth living."

When she puts it that way sounds like an admirable endeavor--who doesn’t want to read an uplifting story full of promise and hope? Unfortunately, the books don’t always frame their inevitable tragedies in that light. McDaniel’s claim that people don’t get to choose their lot in life is certainly true and makes for a good writing philosophy in theory, though in practice her books are the stuff excessive juvenile hypochondria is made of.

I was, admittedly, a fairly devoted fan in my teen and preteen years. I can understand the mysterious allure of McDaniel’s themes. In some ways, her books romanticized the tragedy of young people suffering from life-threatening illnesses, casting them on the cover in soft-focus lighting with pensively forlorn facial expressions. While these books at times admirably offered a realistic view of teenagers with major medical issues, in other instances they veered into adolescent soap opera stock material. McDaniel clearly did put in the time and effort to research the medical terminology and circumstances, but all the underlying validity and realism in the world can’t save a premise about two friends vying for the same heart transplant.

In the case you never had the pleasure of crying your eyes out over one of these disease-stricken young adult novels, here’s a handy illustrative guide to their dripping sentimentality:

1. The books generally have a title a la Movie of the Week; something like She Died Too Young, Mother, Help Me Live, or Sometimes Love Isn’t Enough. Those are actual titles from McDaniel’s official book list--I couldn’t make this stuff up.

2. Many of Lurlene McDaniel’s novels begin with an average, healthy teenager who spontaneously develops a life-threatening condition. Though McDaniel does devote a fair amount of attention to teenagers born with some sort of medical issue, these cases are never as terrifying to healthy readers as those who go from playing soccer and shopping with friends to spending weeks at a time hooked up to monitors in the hospital. The element of “Oh-my-gosh-this-could-happen-to-me” is alluring in a terrifying way, and is justifiably one of the main criticisms issued by parents of young readers.

3. Cheesy dialogue and drama-ridden brooding is a key element of any good McDaniel work. To illustrate, observe the following passage from Reach for Tomorrow:

They returned to the canoe, got in, and paddled in silence back to the place they'd shoved off from. Once on land, Meg caught his hand. "Thank you, Eric. I really mean that."

"Um--yeah, sure," he said, but he looked totally confused in the pale light of the half moon.

Meg stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the mouth. Then she turned and hurried back toward her cabin, leaving Eric standing on the shore, shaking his head.

In nearby shadows, Morgan stood watching. So Eric had made a move and Meg had gone for it. Morgan felt an edgy spark of jealousy, an emotion he hadn't felt since before Anne died. It's a free world, he told himself. She can do anything she wants, be with anybody she wants. Still, his insides simmered.

Whether you loved or hated these emotional novels, McDaniel’s various series and stand-alone books were a young adult literary phenomenon. The popularity of her books is undeniable, offering compelling evidence that young girls love to curl up with a good sob story or forty. And in case any of you aspiring writers out there are seeking some hope and encouragement, you may want to consider taking on the genre; McDaniel’s books have been deemed so influential that Six Months to Live made it into the Library of Congress time capsule to be opened in 2089. That’s either very reassuring or very depressing--I haven’t decided yet. Either way, you may want to try your hand at cry-fest fiction--if you fail, there’s always a market for Hallmark and Lifetime Movie Network scriptwriters.

Monday, June 28, 2010

In the Meantime, Please Enjoy this Classic Post: Where's Waldo

Children of the 90s is taking care of some business...The blog will be back with some new posts later this week. Until then, please enjoy perusing this classic post on Where's Waldo back from March of '09. Thanks, everyone, and we'll be back soon!

Oh, Waldo, how you continue to thwart our valiant search efforts. Despite your obvious penchant for flamboyantly candy cane striped red and white sweater/hat combos and your tendency to take along every possible piece of travel equipment on your obscenely crowded vacations, you still manage to boggle our minds with your mysterious whereabouts. In the original book, Waldo lugs along a walking stick, sleeping bag, mallet, drinking cup, binoculars, kettle, backpack, camera, snorkel, belt, another bag, and a shovel. Clearly, if he's going get lost in a crowd, he's got every imaginable amenity to walk, sleep, pound, drink, see, boil, carry, document photographically, dive, remain in pants, store more items, or dig his way out. That's right, it makes perfect sense.

Where's Waldo? originated as a British franchise under the name "Where's Wally?" Apparently, "Wally" is some sort of a British slang term that publishers feared would drive away eager young American Waldo-searchers with its distinctively red-coat recalling familiarity, so the only logical leap was to change the title to an equally unknown and unpopular name that in no way resonated with American youth. In our typical domineering American fashion, we pulled the rug from under the British Wally and U.S. Waldo sales quickly and consistently outstripped sales of the original. If that's not a legitimate way to assert our undeserved sense of national superiority, I don't know what is.

With "Waldo-mania" sweeping the country throughout the 1990s, there seemed to be no one without vested stake or interest in finding this bespectacled excursionist. There was something oddly if inexplicably satisfying about curling up with a big hardcover picture book and focusing on crowded, chaotic scenes until your eyes crossed. It wasn't just Waldo we were after, either; he brought with him a gang of of absurd cronies and/or nemeses. There was Wanda, Waldo's pal. Woof, his faithful canine companion. After that is where things got a bit weird.

There was Wizard Whitebeard, some sort of life coach/guru who was occasionally responsible for sending Waldo on his wacky expeditions. Then of course we had Odlaw, Waldo's bizarrely evil nemesis formulated from an inverted anagram of Waldo's name. He was nearly identical to the original Waldo only his clothing and glasses were of different colors, and he has a mustache. Even as children, we were aware that mustaches signified pure, unfettered evil (there was Hitler, Stalin, and Odlaw, and we were onto their mustachioed madness). We the readers were forced to infer that Odlaw was evil by his distinctive un-Waldoness, despite the fact that we never actually caught him doing anything more than lurking in the background.

And of course, there were the Waldo Watchers, because what bumbling vacationer would travel anywhere without their 25-member posse of lookalike devotees? That's right, Waldo had an entourage. These are clearly a cheap attempt by the authors to divert our eyes with Waldo-esque color patterns and hat-stylings, but were we really to believe that by the mid-90s Waldo had 100 faithful followers who joined him on every venture?

Silly characters aside, there were reasons that Waldo books held the top spot on the New York Times' bestseller list for a composite nearly-100 weeks. If nothing else, the books placated our parents with their hypnotizing ability to keep us unmovingly focused in a single spot for an extended period of time. Waldo had it all: books, comic books, cereal boxes, a short-lived magazine (with an impressive 2 issue run!), video games, and even a TV show. However, the plot-rich TV shows with only brief frozen-screen finding games interludes were never quite enough to hold our attention in the same way.

Despite the dozens of poorly-conceived franchising paths, the Where's Waldo? books were nothing less than a phenomenon. So long as we could continue our relentless searches for our beloved hero, all was right in the world. Like most 90s trends for children, the allure was not in the flashy effects or superfluous characters, but rather in the simplicity and forthrightness of the task at hand. There is just no recapturing the magic of the moment of actually locating Waldo himself amidst a sea of impostors and villains.

So whether you grew up searching for Wally (UK) or Waldo (US), Valli (Iceland) or Walter (Germany), Effie (Israel) or Charlie (France), we were united in our common goal. No matter what you called him or where you lived in the world, we all knew Waldo as the greatest hidden holidayer of them all.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Easy Bake Ovens

You’ve got to give Easy Bake Ovens some credit where due--they managed to stay alive in the marketplace a good 40 years before Consumer Product and Safety Commission gave any consideration to the fact that children could burn their fingers while playing with the toy. They either had some really fabulous marketing campaigns or parents so loved the tasty pastry delicacies provided by their child labor bakery sweatshops that they were willing to overlook the potential risks. Then again, perhaps any kid that manages to burn herself on a dinky 100 watt light bulb probably had it coming. After all, that’s just a basic Easy Bake Oven evolutionary principle.

Regardless of their inherent safety risks, Easy Bake Ovens were a highly coveted item for young girls as early as the 1960s. The original Kenner-produced 1963 version was modeled after a conventional oven, though later incarnations were styled to resemble microwaves--which makes perfect sense, considering how often most of us bake cookies in the microwave. The sleeker design in the updated version gave it a more novel technological feel, possibly to counteract the raging stereotypes associated with continually providing young girls with toys that teach them the value of staying in the kitchen where they belong.

Feminists may not have been especially keen on little girls playing with model kitchens and learning domestic complacency, but the cultural implications did little to hamper kids’ insatiable desire to own one of these functioning appliances. Children tend not to care too much about the longstanding impact of their toy selection, though, so the head-shaking of women’s rights advocates held little bearing on their playtime choices. Kids just like what they like, and for the most part, a chance to bake cookies on their own under a little light bulb falls into that category.

As our moms (or dads, to be fair) were generally unlikely to relinquish kitchen privileges to an 8-year old, the Easy Bake Oven provided a small-scale alternative. Though parents usually aren’t especially keen on toys that are overpriced and prone to generating heavy clean-up, it was often a fair trade to keep us good and occupied for an hour or two. When weighing the options of cost, mess, and safety risk, sixty minutes of quiet tended to win out as a priority.

Like Power Wheels cars and Moon Shoes, Easy Bake Ovens were among the most status-building of 80s and 90s toys. Unsurprisingly, these toys building us the most playground credibility tended to also be the most expensive. We all had a friend whose parents were kind enough to grant them ownership of one of these enviable playthings, leading to incessant begging and pleading for our very own.

Even if you were lucky enough to have your own EBO, these devices were decidedly overrated. Baking anything took a great deal of effort for a relatively small payoff. Actually, a literally small payoff: many of the tasty treats that looked so life-sizedly delicious in the commercials were proportionately lacking in real life. Brownies and cupcakes are universally tasty, sure, but not quite as satisfying when the whole thing can be chomped down in two bites.

If nothing else, these ovens probably helped develop some patience in young children. Kids are usually driven by instant gratification, so it’s pretty incredible to think any of us had it somewhere within our antsy juvenile beings to wait the length of time it took for a lightbulb to bake a batch of cookies. I suppose the 100-watt bulbs in later models are a step up from the original 60-watt model, but I would never now consider trying to bake a mini bundt cake against the heat of my reading lamp. It’s bright, sure, but I’ve never really considered it as an oven-like source of heat.

In the mid 2000s, Hasbro issued a recall on Easy Bake Ovens due to some cases of severe burns, the most severe of which resulted in amputations. Apparently the aforementioned impatient children were greedily sticking their little hands into the ovenfront and getting their tiny fingers stuck in the heating chamber. Ouch.

Luckily the problems have since been ironed out (though hopefully not with a real iron--too much high heat.) The Easy Bake is back on the market and better than ever. Those ads are still as convincing as they were 15 years ago. Deep down, I know I can use the big girl oven like any adult, but there’s just something so magical about cooking by lightbulb. In that spirit, I think I’ll cook my next batch of cupcakes by lamplight as a tribute.. Yum.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

90s Teen Magazines

A quick perusal of 90s teen magazines leads us to a simple conclusion: publishers don’t have particularly high standards for their publications or expectations of their target demographic. Though arguably many magazines for grown women stoop to an equal level of insulting stupidity, teen magazines in their heyday functioned on the assumption that teenagers required a dumbed-down of grown up information. While perhaps an elevated level of discourse could have encouraged teenage girls to engage intelligently with their reading material, the general consensus was that they would rather read about their peer’s fake embarrassing moments.

That’s not to say all teen magazines featured solely vapid airhead-in-training material, but for every informed, timely article these publications featured more than their fair share of silliness. Whatever qualms feminists may have found with their content, one thing was certain: teen girls ate these up. Content was almost an afterthought; before the wane of printed publications in the 2000s, many of us were pretty happy to lap up whatever these magazines fed us. It may not have always been the most enlightened perspective, but they were arguably fun reads.


Featuring standard columns like “Say Anything” and “It Happened to Me,” YM once held a major corner of the teen magazine market. “Say Anything” gave us allegedly true first-person account snippets of self-proclaimed most humiliating moments. For any of us who ever wrote in to the column with a group of our giggling friends, though, it was clear that the majority of these stories were completely made up. They always went a little something like, “and then this happened and then this happened, and if that weren’t enough, then I ended up doing this!” Like their Cosmo confession counterparts, most of these moments seemed just a bit too bad to have actually happened to anyone.

In the real life drama section, we all had a monthly opportunity to be frightened by some obscure disease or life event that was indubitably unlikely to happen to us. YM advised young girls on health, boys, and other pertinent topics, repackaging many of the same topics year after year and glossing them up with current fashions.


Seventeen supposedly catered to an older adolescent audience (the magazine’s name should tip you off on the target age range) but in reality, its allure was more powerful to young teens. Just the idea that we were reading a magazine catered to 17-year olds at the mere age of 13 made us feel powerfully mature and worldly. It wasn’t of course, but it felt exciting nonetheless.

Like YM, Seventeen featured embarrassing moments columns and advice articles, though perhaps its most favored features were its monthly quizzes. Even as 13-year olds, most of us were savvy enough to outsmart the quiz; until the mag got wise enough to ascribe specific point values to each answer varying by question, we were wise to their consistent A, B, and C answers throughout. It usually went something like this: A was over the top, B was just right, and C was glaringly deficient. Miraculously, we all came through with the just-right classification. Remarkable.


Completing the teen magazine market trifecta was Teen, holding a similar market share to and YM and Seventeen. In many respects, these publications were nearly indistinguishable from one another: they mostly featured the same tired advice columns, style news, and “real life” features. Their embarrassing moments section, “Why Me?” was essentially the same as YM’s “Say Anything” feature, though the similarities did not make the stories any less amusing. Teen did feature its fair share of personal essays entitled “True Stories from Real Teens,” which were occasionally informative but more often just gave all of us uninteresting readers out there hope that we too someday could be published within the hallowed pages of Teen.


While a few of these magazines are no longer around, none seem to have left the same void in my life that accompanied the departure of Sassy. While it did cover many of the same issues as the other teen magazines on the market, Sassy often took a unique spin with an edgier feel. Unlike its teenybopperish peers, Sassy devoted space to indie musicians and feminist-minded ideals. When the mag was folded into Teen in the mid-90s, it took with it its adherence to all things outside of the mainstream. I held onto my Jane magazine subscription (created by Sassy editor Jane Pratt) for years hoping it would fulfill the Sassy-shaped hole in my life, but it was never quite the same.

Teen People

In 1998, Teen People started the wave of teen versions of popular grown-up magazines--following the teenification of people came Teen Elle, Teen Vogue, Cosmo Girl! and many more. While many of these adolescent magazines are now defunct--Teen People included--for a brief period following their debut there was a major buzz of excitement about these teen-specific editions of major magazines.

Like its grown-up counterpart Teen People featured stories about celebrities, though possibly less salaciously than typical People magazine coverage. Teen People premiered to high fanfare and adolescent excitement in 1998, but by 2006 People announced its teen publication would now be relegated to online articles. It seemed the market on celebrity news was remarkably oversaturated, particularly as most teens could find the dirt online for free. While it was a novel idea at its conception, Teen People failed to hold our long-term adolescent attention spans.

Tiger Beat/J-17/BOP

On the lower end of the teen magazine spectrum lay the glorified pinup publications. These magazines claimed to have articles, but for the most part they were stocked with fluffy interviews with teen stars accompanied by fold-out posters. It was by no means educational or informative by any stretch of the imagination, but it did encourage our mindless idle idol preoccupation.
If you’re looking to reminisce about kid’s magazines, check out this post--entirely devoted to children’s publications

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dunston Checks In

No matter how frequently it happens, I’m always a bit surprised to see the critical thrashing taken by some of my favorite childhood movies. As a kid, my friends and I were convinced movies like Dunston Checks In was among the cinematic creme de la creme. A quick trip to aggregate ratings site Rottens Tomatoes reveals a different picture entirely; among the most positive comments is one claiming the film’s only redeeming quality is that it may possibly keep your children quiet and complacent for ninety minutes. Ouch.

As a general rule, puppets and animals are usually fail-safe stock characters with which to cast your children’s film. Not only do they come significantly cheaper than big name stars, their novelty casts a sort of unbreakable spell over impressionable children. While their accompanying adults may have been beating themselves over their heads with their own shoes to get through an hour and a half of monkey debauchery, children were gleefully taken in by the cuteness of cinema critters.

Dunston Checks In follows the adorable animal character formula pretty closely, though it does offer the semi-subverted trope twist of putting the animal protagonist on the side of the bad guys. Dunston is a cute orangutan, sure, but he ultimately is an accessory in the heist of some major jewels. I’m not sure what sort of criminal charges could be pressed against a monkey, but Dunston makes a good case for convicting simians.

Truthfully, the movie could be titled “random orangutan antics haphazardly arranged around a flimsy plot.” Dunston Checks In seems determined to insert its title monkey character into as many zany situations as possible, with little attention paid to common sense or anything related to real life situations. Of course, this is a children’s movie we’re talking about here, so that set up is not necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, this simplified plot model mash-up of Dunston’s gags and practical jokes is far more adept at holding children’s attention than a sensible linear plot could ever be.

Dunston Checks In focuses on upscale hotel owner Robert Grant (Jason Alexander), a widower with two young sons. Though the hotel is already rated at five stars, Grant finds out a six-star rating may soon be available. Determined to achieve the higher status, he sets out to vie for this new level of luxury validation.

In a classic case of 90s comedy misunderstanding, mysterious guest Lord Rutledge (Rupert Everett) is mistaken for the hotel inspector. Grant and Co. see Rutledge’s careful inspection of the hotel interior and assume him to be the incognito inspector, though in reality he is surveying the scene for a heist. I smell the onset of some hilarious hijinks.

Rutledge, for no better reason than to set up the shaky plot of a children’s movie, has an orangutan in tow who assists in carrying out his thievery missions. Dunston’s owner is less than hospitable to his monkey companion, leading the orangutan to flee to the hotel ducts and end up in the company of Grant’s sons Kyle and Brian. In turn, the boys try their best to convince the hotel staff about the ape on the premises, but Dunston’s impressive stealth makes him nearly invisible to the other hotel occupants.

As you can imagine, hilarity ensues--at least from a child’s perspective. An additional antagonist is stirred into the pot when Grant hires an exterminator (Paul Reubens) to take care of the hotel’s monkey problem. The film offers us a slew of further humorous misunderstandings, ultimately culminating in some family-friendly semi-schmaltzy but generally sweet sentimentality.

Dunston Checks In isn’t high art by any means, but many children of the 90s will still probably tune in for the nostalgia value when the movie is on TV. Like most family comedies, the humor serves to delight the easily amused children while hopefully not offending any of the parents in attendance. Even as an adult, though, there’s something sort of charming about a major animal character--no matter what he does, it’s sort of cute and funny. The story would never have made it past script screeners if Dunston was a person, but as an orangutan he’s got just about enough cuteness capital to win us over.

Monday, June 21, 2010

80s and 90s Educational Toys

We’ve spent a lot of time here at Children of the 90s talking about the many, many ways the adults in our lives tricked us into learning things by slipping educational elements into seemingly recreational endeavors. What we’ve glossed over, however, are the many toys our parents and teachers provided for us with the express purpose of education. These toys didn’t dance around their true nature with all sorts of flashy distractions; instead, they made playtime suspiciously similar to school time. Kind of a bummer.

Though our initial instinct for free time was probably not to play with these teaching toys, for some reason or other many of us ended up spending countless hours with them. Whether through parental persuasion or limited classroom free play choices, we often willingly picked up a Speak & Spell or a See n’ Say and engaged in its attempts at educational endeavors. These toys may not have held their own against the mindless allure of a Skip-It or Super Soaker, but for the most part they still hold that endearing nostalgic appeal.

Speak & Spell It’s amazing how quickly technology novelty can depreciate. Once upon a time, a talking electronic seemed incredibly high-tech for a children’s toy. Granted, the novelty was probably subdued a bit by the toy’s strictly educational premise, but there was something distinctly charming about that robotic voice emanating from the Speak & Spell.
Speak & Spell (and its multi-subject counterparts Speak & Read and Speak & Math) were the ultimate device for tricking kids into learning academic material during their leisure time. Cleverly disguised as games like hangman and memory, Speak & Spell bore into our heads valuable lessons about prefixes and suffixes, homophones, and word patterns. It was all just about as exciting as the machine’s monotonous voice.


The original 2-XL debuted in the late 70s--around the same time as the Speak & Spell prototype. Most children of the 90s probably better remember the 1992 reintroduction released by Tiger Electronics that replaced the original’s 8-tracks with cassette tapes. The interactive buttons we used to answer 2-XL trivia questions seem primitive in comparison to today’s highly complex children’s electronics, but we were all still easily amused enough at the time to be won over by the idea that we had our very own robot.

Teddy Ruxpin

Teddy Ruxpin was either very novel or very creepy, depending on your tolerance for animatronics. On one hand, his moving mouth and eyes made the stories he read via audiocassette come alive. On the other, the audiocassettes made him come alive, which for many children bordered on a traumatic experience. For all of us who harbored fears of our toys coming to life (a la Chucky, not Toy Story) Teddy Ruxpin was the stuff of nightmares.
Talk n’Play

For weeks I have been trying to remember what this devi
ce was called; a quick survey of my friends’ childhood memories led me to believe I had possibly made it up and it did not actually exist. Lo and behold, though, through the handy power of Google, its realness has been affirmed. Please tell me some of you owned this device, because I’d hate to be the only one reminiscing about its awesomeness.
The Talk n’ Play came with a variety of books, mostly featuring characters from Sesame Street and Alvin and the Chipmunks. It’s humorous now to realize I was once so wowed by a contraption that allowed me to electronically choose my own adventure with the press of a button--essentially the most basic function of every computer game. Nonetheless, this device once entertained me endlessly; I’m convinced if my Talk n’ Play were reunited, my delight in its reactivity to my responses would be just as exciting. I do think, though, that I would still feel guilty about defying Grover’s moratorium against pressing the red button in the book, “Don’t Push the Red Button.”


Playskool’s Alphie was about as simple as a robot toy could get. It had relatively few electronic functions; most of the learning action relied on interchangeable cardboard cards you inserted into his display window. The Alphie toy was an educationa
l staple in 80s preschools, entertaining toddlers with its low-level interactivity and hard-to-break durability. Playskool still makes the Alphie robot, but its space-age exterior and digital display bears little resemblance to the Alphie of our day.

See n’ Say

I know this came out in the 60s, but they were such a common presence in 80s and 90s homes and classrooms that I couldn’t leave the See n’ Say off the list. Without their handy pull string apparatuses, we may never have found out exactly w
hat the cow or sheep say. For the record, it’s moo and baah. Thanks, See n’ Say!

At first glance, these building blocks may not seem especially educational. However, if any of us made even the vaguest attempt to replicate the awesome full-functioning K’nex machinery from the commercials, we quickly found ourselves in the midst of a learning experience.

The ads made it look so easy: just follow the ins
tructions and you will soon be the proud owner/operator of a spinning ferris wheel or speedy go-kart. In reality, though, these designs were incredibly difficult to duplicate, particularly without the aid of constant adult intervention.

Brain Quest
Though it’s probably incorrect to classify these trivia booklets as toys, their arguably superior educational value in comparison to the other playthings on this list earns them a verified spot. While many of these other toys made some halfhearted attempt to hide their educational elements under a veneer of fun and games, Brain Quest made no efforts to depict its purpose as anything less than a useful learning tool, even including grade level classifications against which we could measure our intelligence. These classifications were useful and ego-boosting when we managed to answer a question from the 6th grade set as a mere 4th grader, but not quite as self esteem-building when you failed to deliver a basic 1st grade fact.

Note: If you’re looking for educational computer games, have no fear: I haven’t blatantly omitted them. There’s an entire post devoted to singing their praises. Check it out.

Friday, June 18, 2010

90s Disney Ballads

If you’re in the market for some new potentially embarrassing musical material to get you through a mind-numbingly dull road trip or your daily shower singing session, look no further than the 90s’ collection of powerful Disney ballads. These songs are just begging to be sung by warblingly off-key amateurs; sure, Disney ballads are impressive in their original form performed by respected industry favorites, but they’re that much more fun when butchered by passionate novices.At least that’s how I see it. My former roommates who had to endure those strained high notes emanating from our shared bathroom’s shower--well, they may not feel quite the same way. Sorry, guys.

So next time you’re looking to belt one out, consider partaking in one of these delightfully cheesy Disney power ballads from the 90s. It certainly won’t earn you any street credibility at the local karaoke bar, but it will leave you with a satisfying blend of nostalgia and sore vocal chords. If you’re ready to make that sort of sacrifice in the name of musical animated classics, here are Children of the 90s’ recommendations for either most inspiring or most painful--depending on your level of vocal expertise. Oh, and wherever available I stuck in some videos with lyrics to facilitate your sing-alongs. You’re welcome.

Whole New World (Aladdin)

What would Aladdin and Jasmine’s magic carpet ride be without this catchy duet? It really makes the moment. I do sort of like that the Wikipedia entry on the song includes its translated titles in the foreign dubbed versions. For example, the mainland China version is called, “Meet by Chance.” In France it’s “This Blue Dream.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring to my American ears. “This Bluuuuuuue Dreeeeeeeam....” Hmm. Not working for me.

Part of Your World (The Little Mermaid)

I will admit, when I look at that stuff, I do find it to be awfully neat. In fact, the collection seems to be just about complete. It just screams, “Think that Ariel is a girl who has everything!” But then I must fight my instincts and realize that the human artifacts in Ariel’s undersea cave can never equal the glory of having human legs. She may rock the shell bra, but that’s not enough to get her out there walking on one of those--what do you call it? Streeeeets.

Beauty and the Beast (Beauty and the Beast)

There’s something uniquely charming about a ballad crooned by a kindly matronly teapot. It’s just that much better when you find out that teapot is actually Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote; she’s got serious cross-generational appeal. Grandparents, rejoice!

Reflection (Mulan)

You know you’re looking at a serious Disney ballad when the single version is performed by Christina Aguilera--she can really belt it out. “Reflection” has just the right balance of heartfelt emotion and grrrrl power. It’s like watching the Spice Girls rescue a puppy. Kind of. Okay, not really. You come up with a good comparison, then. Really, give it your best shot. Tough, huh?

You’ll Be In My Heart (Tarzan)

Just in case you ever wondered what it would sound like if the mastermind behind “Sussudio” recorded a heartwarming Disney ballad, here’s your opportunity to find out. Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart” charted well on the Billboard Top 100, rising to the 21st spot--not bad for a Disney song.

Colors of the Wind (Pocahontas)

Speaking of decently-charting Disney songs, Vanessa Williams’ end-credits version of this Pocahontas ballad peaked at #4 on the US charts. It’s undeniably cheesy, but at least it has an underlying message. Well, it does if you ignore the fact that Disney completely ignored all actual historical and/or cultural elements of the real Pocahontas story in their retelling. It’s a message, sure, but probably not a historically accurate one. Oh well--at least it’s catchy.

Can You Feel the Love Tonight? (The Lion King)

Well? Can you? The falling-in-love-with-an-old-platonic-friend-in-a-matter-of-minutes montage certainly helps move things along at a steady pace. With the aid of these handy visual, you will indeed feel the love. Tonight.

Runner Up: Circle of Life. Only you can memorize the words in the intro, though. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.

Go The Distance (Hercules)

I’m not ashamed to tell you I kind of like the Michael Bolton version that plays out the credits. Well, not that ashamed. Perhaps I should be more ashamed to admit I have the Spanish version--performed by Ricky Martin, no less--on my iPod.

God Help the Outcasts (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

I felt compelled to include a song from all of the Disney musical animated films of the decade, but truthfully this one doesn’t pack quite the same punch as some of the others. Sorry, Esmeralda--you’re just not doing it for me here. There’s cheesy and then there’s over-the-top milking for emotional responses. Add in the Bette Midler version and it’s just too much to bear.

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