Wednesday, November 4, 2009
The 90s gave us a lot of music genre crossover, one of the more major being the infusion of R&B music into the pop scene. TLC was amongst these groups to recognize the endless opportunity in the teenybopper-filled pop music world and catered their music and public personas accordingly. They suffered no shortage of media attention with their pop- friendly gimmicks. The trio wore ridiculously over-the-top ensembles and sported condoms as fashion accessories. You have to admit, they were effective in their quest to get noticed. A condom eye patch will do that for you.
TLC became wildly popular throughout the 90s, as much for their music as the ever-mounting public peeks into their personal lives. The headlines on these girls became increasingly dramatic, but they seemed to have a type of public resilience that allowed them to maintain their popularity through adversity. Anyone who can burn down her boyfriend's house and keep her pop icon image intact is probably deserving of some kind of best bounce-backability award.
The group was made up of Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, and Rozanda "Chili" Thomas, proving that people are willing to overlook stupid stage names if your music is catchy enough. They found some modest success with their first CD, but by the time of their sophomore release CrazySexyCool in 1994, they were on their way to legitimate musical stardom. The album performed extremely well, skyrocketing the girls from CD bargain bin dwellers to proud new owners of a slew of screaming manic TRL fans.
CrazySexyCool sold over 11 million copies, cementing the girls' status as pop stars giving us hits like:
As a kid, I had no idea that "Creep" had anything to do with a woman's cheating on her her unfaithful boyfriend to garner the attention she so sorely needed. In all truth, I just loved the silky pajamas they wore in the video. I didn't quite understand the lyrics, but I knew one thing for sure: I would sit pretty in silk pajamas on a color-coordinated backdrop if it was the last thing I did.
"Waterfalls" was TLC's biggest hit, quickly ascending to iconic 90s song status. Again, as children it's more than likely we misunderstood the references to drug dealing and HIV, but boy did we love that video where they stood on the water.
The CD spurned two other singles, "Diggin' On You" and "Red Light Special" that enjoyed a fair amount of success. I'm the first to admit I didn't understand one word of "Red Light Special" till I heard it playing in the background in The 40 Year Old Virgin. You would think the brothel-based music video would have given me some clues, but I just thought they had a really dirty house.
Right around the time of CrazySexyCool's impending release, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes's personal life essentially imploded. Though she'd been forthcoming with details about her rough childhood and struggle with alcohol, I doubt anyone saw coming what happened next. Lopes had a turbulent relationship with Atlanta Falcon's player Andre Rison, so she set his house on fire. You know, like the rest of us do when we have squabbles with our loved ones.
Lopes claimed she had been trying to burn his shoes in the bathtub as retribution for his poor treatment of her and his alleged infidelity. Clearly not armed with an astute understanding of flammability, Lopes contended she had not intended to set the entire mansion aflame. A pioneer in the young celebrity circuit, Lopes opted to enter rehab, which at that point was still considered a legitimate celebrity action rather than the cheap cop-out we know it to be today.
Despite the drama, TLC had a hit record on their hands. They took home two shiny Grammys in 1996, looking to all the world like an incredibly successful enterprise. Soon thereafter, however, the girls filed for bankruptcy, adding more fuel to the fire (no Left Eye reference intended) of their very public personal problems. They'd gotten suckered into an unfair contract that left them with a take-home pay on par with my own. In case you were unaware, that means they were living in near-poverty, or at least an incredibly skewed financial reality to their lifestyles of fame and fortune.
T-Boz had been battling Sickle Cell Anemia for several years, and the weight of her medical bills compounded with Left Eye's insurance and legal fees were effectively a monetary death sentence. They eventually managed to renogotiate their contracts and settle their legal issues, but not before seriously tarnishing their pop star images.
The girls moved on to pursue various respective solo projects, none of which were on par with TLC level fame. In 1999, the girls broke their career hiatus and released FanMail. The album was again impressively successful, especially considering all the negative media buzz they'd been brewing over the past few years. The album produced two number one hits:
"No Scrubs" described deadbeat guys, emphasizing their unemployment, lack of interest in upward mobility, and most importantly, lack of car. As I was in middle school at the time, this meant very little to me as I had little concern of an ambitionless seventh grader sponging off me for milk money. Instead, I just really liked that part when they went, "Noooooooooo. Scruuuuuuuuubs (no no)".
"Unpretty" was far more of a message song, giving us the equivalent of modern-day Dove Soap commercials. The song emphasized our need to love ourselves. Unfortunately, I was way more interested in their suggestion of buying all the makeup that MAC could make, thus saving up my allowance for an extended period of time.
Around this point, the tension between Watkins/Thomas and Lopes came to a head, stirring a feud amongst the band members. All sorts of threats were made, with few carried out. Tragically, amidst the dispute Lopes was killed in a car crash prior ot the release of their album 3D. Though the band had been on the brink of demise, her death shook the group adn the pop scene dramatically.
This wasn't the end of TLC per se, but it did mark the end of an era. The surviving members released a greatest hits album and starred in a reality show cut from American Idol cloth entitled R U the Girl, selecting a girl to record a song with them for their upcoming album. The effort was pretty underwhelming, though. With Lopes gone, the group was incomplete.
Though they've announced plans for a new album, I prefer to remember TLC for what they were: a pioneering R&B pop act that gave us catchy hit after catchy hit. It didn't matter that as children much of the lyrical content went over our heads. We loved it all the same.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Toward the end of the 20th century, business proprietors were looking at children through an entirely new perspective. Children in the 80s and 90s had far more pocket money than their predecessors and were thus capable of constituting their own demographic, meaning greedy adults could now push their wares on an entirely new consumer group. Direct marketing at children was a wise move, of course. It's way easier to convince a 7-year old that they want something than it is to do the same to an adult. They served it up and we consumed it, no questions asked. If their advertising claimed I would love it, I was wholly certain this was the case. Why would my TV lie to me? It's a respected member of my family.
Back in a time when print journalism was more than just a vintage throwback, children's magazines were all the rage. Our parents liked them because they taught us the valuable life skill of sitting still in one place for more than five minutes at a time. We liked them because they spoke to us personally, whether through adorable animal pictures or video game tips. Whatever your fancy, there was a magazine producer out there trying to capitalize on it.
The creation of Nickelodeon Magazine was by no means a big leap. Kids loved Nickelodeon on TV, so the logical next step would be to deliver it directly to their doorsteps and further mesmerize them with Nickelodeon characters, shows, and merchandise. The original concept had been a cross-promotion with Pizza Hut restaurants, offering a free Nickelodeon Magazine with purchase. Kids like pizza, kids like Nickelodeon, everyone wins. The mag soon expanded to a regular circulation, offering kids a Nickelodeon-tinted view of the world all while selling us Gak and giving us interviews with our favorite fictional Nicktoon characters. As someone who was very curious about Oblina from Aaah! Real Monsters' life outside the set, I'd like to say thank you.
Sports Illustrated Kids
Adults are always thinking up sneaky ways to infuse educational practices into our everyday pastimes. Sports Illustrated Kids was no exception, giving us the sports we love at the price of reading for enjoyment. It was a trade-off many kids were willing to make and parents were more than pleased to shell out for monthly. The magazine actually won the Distinguished Achievement for Excellence in Educational Publishing Award* eleven times, proving that sports and education can go hand-in-hand. All the while, we were thinking we were just reading an exciting interview with Magic Johnson and they secretly had us learning. Go figure.
American Girl Magazine
I don't know how your childhoods shaped up, but mine was largely driven by the force of my desire to immerse myself in all things American Girl. I never received my oft-coveted overpriced doll (another handily educational tie-in to the American Girl book series) but I did lust monthly after the human-sized clothing options the American Girl catalog modeled after Kirsten the pioneering Swede. Imagine my delight to find the franchise created a magazine, further extending the reach of American Girl's extensive empire. The magazine featured craft ideas, advice columns, contests, and all sorts of other material certain to ignite a desire to own all the American Girl merchandise ever manufactured. Now if only they'd had the in-store with-doll tea parties in my day.
It's a scientifically proven fact that children love cute animals. It's also a fact that parents are seeking educational opportunities at every unsuspecting turn. Hence we got tricked into learning zoologically significant information all the while we thought we were just flipping through a photo series on otters and puffins. The commercials for these babies were so exciting and convincing, it was enough to make us overlook the fact that we were essentially doing voluntary extracurricular science homework.
Can it be true? A publication that offers us tricks, tips, and hints on our favorite Nintendo games? Nintendo Power was a legitimate revelation to many joystick-gripping youths, giving them the inside information they so desperately craved. The marketing strategy was genius: the over 3 million members of the Nintendo Fun Club received the first issue free, after which a million or so took the plunge to subscribe. The magazine knew its audience well and delivered pages of Nintendo-themed guides, some of which featured the oft-coveted cheats. Any magazine that can teach me to cheat at a video game is okay in my book. That's enjoying reading at its finest.
Fox Kids Club "Totally Kids"
Yes, a few hours of children's programming on Saturday morning is totally deserving of its own magazine. Hey, whatever works. The magazine had a pretty wide circulation and even pulled some big name celebrity interviews, so judging by results I'd say Fox Kids made out pretty well on the magazine front. This pamphlet of a publication was filled with comics starring our favorite Fox Kids characters, promotions for Fox Kids shows, and of course some games and puzzles thrown in for good measure. Let me just say, I rocked those wordfinds. Just try to diagonal/backwards Babs Bunny on me. I'll find it. Just try me.
I know this pic isn't of Tiger Beat or Bop per se, but I just couldn't resist. I mean, look at that selection!
These flimsy fan mags were filled with cheesy foldout pinups of our favorite teen heartthrobs, their lack of content compensated for with glossy grinning celebrities. I've lumped the two magazines together because not only were they published by the same company, they often featured the exact same pictures and interviews. Why exactly they needed two separate magazine for this is beyond me, but as long as they keep giving me two page mini-mag spreads of JTT, I'll be happy.
These may not have been the most substantial sources of literary content, but they did play a major role in getting kids to enjoy reading. Yes, much of the content involved marketing toward us and trying to sell us useless crap while promoting their parent company, but as kids we were more than willing to go along with it. The magazines allowed kids to be kids, speaking to us at our level while discussing the topics that interested us. If we ended up begging our parents for Samantha dolls or Moon Shoes somewhere along the way, well then so be it.
Honorable Mention Classic Non 80s/90s-Specific Favorites: Highlights, MAD, Ranger Rick Magazine
*This award later went on to win the longest award name award
Monday, November 2, 2009
In the spirit of Halloween, it seems worthwhile to hearken back to a time when the holiday was less about wearing lingerie and animal ear-handbands and more about giving ourselves movie-induced nightmares. Sure, we're trading one vice for another, but that's really just splitting hairs. You know, to put in our bubbling cauldrons and to bring forth from which a magical potion.
While there was no shortage of horror movies in the 90s, we also got some family friendlier fare thrown in the mix. 1993's Hocus Pocus gave us a little bit of spookiness with a better measure of humor to soften the impact. So what if I still have an insatiable urge to hide under the bed whenever I hear Sarah Jessica Parker singing "Come Little Children?" It's still totally worth it.
See what I mean? That is seriously creepy. Also, is it just me or does is she showing an inordinate amount of cleavage for this being a children's movie? I wouldn't have noticed at the time, of course, being far too traumatized by that haunting song, but now it seems marginally suspect.
Hocus Pocus is the story of three witches, sisters who are seeking to circumvent the aging process by giving themselves eternal youth. As we all know, the only means of doing this is by sucking the life out of a living, breathing, vital child. Now that sounds like a movie I want to take my children to. Hey kids! Guess what? Remember that time you forgot to make your bed? Well, do it one more time, and three terrifying witches will swoop into your room unannounced, extract your lifebreath, and leave your useless corpse strewn across the bed. I don't know about you, but I'd be fluffing the pillows and resetting the duvet the instant I heard that one.
The three Sanderson sisters, Winnifred (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy), and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) find their unsuspecting juvenile victim in Emily Binx. Her brother Thackery (because, hey, this is the 1600s and people were partial to the name Thackery) tries to intervene but is forced to watch as they drain the last drop of life from his innocent sister. Again, there's a way to start a children's movie.
Resisting the allure of Thackery's youth, the Sanderson sisters opt instead to doom him to eternal life in the body of a black cat. Conveniently, they give him the gift of speech, which I can't imagine is relevant in any other way than setting up a plot line for the present day story. After I saw it here and then later in Sabrina the Teenage Witch I just pretty much assumed it was a common practice to turn people in wittily quipping English-speaking black cats with eternal life.
If this weren't already a traumatizing enough beginning for a children's movie, the three sisters are subsequently arrested under suspicion of practicing witchcraft and hanged for their alleged crimes. There's nothing quite like a good hanging to get a children's movie going. It's that secret ingredient that really gives it that extra kick.*
Before their executions, the Sandersons thought fit to cast a spell that would bring them back to life if an innocent virgin just happened to enter their historic home and light their ominous black-flamed candle. This of course begs the question of if they could imbue that much foresight into their deaths, why couldn't they just witch themselves alive in the first place? Lucky for Disney, kids aren't especially adept at plot investigation, so we all just sort of went with it.
The cat version of Thackery Binx makes it his unending life mission to stop the curse from being fulfilled, but it wouldn't be much of a story if he was just really really good at it. To his credit, he kept it pretty safe for oh, say, 300 years, and we would all get a bit sloppy after working the same gig for that long. Some pesky local modern-day kids come across the house and of course feel compelled to light the black flame candle. Because that's what teenagers do to be rebellious: go around from haunted museum to haunted museum unobtrusively lighting lights.
So we've got our witches back and the unavoidable hi-jinks ensue. They gather up some of their undead friends and make a night of it, as they've only got until sunrise to suck some serious lifeblood. It's Halloween, of course, meaning lifeblood-filled children are frolicking about carefreely through the streets blinded by their love of free candy. I have to say, it's not looking too promising for their sticky-fingered futures.
Somehow our villains end up at a Halloween party, where they're mistaken for well-costumed entertainment. Bette Midler performs her requisite over-the-top musical number ("I'll Put a Spell on You") and entrances the town's partying adults into an endless night of dancing. Really, endless. The witches leave them to die from dance-induced exhaustion. Sounds like a good party.
A few more plot twists and we've got our singing enchantress Sarah summoning the town's innocent and undoubtedly delicious children. Soon the witches have our heroes and their young companions in their grasp and everything seems pretty doomed. Of course, this is Disney, so we get our all-important last minute rah-rah the-kids-win moment, and it's a happy ending after all. Binx turns back into a human, which is super, of course, because he's 300-something years old and I'm sure all he wants is to be a teenager forever, Twilight style. Okay, fine, that didn't happen, instead he sort of creepily passes through to the afterlife to chill with his dead sister. How...sweet.
The movie was panned by critics, who obviously couldn't see it for what it was: a silly, over-the-top, campy film filled with gimmicks and cliches. In other words, a Disney movie. Over the years, however, the movie's developed quite a loyal cult fan base who delight in its ridiculousness and pure camp. It's morphed into a sort of Halloween classic, the type of movie that gets yearly TV play and is somehow designated a classic despite the fact that it didn't perform especially well in theaters. Regardless of its route to becoming a Halloween staple, Hocus Pocus has all the makings of a good children's movie. Well, except for the witchcraft, hangings, and de-lifeblooding. We'll just overlook that.
*By kick I mean nightmares, nightmares, nightmares