1992: Breaking the Rules for the Year Things Broke


So far in this project, I’ve tried to avoid talking about the events of the years themselves and instead talk about the particulars of the texts themselves. I was planning to do the same for today’s and just gloss over why this year will always stand out to me, but then I started looking at what I had picked to represent 1992 and realized there was really no way not to talk about it when all three of these were so tied to it at its core.

In 1992 my dad died of cancer. He passed away on Halloween morning and, I still don’t fully understand why, but that night my sister and I still went trick-or-treating. We were nine and 13 and my mom says she thought we just wanted to feel normal one last time before the grieving really set in. So we went out in our costumes and collected our candy. The next day started a new chapter of my life and a stretch of a couple of years where I tried to figure out my feelings and replaced what I lost with movies, TV, and anything I could find to make it hurt a little less.

I wasn’t an orphan, but I nonetheless felt a deep connection to Jack Kelly and the characters of the Disney musical Newsies because only two of them really have parents at all. Not only did they get by fine without them, they sang, they danced, and they damned the man with their newspaper delivery strike. And they were super cute in that Bop Magazine sort of way. All of the guys did their best to project toughness, even though a lot of them couldn’t exactly pull it off what with their years of dance training and appearances on the Nickelodeon variety show Roundhouse. But they put up a good front.

I did the same thing. Went to school every day, acted as normal as I could. Stayed the outgoing cheerful girl I was before, kept up my dance classes and competition appearances, and even performed in the school talent show to a song from, you guessed it, Newsies. In retrospect, it was pretty compartmentalized. I don’t remember once talking to my friends about how much I missed my dad or how things at home were so much different. Perhaps at nine I just lacked the vocabulary to express it, but at home, I felt it.

As my mom tells it, I cried every day for at least a year. I would come home from school and activities and during that time in the evening before bed, my mom would try to read to me and I would just cry about how much I missed my dad. She bore the brunt of pretty much all of it until she found a group through the local Hospice that put kids who lost family members in a room together once a week to talk it out.

There is a similar hole in the shiny veneer of Newsies. Their leader Jack (Christian Bale long before he became a husky whispering eccentric) is by himself on the New York City streets after spending a night with his new friend David and his family. As Jack walks down the fire escape in a shot straight out of West Side Story, Jack starts to sing the movie’s lone ballad, Santa Fe. He spends the rest of his movie putting up a front to his fellow Newsies that his parents are going to come and get him and move out west, but in reality, Jack is an orphan. This song is a time for him to disclose how he tries to convince himself the freedom of no family is better, but he still acknowledges that he wants a different life and, while he may be singing about a city, the New Mexico setting means a lot more than just a place, it is the ideal life he feels like he might never get because of his circumstances.

There is a section in the middle where he breaks out into a solo dance (with marvelous choreography by Kenny Ortega btw), culminating in him temporarily stealing a horse and belting the chorus one last time, letting it all out about what he wants from life. Then, at the end, he buttons back up, reminding that tough guy exterior of the lie he’s convinced himself of—that families are overrated.

That is kind of how my days went, minus the equine theft. I learned to hide how sad I was from my peers and friends and only let it out in front of my poor mom, who never once told me to buck up or stop crying, she just patiently listened night after night putting on her own brave face about the fact she lost her husband.

This is the point in my life where all of us Welman girls learned to be tough. While some of my other friends were learning how important kindness and demureness were and how to flirt and win boys over, we were extolling the virtues of making it on your own, learning not to ask for help, and faking it until you made it, which is perhaps why my attention turned from American Girl books and tea parties to, of all things, American Gladiators. Reruns of the athletic competition show would come on USA after school and I would watch as mere mortals went up against the muscular gladiators with their teased hair, their leotards, and their names like Ice, Viper, and Diamond.

Using a Nerf Blast-a-Ball I got for my birthday, my friend Jenny and I would turn her cul-de-sac into the Gladiator arena. We would set up obstacles and have one of us race between stations trying to lob tennis balls at our makeshift target while the other would attempt to nail the other with our Nerf Blaster. We played Joust on the curb with broomsticks. We got all of the sports balls we had and with the help of a trash can, staged our own version of Powerball.

We played Gladiators every day for weeks. I watched the show regularly as well, hoping one day I could meet my favorite Gladiator, Ice. At a time when my family members constantly reminded me that my sister and I had to stay strong for our mom, I took it the most roided-out, curly-mulleted extreme I could by making the American Gladiators my new role models. I would approach everything like I was pumped up like Hans and Franz and beat the tar out of it with a giant foam Q-Tip. After all, nothing was as hard as Halloween, so everything seemed like a piece of cake.

In the time after we lost my dad, I tended to try and be the perfect child. I buried my head in books, I tried to be strong and happy, and I tried to be the perfect kid who didn’t need help from anyone, let alone boys. My sister, who was in seventh grade when it happened, handled things in her own way. It is her story to share, not mine, so I will sum it up by saying while I shut down and internalized, she chose to rebel a bit in her teenage years. It isn’t surprising we grieved in very different ways. Honestly, what do a nine year old and a 13 year old really share in common in a family without loss? So during this time, we kind went our own ways, that is, unless the Guns’N’Roses video November Rain came on.

Frontman Axl Rose has said this is a song about unrequited love. While the love I have for my dad is certainly not romantic, it does feel incomplete, like I never had a chance to see where our parent/child relationship was going to go. Really, I was more my mom’s kid while Debbie spent time with our dad. At night, my dad tucked her in while my mom read to me.

Shortly before he died, Dad actually took Debbie and her friend to a Guns N’ Roses concert since they were Debbie’s favorite band. My dad was not into that kind of music at all, but he wanted to do something nice for her while he still had the strength and energy, so they went. That might explain why she would obsessively watch this video every time it was on MTV. Yes, like everyone, we also loved the Slash guitar solo in the desert and the mini/maxi wedding dress (which Debbie insisted she would wear at her wedding), but for her it was probably a bittersweet reminder of one of her last memories with him. Not long after that, Debbie stopped being into so much heavy metal music. Her preference switched to rap, and I often wondered if even a little sliver of the reason was the same reason I started to push away from the girly things I used to love so much—because being reminded of the things that made us Daddy’s Little Girls hurt too much to keep them cropping up day in and day out.

Honestly, I still don’t really know how to explain how I behaved in 1992. At the time, I didn’t think much of my obsession with the Gladiators beyond the fact that these adults seemed to get to play on obstacle courses for a living, which seemed pretty damn awesome. I know I loved Newsies just like any of a number of musicals I enjoyed as a kid, and many girls my age loved Christian Bale just as much as I did, even if they had two loving, doting parents. It is only as an adult that I reflect on why I might’ve been motivated to put on Newsies every day after school for at least a year and a half and the answer seems almost pathetically obvious and cliché. Daddy issues. It really always comes back to Daddy issues, doesn’t it?

As a child, I never thought much beyond the surface of this song and the epic nine-minute video that went with it. I was sad like everyone else, because beautiful Stephanie Seymour dies as a newlywed. As an adult though, I think about all the tears I shed that November for the man I was never really going to get to know and I become pretty sure this song about unrequited love probably sunk in a lot deeper than I ever realized.


1991: Pleading Not Guilty for the Prince of Thieves


I don’t remember how it happened, but once my friend Jamie and I were in a public elevator and ended up loudly acting out a scene of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. We knew there were strangers there. We knew at 21 years old we should know better, but we did not care. The scene is a pivotal one in the movie, where Christian Slater, who played Will Scarlett, tells Robin (Kevin Costner in glorious mullet) that they are half siblings. It is an emotional scene with yelling and crying. We both knew it word for word.

Imagine if you will two tiny white girls having the following exchange on an elevator you’re riding:

“We are brothers, Robin of Locksley. I was the son of the woman who replaced your dead mother for a…”

“It’s a lie!!”

“It’s not a lie! YOU RUINED MY LIFE!”

Then they double over laughing. So they’re likely bipolar, the question is, are they dangerous?

We weren’t, I promise. We just truly adored that movie, so much so that each of us wrote about it on our application to what some would say is the most prestigious film school in the country, USC. Let me pause to just take care of something real quick, it’s kinda mandatory:

Okay. So, you probably think it was ill-advised for us to write about such an openly-mocked movie while trying to impress an admissions committee, but here is the thing. At least four of us in the class of 2005 chose to write about this movie in a loving way and we all were admitted to an incredibly selective program. Perhaps it is because director Kevin Reynolds is an alum, or perhaps this movie is much better than the AV Club suggests it is.

Really, there is nothing guilty about the pleasure I derive from this film, I adore it unabashedly and I would sincerely argue it is a well-made movie. First, let’s look at its popularity. It was the second-most successful film of the year, trailing only Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This is the same argument I make with Michael Bay films. You can argue he is a terrible filmmaker, but you can’t write off the track record of a dude whose movies have amassed a couple billion dollars. Yes, some are the result of advertising push and franchise exposure, but Bad Boys and Armageddon are both rare combinations of original story and massive box success. Yes, the Robin Hood story has been around a while, but this movie succeeded not on the popularity of Robin Hood, but because the execution resulted in a movie that appealed to everyone. It was exciting enough to intrigue kids, but not too violent to scare them. Teen girls (and me) could admire the heart throb of the era, Christian Slater. There was romance between Robin and Maid Marion. There was an incredibly fun and flawless villain played by Alan Rickman.

These sorts of actions movies aren’t as common anymore for a couple of reasons. First, the stakes have been raised so absurdly high that if your budget exceeds $200 million, the plot must include the end of the world or, bare minimum, the extermination of an entire country. A big budget action movie that amounts to a kind of selfish brat turned renegade defending his tree house village doesn’t quite compare to the Avengers trying to return an entire city back to the ground after having it nearly dragged into space then detonated. There is a pregnant woman and a fetus in medical peril at a point, but with no global pandemic, it isn’t really up to snuff.

I mentioned when dwelling on 1989 that medium-sized movies don’t really exist anymore. Well, neither do small-scale action flicks in which the most advanced technology being used is fire and catapults. Even the romantic rock ballad headlining the soundtrack has fallen by the wayside. Perhaps they realized it will be tough to do better than Bryan Adams.

Moral of the story is basically this: you can’t evaluate this film through a contemporary action movie lens because in the past 25 years the paradigm shift has left the genre utterly unrecognizable. To really drive the point home, know that this movie was released during the peak of summer movie season, June 16th. It had an action figure series, endorsement deals, and a buzzworthy trailer of that arrow flying through the woods. This was 1991’s equivalent of Jurassic World.

While we’re on the subject of redeeming things that just don’t make sense in the current pop culture economy, let’s talk about a show I know you’re going to bag on, The Commish. Most of you know Michael Chiklis as a TV cop. So do I, but while yours was a semi-corrupt badass on The Shield, mine was one who enjoyed outsmarting criminals and finding writing utensils in his cold cuts.

I may have watched Star Trek TNG with my dad, but the only show all four member of my family watched was this police dramedy about a scamp of a commissioner cut from the same cloth as Matlock or Columbo. Like Murder, She Wrote, The Commish was another series in the genre of light hearted mysteries. These days, USA seems to have this market cornered with series like Monk and Psych, while the seemingly humorless CSI franchises have taken over those time slots on present-day broadcast television with rare exceptions like Hawaii 5-0, which is still far more serious in tone than its predecessor.

This genre was so pervasive, there are now enough reruns to power an entire cable channel, Hallmark Mysteries. My mother watches it nightly and never grows tired of Columbo gleefully explaining how he figured it out. She doesn’t like the current procedurals with similar revelatory monologues, but she has never explained why. If I had to guess, it would be because too much of what they are concluding is deduced from science, which is boring, while clever people being clever is simply much more entertaining.

The Commish used to run in reruns on Lifetime, but it hasn’t had much of a life in the 21st century. I bought the complete series box sets (don’t think I don’t see those judgy faces) and was a bit disappointed when it arrived and I realized it is basically made out of something I could have printed on a color printer at home and stuffed into supplies likely purchased at a Wal-Mart. I often wonder why similar shows like House are rerunning like crazy while no one has syndicated The Commish. Perhaps it is a cost issue, but it is something I think would fit right in to the current Hallmark Mystery lineup.

Most people don’t even know it was ever a show though. It ran for several years, but was never a number one hit. It was more like a “Two Broke Girls”. A successful but not smashingly successful show with an audience that 25 years from now will mostly not be asking, whatever happened to that show and why isn’t it on DVD?

This song I am about to bring up is not a “guilty pleasure” like these other 1991 artifacts, but I have a theory that Groove Is in the Heart by Dee-Lite is never going to be properly rated. I have yet to meet a person who dislikes this song, but when the discussion of huge hits of the 90s, we hear about Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, NKOTB, and Whitney Houston, but rarely does this club dance tune get mentioned.

It occasionally makes list of more music criticism-oriented organizations, but the mainstream kind of takes it for granted. So, in a way, it suffers from an appropriate amount of attention just like Robin Hood and Commissioner Scali.

If you haven’t listened to it in a while, do me a favor. Add this song to your gym playlist or turn it on when you’re cleaning up around the house. If you are not dancing by the end of it, let me know. I would like to document you as the first person who didn’t reach down deep into their heart and get their groove on.

Just because people are couching their love for something by saying it is a guilty pleasure or not talking about it at all doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Think about your guilty pleasure. Do you ironically love that Bryan Adams song, or do you have the time of your life singing it loudly in the car only to turn and see the passenger in the car next to you at the stoplight staring at you? If you have invested in a movie to own a copy of it for your own, how much guilt are you really feeling about it if it is on your DVD shelf? And if a dance song may not be mentioned all that often, but it can still get pretty much everyone who listens to it to tap their feet, you best believe it accomplished exactly what it set out to do with no shame whatsoever.

1990: The Cult of Personality and the Fall of the Basic


In film school they taught us that there was a difference between an actor and a star. An actor is someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Paul Giamatti, guys who disappear into the roles and perform them. Then there are stars, like Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. That is not to say stars aren’t talented, but with stars come personas and those personas are put into play in the films they make. For example, in Ocean’s 11, Clooney is playing right into his persona as a cool, debonair guy, while Up in the Air plays on that persona by showing a version of it that is cracked and not what it is cracked up to be underneath that suave exterior.

Then there is Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose entire movie career had to transform or die when he grew too old to fit that Mr. Olympia stereotype he embodied when he was The Terminator. If you’ve seen the most recent Terminator movie, it is a highly self aware meditation on what happened to Ah-nold in his post Governator career. He is old, which makes his macho man action hero roles tough, but as the movie tries to suggest, he is not obsolete, as the best jokes in the film are the ones playing on his robotic acting, aging appearance, and doing something that has proven successful for nearly 30 years: having the not so funny Schwarzenegger try and make a funny.

There is no better example of the success of this final idea than Kindergarten Cop. This is the quintessential “high concept” movie, meaning that it can be summed up and sold in just one sentence: What if Arnold Schwarzenegger had to teach kindergarten?

The answer to that question is a highly-quotable, enjoyable film that still gets run regularly on CMT. In 1990 when it was released, it grossed $200 million at the box office, a remarkable number for an action comedy. For many kids my age, it was the first grown up movie we really got to see, but when I say “see” what I mean is “see a highly-edited version on cable”. At six and seven years old, I didn’t really understand the difference, which is also why for many years I mistakenly thought Stephen King’s It was the first rated R movie I saw, when in actuality it is just a particularly creepy made for TV affair that would probably get a PG-13 by the MPAA.

This was back when cable wasn’t what cable is today. Developing original programming was prohibitively expensive, so channels filled out holes in their schedules with movies like Clue or The Shawshank Redemption or Kindergarten Cop. Being in around second grade when I saw it, I was obviously old enough to laugh at the funny things kids say as well as how funny things sound in an Austrian accent like, “Sit on the carpet” and “Who is your daddy and what does he do?” It inspired my sister to spend several years pining for a ferret, and it taught both of the word tumor, a word that would enter into our own lives in just a few short months in a much less entertaining way.

I am not normally a fan of high concept movies, mostly because the concept isn’t funny enough to sustain an entire movie. Other Arnold movies suffer from the one-note nature of his persona, like Junior, where he is a pregnant man, and Jingle All the Way, where he is no match for soccer moms. These are funny for about as long as the trailer, but then there isn’t much left to cover. There were a ton of different things to play with in Kindergarten Cop, and the movie also wisely included an action component to let Arnold do what he does best.


Nowadays though, Arnold can’t really compete with either anymore. It isn’t just age, it is the fact that those with the macho man persona of the 80s, save for The Rock, just can’t get leading man roles anymore. Sure, HGH and roids run rampant in baseball, but America as a whole likes their action heroes to be sexy and smart like Matt Damon or snarky and fun like Chris Pratt. Because nerdy has become so cool, there are no more meathead action heroes outside of The Expendables (and doesn’t the name say it all). Today, personality is way more profitable than persona, so Schwarzenegger, whose whole persona was based around his lack of personality is, like The Terminator, lost in time.

It used to be such an insult, right? If you were a girl and someone said you had a good personality, it meant you were generally polite and looked like a foot. As a kid with a little too much personality growing up, it was often made clear to me certain things were out of my reach, like leading lady roles in plays. I was the quirky best friend or the crazy cousin. One advisor told me I had the potential to be “the nerd who blossoms” like She’s All That.

Nowadays though, personality is seriously worshiped to the point that girls without much of a personality get labeled with the derogatory term “basic”. What is basic? It means your favorite movie is The Notebook and your favorite TV show is the American version of the Office. You like pumpkin spice lattes (which are certainly delicious, but ubiquitous too) and Pinteresting. You tell your friends you’re so weird because you love sushi and something that used to be unique but is in fact wholly mainstream now, like comic book movies.

It is mean to admit, but as someone who used to get a fair amount of shit for not being more basic, the development of basic into an insult is something I derive way too much joy from. I personally don’t label that many people “basic bitches”, but the idea that being mainstream is an insult gives me a lot of optimism I didn’t possess in middle school.

When I was growing up, Twin Peaks was basically the weirdest thing television had ever seen. For years, I would hear it being discussed as if broadcast television decided to air a snuff film. It redefined what TV could be, the world was obsessed with who killed Laura Palmer, and I always thought I heard it wrong when the occult got brought up.

I didn’t mishear it though. Earlier this year, I finally watched Twin Peaks for the first time. It wasn’t a snuff film, but given the reputation creator David Lynch has developed since the show, it is much tamer than I would have expected. Yes, it is incredibly bizarre, but bizarre in a quirky way, like an old school Tim Burton movie, as opposed to a freaky way like something from the mind of Eli Roth. It did go a bit South in season two with a strange veer into other dimensions, but at the core of season one is the story of quirky people in a quirky place, kind of like Stars Hollow on the Gilmore Girls.It shows you what a huge role this show played in breaking new ground for TV that TV has grown to be so unique and creative that it almost can make Twin Peaks look rather tame.

We’ve been redefining what an ideal personality is and what constitutes weird for decades, but somehow the band They Might Be Giants manages to stay on the fringe of music. They hit their popular peak in 1990 with the release of the album Flood, which included two songs popularized by music videos featured on Tiny Toon Adventures, Particle Man and Istanbul (Not Constantinople). While those songs were huge favorites of both my sister and myself, when I got back into the band in college, it was the single from the album, Birdhouse in Your Soul, that really stuck with me.

The lyrics are a little kooky when you listen to them, so my interpretation of the song might be a little off, but just the idea of a birdhouse in someone’s soul sounds so wonderful. I love a good song about pining, so the idea of someone you admire from afar just giving you a little space, not even a permanent one, just a place to visit and stock up, rest a spell, is such a lovely sentiment.

TMBG seems to be a band that actively avoids the mainstream, but now the mainstream is commodifying the nerd culture they arose from, so they have to find even stranger ways to stay on the fringes, like making children’s music and hosting a Dial-A-Song service.

I refrain from complaining about how hard people work to have to stand out and be weird these days only because I remember how much harder it was working to fit in. My mother always told me that things would really start happening for me once I grew up. I think she was just being hopeful and got lucky that now the weird kids who watched Kindergarten Cop along with me are the ones in charge now, making the rules that make basic the word I fear being called the most, while challenging me to be weirder, more creative, and more out there, trying to put a spin on the ole Welman persona.

1989: DJ, Madonna Drink Your Juice

My friends and I have this habit of telling each other, “Shelby, drink your juice,” when we think someone is too wound up or too upset about something for their own good.

If you’re Southern or ever watch the movies on CMT, you probably know this is a reference to the movie Steel Magnolias, a movie all Southern belles quote with frequency thanks to the immense wisdom the movie espouses. I mean, these are all truly, truly gems:

“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”

“Honey, time marches
on and eventually you realize it is marchin’ across your face.”

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

“A dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

“Miss Truvy, I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.”

“I don’t like her. I don’t trust anyone who does their own hair. I don’t think it’s natural.”

The movie is basically a cinematic version of a Georgian living room full of samplers, but the line we quote the most isn’t the wisdom, it is a comment made by Sally Field’s character when her adult daughter Shelby, played by Julia Roberts, has a diabetic seizure. As Shelby shakes and yells, her mother tries to calm her down and get some sugar in her system, so she coaxes a cup of orange juice in her mouth as she coos, “Shelby, drink your juice,” at her.

If you Google this line, there are over 93,000 results. This wasn’t just us, a large group of people embraced this line so much it made it into Urban Dictionary. I know the script, which started as a play had to include several lines like the one I quoted above that the writer thought might pick up and be quoted after the movie’s release. I would be so curious to hear what the reaction was when screenwriter Robert Harling realized the drink your juice line was on par in popularity with any other zinger in the movie. Did he feel proud? Annoyed? Amused?

Today people are always talking about how to make viral content, as if there is some recipe to predict which ridiculous family home video will become the next “Charlie Bit Me”. Hate to break it you, but that isn’t something you can predict, nor is viral a good metaphor to describe how it is shared, as it makes it seem like it is the content that is pushing itself out to millions. Henry Jenkins has a much better word to describe it, and that word is “spreadable”, like peanut butter. It may start in one place, but it can easily spread out to others if people see something in it that they connect with or enjoys enough to pass along to others.

When I was perusing the list of movies that were popular in 1989, you can see the unpredictability of the population in action. Long before Pitch Perfect and The Help, Steel Magnolias was the 14th most popular movie. Another movie based on a play, Driving Miss Daisy, was eighth, and the Robin Williams drama Dead Poets Society came in at tenth. Half of the top ten were original films, ie not sequels or franchises.

This is not just me being nostalgic for another time, this is the simple truth of the economics behind movie-making. My favorite genres like family or courtroom dramas, romantic comedies, and prestige pictures are the types of film whose returns rarely merit the financial risk anymore, so very few pictures like Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, or When Harry Met Sally get made in a given year. Now granted, last year, prestige picture American Sniper was the top grossing film of the year, but it was also the only non-franchise movie in the top ten besides Big Hero 6. We don’t experience phenomenon like Steel Magnolias anymore because studios are too afraid to gamble on anything that isn’t a pre-established franchise. Even Steel Magnolias fell victim to this trend when Lifetime reimagined the story with an all African American cast.

Lifetime also has cornered the market on “unauthorized” stories of the behind-the-scenes tales of popular TV shows. Last year, it was Saved By the Bell. This year it is going to be a dramatization of the making of Full House.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

It’s Friday night…
And the mood is right…
Gonna have some fun, show you how it’s done:

My family ate up the TGIF on ABC concept up hook, line, and sinker. We watched all of them. Perfect Strangers, Family Matters, Step By Step, Dinosaurs, Baby Talk. But my favorite was Full House. I was approximately the same age as Stephanie Tanner and her snarky tude and dance abilities lead to me identifying with her completely. Really though, the breakout stars of that show were those twins, which is something it sounds like the Lifetime biopic is going to dig into.

Like Steel Magnolias, I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted the Olsen twins coming. Sure, America loves cute kids, but do they love them enough to buy every item in their tiny empire? Really, when you think about Full House, it is hard to really pin point why this show connected the way it did. It certainly rivals Steel Magnolias in the quotes department with “You’ve got it dude”, “Have mercy”, “Cut it out”, and “How rude”, to name a few. Like the juice line, there is nothing particularly compelling about these lines at first glance, that I wonder who really saw that a bratty blonde exclaiming “how rude” would rival some of the highly developed jokes on Seinfeld in the quotability department. It was only after little Stephanie Tanner got a bigger than usual laugh one time that the writers started plugging it in to more episodes and developing it into something catchy, like this Jesse and the Rippers single:

In this YouTube day and age, we think these funny ideas pop up with ease, transforming people like the Bed Intruder into celebrities in a couple of days. Really though, Auto-Tune the News, the organization behind the song, had been doing what they were doing for quite a while, picking up steam with each video, both fine and auto-tuning things as they went along. Just because we are in an age of instant content doesn’t mean all things can be an instant success. They are on the same trajectory as Full House jokes or Steel Magnolias developing as an off Broadway play then working its way up to a major motion picture, that trajectory just isn’t as public anymore.

While much of Madonna’s sensationalism in her early career made it relatively unsurprising when songs such as Like a Virgin took off, but if someone told you a music video involving a murder of a child by White supremacists, religious iconography, a girl in a nightie, and the star of Cool Runnings was going to add up to one of the most popular videos of 1989.

But if Madonna was a master of anything, it was publicity and marketing. She knew how to sell something and was willing to take the risk of composing a song, Like a Prayer, which combines sexual innuendo and religious themes into one salaciously catchy song. When the video came on MTV, one of us would yell that it was on and the other sibling would come sprinting down our ranch-style home to watch attentively in front of the TV. Another video would captivate us like this one did in 1992, but we’ll get to that in a few years. This song was sung with passion, was catchy as can be, and was just obscure enough that my six year old brain didn’t connect that Madonna was using the New Testament to describe an orgasm.

When you look at other songs in the Madonna oeuvre, there are more obvious hits, like the glamorous Vogue, the provocative Like A Virgin, a popular dance hit like Ray of Light, and the self confidence anthem Express Yourself, but Billboard will tell you differently. It says Like a Prayer is the most successful Madonna single of all time.

This is not a song that could have been cranked out of a pop hit production house following some formula, though it seems like everyone these days is trying to turn content into a formula, an algorithm, a plug and play of popular concepts and catchphrases that will churn out a surefire hit. And yeah, reliability and known entities are great, but for me, the reason 1989 sticks out as a particularly great year for pop culture is because no one expected these unexpected vehicles to become classics.


1988: You Got a Tree Star, I Want a Ticket to Anywhere

For the four years before I joined the Welman clan, my sister was content calling our parents Mommy and Daddy. When I showed up and started to talk though, I would exclusively refer to Dolores as “Mother”. Daddy was still Daddy (and oddly remains so to this day—one of the odd frozen in time things that happens when you lose a parent very young, I suppose), but even my sister switched to calling her Mother.

There are a lot of pop culture artifacts I associate with Mother, like the incredible 1996 movie Mother, which I have written about before. Another one is a saccharine-sweet but still very touching lullaby sung to some baby penguins by some tweenage Chipettes in The Chipmunk Adventure (if you click, grab a tissue).

And then there is The Land Before Time. It is the story of Littlefoot being separated from his mother, whom he calls Mother. The tiny dinosaur is left with no one to help lead him through the literal end of the world.  He just has a leaf. Yeah, if you haven’t seen it, Mother taught Littlefoot about the precious “tree stars” hanging from the trees. They are scarce in the end of the dinosaur era, but the promise of endless tree stars in the Great Valley keeps Littlefoot going.

Hope isn’t as easy as those Obama posters made it out to be though. It takes a certain amount of courage to hope for something. Yes, it helps you set goals and strive for things, but you also run the risk of getting your hopes up only to have them fall flat. With the other virtues, love and charity, you get warned about how one-sided these things can be. Hope, on the other hand, that is the virtue where you might end up disappointed the most. You don’t expect anything in return for being charitable. Every other movie or TV show warns you to guard your heart in matters of love, but hope is one of those things that creeps in when you’re not paying attention, and you really only comprehend how hopeful you were when you get let down.

Hope drove Littlefoot and friends to the great valley, which is mostly what we remember from the movie. What you may not remember is the sheer devastation Littlefoot experiences when he sees what he believes is his dead mother alive and in the distance, only to discover it was his shadow. I guess you could argue that hope of seeing his mother again was what pushed him to go forward on his journey, but as Buzzfeed notes, even as an adult, the grim picture of hope this movie quietly paints while the story is foregrounded with cartoon dinos so cute the girl ones even have Kewpie Doll eyelashes.

The very concept makes for a dire story and makes for some exponentially slim chances the dinos would have survived long enough for 13 direct-to-video sequels. Those watching know the dinosaurs don’t make it in the long run. Yeah the Great Valley is fine and dandy, but a global extinction is just around the corner, so how big of a victory is this really? Throw in the fact that the little girl who voiced Ducky was brutally murdered by her father before the movie was released, and you basically have a Don Bluth-helmed need to get a Prozac scrip.

Things rarely got that dire on Unsolved Mysteries, but there were the occasional stories that got the update treatment with Robert Stack informing viewers that yes, this missing person is actually dead. By and large though, the unsolved component of the show left a lot of room for hope, particularly when the updates were of a happier nature.

I particularly enjoyed the adoption stories, what with being adopted. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I don’t have much motivation to hunt down my birth parents, but as a kid I certainly held out hope that they might seek me out. Every adopted person is different, but I think there are a large number of us out there that can’t shake that tiny voice reminding you your original set of parents didn’t want you. In reality, giving a child up for adoption and a shot at a better life is such a remarkable sign of love, but as a kid I didn’t quite grasp that yet, so I tuned into Lifetime daily to catch Unsolved Mysteries reruns, hoping I would stumble upon a mystery where the answer was me. I would ballpark that I’ve seen about 150 different episodes over my life.

I find it kind of strange Unsolved Mysteries hasn’t been rebooted lately. The internet has solved many of our mysteries, but seemingly weekly we hear a case like those missing boys on the boat whose parents will forever hold on to the hope their kids survived and floated off to Cuba or something never to be heard from again. Perhaps with technology the way it is these days, there isn’t as much hope at our disposal. It is hard to hold out hope believing your kid accidentally floated a makeshift raft to another country if they never log into Facebook again. For the parents, no amount of inactivity will destroy the hope really, but for the rest of us voyeuristic observers, we need a little more to go on before hoping for anything but the worst.

So that might explain why Unsolved Mysteries never really took off a second time despite three reboots by three different networks. I would like to believe it is the absence of Stack, who if you don’t know, had an impressive film resume before hosting the show. Dennis Farina tried to fill Stack’s shoes, but it didn’t last but a couple of years.

Meanwhile, Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car doesn’t suffer in the slightest from its numerous substitute Chapmans doing their cover versions of the song (my favorite is Christian Kane). If you’re not familiar with what this song is about, a Chapman website explains that it isn’t as autobiographical as you might think. It draws from her experiences in poorer neighborhoods, but also draws from the prevailing attitude of the working class that you have to keep going because things will have to get better one of these days.

In other words, it is a song about hope. How riding in a car with your significant other talking about what things will get better can feel like the world is full of so many possibilities, but when it slows done nothing much is different. There will still be more car rides though and, in turn, more hope. Conceptually, this has all the makings of a good country song, which might explain why so many country and folk artists choose to cover it. In country, the prevailing sentiment is “yes things are bad, but they are bound to get better eventually,” which is a notion Fast Car pretty directly addresses.

Unlike most of these country songs, which end on a more hopeful note, Chapman’s concludes with a little bit of doubt.

You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so you can fly away?
You gotta make a decision
You leave tonight or live and die this way

There is a big difference between hoping and actually making something happen. Hoping can be a very passive activity. If you don’t try to do things to turn those hopes into reality, it will remain a daydream much of the time.

That notion is what connects me to this song so much. I adore Littlefoot, but can’t help but feel like he is an animated Don Quixote on a fool’s quest. When you lose a loved one, you do have to find a way to keep hope alive and keep yourself going, but wandering the Earth in the middle of the apocalypse hoping a leaf can help you find sanctuary is both futile and a little delusional.

Maybe Fast Car is telling us the same thing though, just on a slower trajectory. It will end for all of us eventually, but sitting idly by since we’ll end up in the ground no matter what is, at its core, an excuse to be passive. Maybe I need to start carrying around a
folded up leaf in my pocket to remind me to appreciate and fight for every good day I can. At the very least I need to keep hold of that feeling I could be someone.


1987: On Family, the Forgotten & The Princess Bride

(For an explanation of this year-by-year cultural exploration, check out this introductory blog post)

I’ve spoken before about my maternal grandpa’s keen ability to tell stories, but it was my paternal grandpa who had the market cornered on bedtime stories. Each night, my Grandpa Welman would sit with my sister and me and tell us a bedtime story. Thing is, Grandpa never settled for a conventional fairy tale. He would make stuff up on the fly, inserting random characters like bears or talking dogs, taking requests from both of us, leading to very interesting twists and turns.

That is why I always think of Grandpa Welman when I watch The Princess Bride. I don’t know about the rest of you, but Peter Falk so perfectly captured the loveable, funny grandpa type from the moment he burst through his grandson’s door like a vaudeville star. Like The Neverending Story, this is a movie based on a book and is presented as a book within a book (say that five times fast). The way the movie handles the questions from the grandson (Fred Savage) is exactly how stories with Grandpa Welman would go with us.

There is so much more to The Princess Bride than the Falk character though. I have easily watched this movie 50 times and I think it might be the perfect blend of genres that appeals to every demographic there is (I’ll get to the king of this kind of movie in 1991). Yet, the older I get, the more I encounter people who have never watched it. Given its absence on Netflix and basic cable these days, I legitimately worry that this movie will be lost in time, which really would be a tragedy.

I think much of the quick-witted and quirky humor of thirtysomethings in today’s society was instilled in us with this movie, which is packed to the hilt with zingers and one-liners. At least once a week I tell someone, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The entire sequence with Prince Westley and his trio of nemeses played by Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant is genuinely flawless, so while portions of the movie can drag a touch, the perfection of the first act more than makes up for the rest.

Nowadays, the smash family movies not made by Pixar tends to divvy up the humor into adult and child. Think about a movie like Shrek, which appealed to young and old mostly through a ton of pop culture references only adults will understand. There are no cultural references for Princess Bride to fall back on. It is a timeless movie that holds up almost 30 years later precisely because of that reason. I often wonder if these timeless flicks like The Wizard of Oz or Snow White and Cinderella might fade in the face of shiny and new things. The whole impetus of this blog project started with this obsession on making new versions of perfectly fine things. If I find out that someday they are making a Selena Gomez-starring Princess Bride reboot, I may just give up on movies altogether. I’ll die. Or, at least, mostly die.

I am a bit of a hypocrite though, as I have always cited Star Trek: The Next Generation as my favorite version of the Star Trek franchise. It is a reboot of the original Star Trek concept that has since been rebooted eight or nine times. You’ll have to cut me some slack though, as I am playing the dead dad card here. This was his favorite show and we would often watch it together. He watched since he was a big sci fi fan, while I watched because I really loved the Reading Rainbow guy.  The show grew on me though. Rather, it was kind of forced upon me, as many people in our extended family were particularly into Star Trek to the point where they would attend conventions and us kids collected action figures of even the most obscure characters.

There are movies and TV shows you love because of what they are, like The Princess Bride, and there are those movies and TV shows you loved because of the traditions surrounding them. Talking Star Trek with the family, sitting at the foot of my dad’s La-Z-Boy watching along, these are moments I can’t get back and will treasure forever. In some odd attempt to rekindle them, my love for TNG grows.

The show itself has its interesting elements. The Holodeck episodes, which managed to somehow create strange universe after strange universe where some malfunction puts everyone’s life in peril (at what point did they ever decide maybe the Holodeck, while fun, wasn’t safe?). The mysterious Q (John De Lancie) was a personal favorite of mine, as he created mischief in a fun villainous way, like an old school Batman villain, as opposed to truly sinister or a metaphorically disconcerting view of the future, like the Borg.

I don’t think underrated is the right word for TNG, but it is drifting into that same space of cultural obscurity as The Princess Bride. Maybe there was some sort of portal in 1987 that ensured quality content not mired in the timeliness of the 80s gets lost without just cause.

There were certainly many artifacts of the 80s that were justifiably discarded and forgotten. Think about how you watch movies and listen to music now compared to your childhood. My life started with records and a device I am sure most of you haven’t heard of called a VideoDisc Player, which was like a large 8 Track for movies instead of music. When my sister and I started to get to the age where we wanted to have our own collection of music, we had some cassettes, but Debbie made me insanely jealous when she got a Pocket Rockers player. It was like a Walkman, but instead of playing cassette tapes, it played tiny tapes that kind of looked like the ones you’d put in an answering machine. Ring any bells?

Each cassette contained one or two song, cause, you know, that doesn’t get annoying at all. Every once in a while my sister would let me borrow hers and I would always listen to The Bangles’ Walk Like an Egyptian. Gliding around in our front hallway with wooden floors in my socks like a tiny Tom Cruise in Risky Business, I would practice some of my moves from dance class to a song that will probably get cast aside sooner or later by contemporary society given the fact it is very catchy, but also kinda racist.

I can’t tell you how much I wanted a Pocket Rocker back then, but it is mostly because you always want to be like your big sister. You want to wear what they wear, go where they go, and essentially get to grow up alongside them instead of waiting your turn. She could have worn a bag on her head and, out of principle, I would have insisted to my parents I should be allowed to as well.

Now, there are very few things my sister and I share in common. We are such different people and have such different taste that we agree to continue watching shows each of us both kind of hate like The Strain to have something for us to talk about. There are very few, if any, things she gets before me nowadays, save for her children. These days I get to watch my younger nephew pout when his big brother gets to do something while the little guy stays home. I could tell him this relationship will eventually fade into obscurity and be replaced by a very different adult sibling relationship, but I know it won’t stick.

It’s a frustrating feeling, wanting something to stick and knowing that it won’t despite your best efforts. No amount of love and dedication could keep the Pocket Rocker going. Star Trek will continue to reboot and reinvent despite even the most loyal Trekkies begging them not to. But I am not quite ready to give up on The Princess Bride. That is one I hope I can save. It would be inconceivable to live in a world where it is forgotten, but if it does,  t is par for the course I suppose. Like Prince Westley says, “Life
is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Scoring My Life Archive

1986: Serenades, Sandwich Hotties, and Schoolhouse Rock!


It was brought to my attention during his rounds for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Whatsitcalled that Tom Cruise is 53 years old. Looking at the man, I don’t think I can tell you how old I thought he was, but I do know 53 wasn’t the answer. In many ways, he is ageless; a plastic, couch-jumping creature that I try to remember before having seen the fascinating HBO documentary on Scientology, Going Clear. In my mind, he is forever Jerry Maguire.

For many of my friends , the ideal version of Cruise goes back a little further to his days as Maverick in Top Gun.  The love for Top Gun was so strong, I felt like I was obligated to like it even if I didn’t love the movie. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things about Top Gun I love, most  notably the Meg Ryan/Anthony Edwards relationship, Val Kilmer’s perfectly executed d-bag character, and the soundtrack.

Take My Breath Away is a great song, and I love Kenny Loggins, but the song I will always remember most is “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. If you don’t know the movie, you don’t know that this song is part of a grand gesture/flirting schtick of Maverick and his co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards). Flowers and jewelry are fine I guess, but there is nothing quite as romantic as a guy publicly shaming himself in an attempt to get a girl to smile. It was a lesson many guys in Kentucky competitive speech learned when I was in high school. At least once a tournament during a period of downtime, they would pick a girl to serenade Top Gun style.  When I got picked, I don’t think I have ever smiled as hard or felt so flattered.

Like Cruise, it lives in a little bubble in my memory as a perfect romantic moment, even though I never dated any of those guys. Sometimes the unknown is better than trying to make something happen. In college, I spent my summers working at Blockbuster. Every day during lunch, I would trek to the sandwich shop a couple of doors down and grab lunch. The store manager, who knew I thought one of the sandwich employees was cute constantly urged me to ask the guy out. I refused, explaining “Every day, I get to take a break from customers and alphabetizing. I get to be alone in my thoughts and stare at a cute guy without having to hide the fact I am for a couple of minutes. And when it is over, he hands me a sandwich. This is perfect as it is. Let’s not mess with it.”

That is kind of how I feel about Top Gun, and I have to warn
you that spoilers are coming.  You see, I’ve actually only seen Top Gun all the way through from beginning to end once, but I have seen pieces of the movie dozens of times. The reason for this is because I purposefully avoid the third act of the film. Once Goose dies in a naval piloting accident, I stick around long enough to watch Meg Ryan cry and then I turn it off. Yes, Maverick gets redemption, gets his confidence back, and gets the girl, but that part doesn’t interest me. I would much rather just imagine a world without Goose than actually live through it, so I compartmentalize the first half of Top Gun in a timeless bubble, never to be complete, like the Sandwich Hottie.

When it comes to most parts of pop culture, I often lament how a concept outstays its welcome or we do way too much reviving, but there is one thing I certainly wish stuck around longer and that is Schoolhouse Rock!, which shut down its operation for a couple of decades in 1986. More generally, the lack of Saturday morning cartoons in contemporary culture makes me sad, but in reality most kids probably spend their Saturday mornings watching whatever they want on their tablets anyways, achieving the same effect. More specifically though, I miss the open, unabashed love of learning that Schoolhouse Rock championed. I have never been shy about being a gigantic nerd, and thankfully nerd culture is king these days, but I haven’t heard of many grammar raps or rock songs about the Revolutionary War.

I watched a little of Schoolhouse Rock on Saturdays as a kid, but I really embraced the series when I was in middle school and they released an album of contemporary artists covering classic Schoolhouse Rock songs entitled Schoolhouse Rocks! Rocks. I discovered the album during the height of my alternative phase, where I wore nothing but baggy corduroy pants and retro t-shirts (yes, I was that kid).

Even as an adult though, I constantly think of the old songs. As a copy editor, I frequently ask myself, “Has no one heard of Conjunction Junction?” My three and 12 times tables are lightning fast thanks to Three Is a Magic Number and Little Twelvetoes. While putting together sentences is rather second nature these days, I know it is because of repeat listens to these songs that helped me understand how language works that I don’t have to think too hard about it.

Part of the reason Schoolhouse Rock resonated so much with me is because I have always been the type to absorb song lyrics like a sponge. The other day I was in the car with my mom listening to oldies and, despite not having heard these songs in several years, I knew so many words to so many of them my mom had to ask if I knew what was coming on the radio next. I wish I
could understand and harness this ability to use for more productive ventures than a future appearance on Name That Tune, but it is a skill I don’t understand the mechanics behind.

Some songs I can’t help but sing along to, like Eddie Money’s Take Me Home Tonight. In an ode to the power of youthful compartmentalization, I was out of college before it really dawned on me that this is a song about sex. As a kid, I just memorized the words without thinking much about the meaning behind them. While the songs in the car with my mom weren’t odes to sex, the same concept applies, which is that the words come tumbling out of my mouth with virtually no cognitive grasp on what it is I am singing. The only thing my brain seems aware of is what word the next line needs to rhyme with, so I suppose on some level this is pattern recognition.

It’s an important life skill, recognizing patterns, but it is also important to comprehend and interpret the words put before you. Sometimes they won’t quite fit in the puzzle the way they are supposed to, but in these moments of cognitive dissonance, be it Tom Cruise’s agelessness, a comma that feels out of place, or a song that makes you feel one thing but think something entirely different, remember that you don’t have to jam the piece in whole to make it work. Sometimes, just a piece of it belongs in a bubble, perfect just the way it is.

Scoring My Life Archive

1985: The Mysterious Flames on the Side of My Face


(For an explanation of this year-by-year cultural exploration, check out this introductory blog post)

In high school my best friends and I had so many inside jokes we would need to cycle through them about every two months. Back when making mixed CDs for people was more common, I would name the CD whatever the joke du jour was. It is fun when a friend discovers one of these CDs years later and asks me, “Why do I have a CD called ‘This Ham Juice Burns’?” I explain the joke (if I can remember it), then I like to ask what songs are on the CD so I can contextualize when the CD was created, as the tunes were typically what I obsessively listened to at the time.

One inside joke is so inside, it remains a mystery to those of us involved. My friend Jamie and I know that at some point shortly after college we saw a movie in which one grown man told another grown man to “Shhhhhh Shhhhh” while slowly gliding his index finger down the other man’s lip. We know we found it funny, we know it stuck in our memory, we just don’t know what movie it is from. In my head, whoever brings us the answer to this decade long question could easily be the next Messiah, or at least my first husband. That is how important this silly inside joke is to me.

I tried to look up the origin of in jokes, but there is no real concrete starting point. We as a society have enjoyed knowing something others don’t for centuries. It is why suspense movies are so popular. As famed director Alfred Hitchcock pointed out, suspense isn’t about surprising the audience, it is about putting the audience in the know, while the character they are watching remains unaware. People like figuring things out before they’re supposed to. There is a fascination with solving the mystery rather than have it explained to you. This might explain why when I was young I set my sights on being that kid that found the next cool thing; the undiscovered band, the cult classic.

I actually started to adopt the cult movie classics long before I even realized that was what I was doing. Growing up, I didn’t know many of the kids in our subdivision. We went to a Montessori school, so outside of the Catholic ones we saw at church, I never really interacted with them, with one exception.

Debbie Koseniak lived kitty-corner to our house and we would spend a lot of time playing in each other’s yards, living rooms, and finished basements (living in Nevada now, oh how I miss a good finished basement). Debbie’s family room had the upper hand over ours since we weren’t allowed to pay video games and she had both a Nintendo and HBO. We spent a lot of time over there watching cartoons and movies, and the one we watched the most was the 1985 board game-based marvel, Clue.

Clue was the first movie I started quoting out of context of the movie itself. When I would run over to Debbie’s house, I would ring the bell, she would answer, and I would sing “I…Am…Your singing telegram!” then collapse in a heap as if I’d been shot, just like the movie

BuzzFeed did an incredible oral history on the film about a year ago, detailing how the project went from board game to studio project to box office flop to cult classic. The gist is that in the early 80s, many premium cable channels needed to fill out odd hours of the day with cheap programming. With a PG rating and a humor that appealed to adults, Clue fit the bill perfectly. As a result, young kids like myself began to watch it over and over again, committing our favorite lines to memory, sharing them with peers. Those who knew the movie were in on the joke, while those on the outside were just left perplexed.

To this day, I am still prone to Tweet “Flames…on the side of my face”, quoting Madeline Khan’s famous speech (the only improvised moment in the whole movie) and those who know me well know I am having a terribly frustrating day.

Clue is not the only murder mystery of 1985 worth talking about though. The long-running Murder, She Wrote wrapped its first season in the spring of 1985, and I don’t think anyone expected it to continue on for 12 years, finally concluding in 1996. Along the way, the show’s star, Angela Lansbury, earned an Emmy nomination for Best Actress every single season the show was on the air. She is 90 years old and still kicking, probably because of her positively spectacular workout routine. Her character, Jessica Fletcher, made jogging cool years before it was in, she had a home remedy for any health problem you may encounter and, while she tends to bring in a wave of death and destruction wherever she goes, she is always a model house guest.

Oftentimes when people complain to me about older television, they suggest it is formulaic and repetitive. I can understand that, when it comes to Murder, She Wrote, yes there is always a murder at the heart of the episode, but beyond that the rest was completely up in the air. Here are a few things Ms. Fletcher did over the course of the run of the show:

Inherited a professional football team, taught in a women’s prison and then saving said prison from an inmate riot, tried to find her niece’s missing husband at a traveling circus, helped Russian ballerinas defect to America, Wrote a children’s book and adapted it into a puppet show, visited an Amish community, solved a murder on a plane, designed a house of horrors for an amusement park, got Magnum PI off the hook for a murder, and solved a mystery of why she was being haunted by a ghost witch.

If you don’t find this show to be immensely feminist and transgressive, I think your standards might be too high. The mystery at the heart of the plot is fun to solve and all, but the real surprises are where Jessica might pop up this week and which soon-to-be celebrity would play the accused, the victim, the murderer, or one of her seemingly endless nieces. The show had to be inventive and creative out of necessity once their star got up
into her 70s, and the results are a kooky show about a lovely lady in Maine who has inexplicably witnessed like 250 murders, but still manages to make Cabot Cove feel like home. (Shameless plug, but my very talented cousin Joel wrote a delightful song about Cabot Cove I have to share):

One of the reasons I am so quick to plug Joel whenever I can
is because, as a lifelong lover of musicals, I get so excited that my cousin is
so adept at musical theater composition. As kids, he would direct plays we
would appear in. They were made up stories that pretty much wholesale took the
plot of other stories and tinkered with them slightly, resulting in living room
productions like “The Gizard of Oz”.

My mom was the one who got me hooked on musicals in the
first place, but while she tended towards the classics like Oklahoma and Meet
Me in St Louis, I started to dabble at a relatively young age in more edgy and contemporary
musical theater. My first foray into musical theater songs though were ones I
didn’t even realize belonged to a show.

I don’t really know if little girls have music boxes
anymore, but as I child I adored them and collected several. The little diddys
the spinning ballerinas in the boxes danced to varied, but would almost always
be one of three things: The Music Box Dancer, Memory from Cats, and On My Own,
which was added to the musical Les Miserables when it began its
English-speaking run in London in 1985.

When I was five or six, I thought these songs were the most beautiful songs on Earth. The more I attended dance competitions, the better I got to know them, as nearly every preteen girl had latched on to On My Own and wanted to do a passionate dance to a song that understand how it felt to have the guy in fourth grade you had a crush on not pay attention to you. It was only as a teenager that I learned the true origin of the song was for a character that was doomed to a life of suffering with no parents, no love, just herself. In context, the song makes the personal experiences I associated with it as a child pretty petty, but the tune nonetheless serves an important purpose. As a song in a very adult-themed show that any child can relate to, it gets young musical theater fans like myself in the pipeline. You start with Wizard of Oz, then move on to Cats and On My Own before you eventually get shown Grease and you realize musicals could be a lot more than you really thought they would be.

Just how expansive is the musical genre? It remains a mystery to me now, even after watching any musical I can get my hands on, as all the new ones keep pushing the boundaries further and further. That is okay though. Figuring out the answer is the fun part anyways.

Scoring My Life Archive


1984: Learning to Pretend, to Empathize, and to Love


(If you want to know why I am talking about 1984, I explained myself yesterday)

There is a concept in media studies called monoculture. The name explains the idea to some degree, but this Salon piece offers a more precise definition if you’re interested. TV and music have become highly personalized experiences these days. Unless it is a massive event like the Oscars or the Super Bowl, people just don’t watch things live anymore, so there is no real communal experience.

Movies are the last real holdout of monoculture. Sure, there are more movies now than ever thanks to technology, but studio slates are still relatively small and consist mostly of tent pole pictures, the big budget action movies like Avengers that need to gross a billion dollars in order to recoup costs and fund the studio for the next year.

But every once in a while there is a not so big film that develops a cult following in the rental (I guess now the better term is streaming) space. Such was the case with the 1984 fantasy film The Neverending Story. Yes, it was a hit in the theaters, grossing over $100 million back in a time where that feat was still impressive.

But this existential sci fi film so fantastical and psychologically based it could only come from the minds of the Germans continued its success on home video. A German book that was unique in that it was printed in different colored inks to signify what was the book and what belonged to a book within the book, it was directed by German-born Wolfgang Peterson.

Really, could anything but German Expressionism be responsible for the sequence in the film when the fantasy’s hero of the book within the book Atreyu loses his beloved horse, Artex? If you’re not familiar, let me set the scene. Atreyu and his steed are riding through the Swamps of Sadness, which literally can overcome you with a melancholy so heavy you sink into the sludge. While brave Atreyu managed to fight the negativity, his white horse could not and, despite Atreyu’s best efforts, he dies:

In elementary school, I cited this as the saddest scene in film history, as did most of my peers. It wasn’t specific to Lexington either. I asked my cousin Mollie, who is a year older than me and grew up in Memphis, what part of Neverending Story she most remembered (awesome theme song excluded).

“Oh, when the horse died. So traumatic.”

In retrospect, the proliferation of clinical depression in people my age might help to explain why as kids this scene stuck with us.  As kids, we fear the villain of the movie, The Nothing, the idea that our wildest dreams and imaginations could disintegrate, leaving us living in a vast void all by ourselves. We rely on our imagination and books to fill those empty spots in our everyday lives. We start to develop the sense that the sadness in our life might get so overwhelming we can’t go on, and it is a fear that tends to grows stronger the older you get.

As an adult, I rewatch that scene through an entirely different lens, realizing this movie may have been the first thing that helped me understand what depression was. You watch your friend slowly sinking into the swamp seemingly indifferent to saving themselves while you pull and scream and do anything you can to get them to snap out of it to no avail.

It also helped to instill a sense of empathy, as I cried along with Atreyu at the thought of losing his friend. Yes, it made me sad to see, but I loved the movie for being so powerful as to make me care about someone else’s horse, especially a someone else who didn’t even exist.

I was really big on pretending as kid, so imaginary friends and fictional characters were par for the course, really. I could entertain myself alone in the backyard for hours, turning my swing set into a spaceship racing along with the Hanna Barbera cartoons or My Little Ponies’ castle. I spent a disproportionate amount of my youth in front of a television, but when I look at my nephews, I realize a lot more of my childhood involved playing pretend than theirs does.

If there was a show of my childhood that embodied the power of pretending and imagination the way The Neverending Story did, it would be Muppet Babies. The show premiered in 1984, just two months after Muppets Take Manhattan featured a dream sequence of baby Muppets dancing about a nursery.

In the show, the nursery was rarely the nursery though. Instead, it was a pretend spaceship, a pretend dude ranch, or a pretend newspaper:

The way Muppets pretended was very similar to the way I did. We would take some piece of cultural and basically perform fan fiction, elaborating where the story left off. It is a cultural creation strategy that has grown beyond pretending in the backyard to pretty much how all non-original TV shows and movies are made. In film criticism, the term is “pastiche”, which is taking a lot of elements from other pieces of culture and slapping them together, relying on the appeal of the artifacts to make the new piece interesting (like this). Quentin Tarantino does this, and it is the source of the greatest praise and the greatest criticism of his work.

This is classified in cinema as postmodernism, which is characterized by throwing back to older works, often blending a number of genres together, smashing high art into low art. It is very common in blockbuster movies, but it can apply to other things too, like music.

The Billy Joel concept album An Innocent Man is a great example of postmodernism in music. The album, which includes songs like Uptown Girl and Leave a Tender Moment Alone, is intentionally crafted to sound like songs from the 50s and 60s even though it was released in the 80s. It works because, sure, people are always intrigued by new, interesting sound people also like what they know.

It was the 90s by the time I discovered the Billy Joel song The Longest Time, but I loved it nonetheless. As someone who missed a lot of the 80s because my parents never listened to contemporary music, Billy Joel was off my radar for a long time. But once I started listening to music made after 1970, An Innocent Man was the album I latched onto first. I think of Joel as the bridge between a childhood of growing up on oldies music and an adult life of liking more modern music, preferably performed by a soulful dude with a piano.

It is a beautiful thing to fall in love with a song, which is exactly what happened with The Longest Time. It is an interesting thing to fall out of love with one though. I cited this as my favorite song for several years, until a friend of mine and her husband (who I was always rather critical of) decided it was “their” song. They also walked down the aisle to Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest”, another piano tune I spent much of college completely obsessing over.

There are certain things that, once associated with a song, you just can’t get past. We’ve all had a “song” with a boyfriend or girlfriend that becomes too painful to listen to for a while (it is another story for another time, but there was a year where I couldn’t listen to VeggieTale’s “His Cheeseburger” without crying). That is how I feel about The Longest Time and The Luckiest now. These were two songs I loved to listen to, imagining a life with my husband in which we shared the sentiments of these songs in the grown up version of pretending–daydreaming. While it is not a break up, knowing these songs were tied so closely to a relationship I wasn’t particularly fond of ruined my ability to pretend when listening to them, in turn ruining the songs not for any artistic reason, but because life decided it was time to change the playlist. It was too real, too tied to something I didn’t like much at all. Funny enough, I have since come around on the relationship, but the song continues to be one I just can’t listen to, nor will I be able to for quite a long time.

Scoring My Life Archive

1983: Return of the Jedi, Taxi, Faithfully

1983: A Fateful and Faithful Beginning

(For an explanation of this year-by-year cultural exploration, check out this introductory blog post)

I just missed out on being born in one of those easy-to-remember, apt to be culturally compared years when I came into the world late in September 1983, missing out by just three months on a whole lifetime of Orwellian comparisons. According to most generational groupings, 1982 is the cutoff for being a Snake Person, but let’s be honest. If you call me a Snake Person, I will poke you in the eye.

I prefer the generational designation determined by Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother fame. He calls it the Ewok Line. The line exists exactly ten years before the release of Return of the Jedi, dividing the world into two camps: those who like Ewoks and those who hate them. This is a generational division I can get behind.

Not only do I love Ewoks, as an adult with multiple film-related degrees, I cinematically evaluate the last chapter of the original Star Wars trilogy as the best. This is sacrilege, I realize, but Empire Strikes Back is far and away the worst movie to me. It can’t exist without the other two. No one can just watch Empire and have a satisfying cinematic experience. The movie starts in media res, there is no real begin. Nor is there much of an end. It is just a couple hours of myth- and world-building with no real payoff for your time and attention other than the Darth Vader reveal. I mean, half the movie is Luke running around a planet with only a Muppet to keep him company in what amounts to intergalactic Cast Away.

I feel this way about the middle chapter of most everything. The Two Towers is the worst Lord of the Rings movie, The Lost World is the worst Jurassic Park, Temple of Doom is the worst Indiana Jones, and The Matrix Reloaded is the crappiest of the three crappy Matrix movies. There are a couple of exceptions like Toy Story 2, Back to the Future II, and Godfather II (which doesn’t count because Godfather III doesn’t exist), but by and large my beef remains the same: if this movie can’t stand on its own as a quality piece of entertainment, I can’t possibly call it a good movie.

Return of the Jedi though, that is a satisfying piece of cinema. It begins by getting the gang back together with an escape caper, throws in a little romance, a little family, a lot of action, and an uprising by the most cuddly adorable bunch of rebels you’ve ever seen. I’ve spoken before about my contrarian love for Ewoks, but really Stinson hit the nail on the head: I saw this movie on the wrong side of the Ewok Line. I may not be a Snake Person, but I am definitely a sucker for Wicket.

The movies of 1983 may appeal to my youthful side, but the TV of 1983 goes straight to the heart of my old soul. The year of my birth was the end of one of my all-time favorite shows, the sitcom Taxi. Technically the show ended in June of that year, three years before I was born, but since Danny DeVito didn’t collect his final Emmy for portraying Louie DePalma until the fall of ’83, I’m going to go ahead and count it. While many sitcoms of today are praised for their sophistication and nuance, most of the shows are unabashed comedies with all of the sentimentality of the 80s and 90s zapped out of them, leaving the schmaltzy stuff for dramedies to handle. This was a show that could simultaneously be hilarious and heart breaking though. I mentioned recently Elaine Nardo’s mental breakdown. The incredible pair of episodes called Memories of Cab 804 bucks generic sitcom conventions with a series of vignettes featuring each cabbie and their favorite or most memorable Cab 804 experience. It is a remarkable bending of form with some unexpected and hilarious moments, particularly in DeVito’s section. It also features some sensational guest appearances from the likes of Mandy Patinkin and Tom Selleck.

The oscillation between pointed and poignant will always be the defining factor of my favorite TV shows. Sure, I think sentimentality can be manipulative and base, but I think shows that refuse to indulge in even a moment of emotion are cop outs.

And if you’re doubting whether or not the show is really funny because old stuff can’t be funny, just check out Jim Ignatowski
(Christopher Lloyd) taking his driver’s test:

As for music, this is probably a good time to preface this very important fact: I have terrible taste in music. I like very random bands. Many of the bands I enjoy are guilty pleasures for some that I thoroughly enjoy in a wholly unironic way (Haven’t we all seen Air Supply play live?). Then there are the bands that I came to long after they were popular. Having been raised on oldies music by my parents, it was totally normal for young me to be obsessed with Elvis or the Beach Boys or Johnny

As I progressed into my adolescence, I became infatuated with 80s music thanks to movies like Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and The Wedding Singer. I don’t know if it was the result of these movies or just a remarkable case of happenstance, but as I neared the end of high school, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin became an anthem of sorts for our generation. This was long before The Sopranos used the song for its series finale and a good decade before Glee made this one of the most popular downloads of the aughts.

A Bustle article does point to The Wedding Singer as the modern movie that sparked the song’s comeback, but I feel like it is more than just the decidedly 80s feel of this song. When I think of the songs my friends and I belted in the car in the years each of us learned to drive, they had one thing in common. They were all power ballads, songs with a chorus that repeats after the bridge, building momentum each time around, which is the key to any overdramatic teenaged girl’s heart. In my youth it was Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”. In the age of boy band pop and the rise of punk that embodied my teenage years, there weren’t that many rock ballads to choose from. I remember Eve 6’s “Here’s to the Night” and the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give”, but really it was those songs of the 80s and the occasional one-hit wonder that blared on our stereos and we belted as loud as we could.

We were also small town girls, living in lonely worlds as we sat around Lexington, Kentucky waiting for the day we headed off to college and bigger and seemingly better things. Once there though, this song reached the point of being overplayed long before it was on The Sopranos, that I tended to write off Journey altogether and instead spent my freshman year listening to the much-maligned Chicago in my dorm room with Heather Demetrios.

Before Glee even made it on the air, I knew I would be watching it. I have been a fan of the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, ever since he launched the show Popular back in 1999. The creative mind plus the concept bearing a more than passing resemblance to my own high school experience in a performing arts high school meant Glee was right up my alley. It also meant I wasn’t surprised at all that Don’t Stop Believin was the anthem of the New Directions Glee Club, since it was our high school anthem too. But it was another song that struck me in the first season —Faithfully.

I am and always will be a sucker for a good cover song (there is so much more to explore covering a song than remaking a movie imo) that this song, which first came out in 1983, came to my attention a quarter of a century later when Lea Michele belted it alongside the late Corey Monteith.

As a girl who spent her life on the road during most of her 20s, this whimsical tune about a couple in love that has weathered the ups and downs, the new towns, and the old problems resonated with me both as something I certainly wanted in my life, but as an example of how the lesser-knowns and the B-sides can often offer so much more than the long-lasting singles.

I cite the episode of Glee with the Journey medley at the end of Season 1 as one of my favorite performances along with the Valerie medley at regionals the following season. I don’t pick Journey and the pilot or the Britney episode or the other obvious contenders, and I admire when fellow fans eschew the obvious as well. I was born to prefer the not-so-beaten path in 1983 and it is a preference I will faithfully stand by for the rest of my life.