This week’s question comes from staff writer Alex McCown:
What’s a piece of pop culture that as a kid you thought everyone knew and loved and then realized when you were older it was just you? For instance, stuff you wrongly believed was ubiquitous but was totally idiosyncratic to you and your family.
I can’t tell you how many times as a child I danced around my family’s living room, singing along to the Disney’s Christmas All-Time Favorites album. A record full of traditional carols and holiday songs reinterpreted by Disney characters like Goofy and Donald Duck, it taught me highly particular versions of classic songs. I knew every word by heart, and more importantly, I was convinced that every other child on Earth did, too. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered what I thought of as “Here Comes Santa Claus” was not what other people knew to be the song. And this came about via a class rendition of the tune, wherein I veered wildly off into my best Donald Duck impression—which is to say, an absolutely rotten Donald Duck impression—as my classmates dropped away one by one, their jaws hanging open in disbelief, until I was the last one singing. Finally, my teacher stopped me, and, giving stern looks to the kids already making fun of me, said, “Alex, no one knows what you’re doing right now.” Ah, magical holiday memories.
The first game system I ever owned was a Sega Genesis, which I’d plant myself in front of for hours on end at my dad’s house on weekends. Most of what I remember playing were games that have since passed into the 16-bit canon, starring such mascots of the medium as Sonic, Ecco, Earthworm Jim, and those colorfully dressed brawlers from Streets Of Rage. One of my favorite time-passers, however, was The Humans, a side-scrolling puzzle game I rented on a whim and eventually purchased from my local Blockbuster. Essentially a clever knockoff of Lemmings, except that it allowed you to actually control (and not just command) your avatars, the game hinged on ushering a tribe of prehistoric people to safety, using strategy and timing to fend off (anachronistic) dinosaurs. My cousin and I were totally engrossed by the game, which rewarded the completion of levels with new advances in Homo sapiens technology, from fire to weapons to the wheel. So addictive and inventive was The Humans that I was genuinely shocked to discover, years later, that virtually no one my age had played or even heard of it. Some quick Google research reveals that it was a bona fide, cross-platform franchise, but the blank stares I get when saying its title aloud leads me to suspect that it’s completely forgotten now. History’s loss, I suppose.
My grandma was into buying my brother and myself VHS tapes at Big Lots, a move that, while kind, generally ended up with us watching a whole lot of Tom And Jerry. One time, though, she gifted us with a Nintendo game, presumably also purchased at Big Lots. Finally, we thought, something with lasting power and a little bit of cool. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the game she bought us was Treasure Master, a cartridge issued in 1991 as part of some sort of MTV-related contest. A clunky, tedious, and hateful game that somehow involved radium boots and challenges that were absolutely unbeatable, Treasure Master was the type of game that really would have benefitted from the internet, or at least some sort of place where my brother and I could have gone to vent our constant frustrations. Why couldn’t we beat more than two or three levels? And what was the point? While we consistently held out hope that one of our friends would come over and crack the code, showing us how to make the game more fun, that never happened and to this day, my brother and I still reminisce about just how much time that abomination stole from our precious lives.
Life Goes On hit the air in 1989, the same year I was born. The American television series, now best remembered as the first TV show to have a major character with Down syndrome (Charles “Corky” Thatcher, played by Chris Burke), ran for four seasons and is one of my earliest pop culture memories. It’s also the reason I go by Becca (Rebecca “Becca” Thatcher, played by Kellie Martin, was Corky’s younger sister) instead of my given name of Rebecca, or any of the awful nicknames my family tried to foist on me over the years. (Let’s just say someone in my family has a real affinity for a certain female country singer.) For most of my life, I assumed it was a show that every person had watched and loved, and I found myself confused more than once when people didn’t immediately understand the reasoning behind my nickname choice of Becca. I mean, the show opens with the ubiquitous “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles (albeit a cover version sung by the cast) and Tony Award-winning actress Patti LuPone played mom, Elizabeth “Libby” Thatcher. How did so many people miss that?!
My answer is also Christmas related: Every year my family breaks out our collection of classic holiday films including It’s A Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and The Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special. And while I’m sure plenty of people have seen the latter, it took me a long time to realize that K.D. Lang singing “Jingle Bell Rock” isn’t quite as ubiquitous as Jimmy Stewart wishing a Merry Christmas to that old Building & Loan. The bizarre special is chock-full of jokes about fruitcake; guest appearances from the likes of Little Richard, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Cher; and musical performances from Grace Jones and Charo. And while all of that brings up holiday nostalgia for me, after a while I figured out most people don’t associate Christmas with Pee-wee Herman and a choir of handsome Marines.
Like a lot of kids, my musical taste derived almost entirely from what my parents had around or listened to in the car. Unfortunately for my early attempts at socialization, that mostly meant a lot of Paul Simon tapes—not awful, but not great, coolness-wise—and, more problematically, Billy Joel. I loved Joel fervently and uncritically, even if I was a little annoyed that he used the bastardized nickname “Billy” instead of the far superior William or Will. Here’s the thing, though: I’ve since learned that the songs I was obsessed with weren’t even the good Billy Joel stuff. No “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” no “She’s Got A Way,” not even freaking “Piano Man.” There’s nothing like standing up and reading at journal day, only to discover that your fellow second graders don’t agree that the cheesy harpsichord synths in “Pressure”—which, in my defense, sounded a lot like the Castlevania soundtrack, which I loved—do not make a good basis for an epic Halloween song about battling against and fleeing from monsters. To be fair, though, my willingness to get up and read that stuff in front of a bunch of skeptical 8-year-old kids probably had as much to do with my social problems as my parents’ taste in music.
When I was first starting to branch out into movies that weren’t animated or puppet-dominated, I was mostly into watching comedies. I was also into taping movies off of local broadcasts on Saturday and Sunday afternoons (usually from WXXA Fox-23, WSBK-38, and WPIX-11, affiliates from Albany, Boston, and New York, respectively). Because of their heavy local rotation, ’80s comedies like Clue, Funny Farm, All of Me, and Dragnet figured heavily into my early movie-watching, and as such I didn’t know right away that they were not universally beloved box-office hits on the level of Ghostbusters or Back To The Future. (Okay, maybe I had an inkling, but I certainly didn’t know Clue was a box-office flop in its day.) Now, because of the internet, cult love for a movie like Clue can be well-documented, and because of the accelerated nostalgia cycle, I can assume many of my peers have seen at least some of my childhood favorites. But as a pre-adolescent kid, I would have found it strange that they hadn’t, even though it was in fact statistically likely that other 10-year-olds hadn’t watched the Dan Aykroyd/Tom Hanks Dragnet. For that matter, I don’t know that I was aware until much later that other people’s families did not all obsessively tape hundreds of movies off of TV just because they had a VCR—because that’s what my grandfather, father, and I all did.
I have a similar experience to Jesse, in that I too recorded movies on our VCR and watched the tapes obsessively, which means I had a skewed perspective about the relative importance of movies like Better Off Dead, Real Genius, Club Paradise, and A Fine Mess. Better Off Dead and Real Genius are (wisely) considered classics 30 years later, but few people remember Club Paradise or A Fine Mess, both from 1986. The former stars Robin Williams as a fireman-turned-resort owner opposite Peter O’Toole, Jimmy Cliff, Twiggy, and some notable SCTV alumni like Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, and Brian Doyle-Murray. Williams later said he was “suckered into” doing Club Paradise, and O’Toole earned a Razzie nomination for his performance. A Fine Mess starred the comedy duo no one asked for, Howie Mandel and Ted Danson, as guys tied up in a horse-fixing scheme with the mob or something. I don’t really remember, but for some reason I watched it repeatedly after it hit cable.
One of the most unnerving things about growing up is discovering that your parents might not be as plugged into the cool as you automatically assumed they were. For me, that disillusionment came when I realized that all things circus were not as beloved by the general public as they were by my circus freak dad. (Not to say my dad bites the heads off chickens—he’s just been drawn to the circus since he was a little boy. You get it.) Apart from the looks of confused horror my friends got when they’d come over only to be greeted by an 8-track playing a circus band’s rendition of, say, “Nadia’s Theme,” the real kicker was when my incipient movie geek reading introduced me to the inescapable fact that my dad’s favorite movie, the bloated big top extravaganza The Greatest Show On Earth, is roundly considered the worst Best Picture Oscar winner of all time. Sitting in the dark watching yearly television showings with my dad was my first exposure to what had been anointed classic cinema, so I simply assumed that all great movies were overlong, larded with portentous voice-over narration, and alternated sparkly spectacle with silly melodrama. (It was also my first exposure to Jimmy Stewart, Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Lawrence Tierney, and the saucy young Gloria Grahame, so the experience wasn’t all bad.)
I spent that early-taste-forming part of my life living with my poet dad—only a couple of years older than I am now—in a quasi-bohemian environment that was all about Jim Jarmusch, Boris Grebenshikov, Tom Waits, and the Until The End Of The World soundtrack. In other words, I had the opposite of Dennis’ experience: that gradual realization that your boring parents are widely considered cool by other people. As a result, I’ve got a childhood’s worth of unpopular touchstones. I wore our VHS of the Giorgio Moroder-scored cut of Metropolis into oblivion, and no album towered over the few years of childhood I shared with my then-stepbrother more than Live MCMXCIII, an uneven—but, to our 10-year-old ears, mesmerizing—document of the Velvet Underground’s 1993 reunion tour. We were essentially the same age, but I’d skipped a grade, which created a farcically intense and destructive rivalry, with our taste in music being one of our only real bonds. Even then, there was intellectual one-upmanship. (He won, by the way; I barely graduated high school, and he became a historian at Harvard.) It took until my first grown-up job, selling CDs in Chicago, to realize how little Velvets fans cared for the record. I still listen to it sometimes, partly as a nostalgia item, and partly because some piece of me prefers the John Cale-sung version of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
I think this counts because I don’t believe anyone ever made this mistake as a child, or simply shared this bizarre holiday tradition. Every Christmas Eve (hey, more holiday entries!) we went to my grandparents’ place to celebrate, and without a hell of a lot to do, my cousins and I would inevitably end up putting on the only VHS tape in the house: Top Gun. (It was a gift for our Air Force vet grandfather and honestly, an ulterior motive on our part to give us something to do while the grown-ups got drunk.) Early in the film, there’s a scene with a simple title card reading “Present Day.” I was about 3 or 4 years old in 1986, and just like believing in Santa, I wholeheartedly believed I would get to participate in Present Day one day when I was “ready.” Adding to my belief was The Terminator, another “Present Day” intro. I couldn’t really image how the holiday would work—I just assumed it was like Christmas 2.
With Mad Max: Fury Road slaying the box office and everyone talking about its real, true star Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron has been on my mind a lot lately. But Theron infiltrating my thoughts is nothing new. In fact, she has been on my mind quite regularly ever since the summer before third grade, when I rented 1998’s Mighty Joe Young from Blockbuster. See, lots of people appreciate Charlize Theron. Ask the average Theron aficionado what their favorite work of hers is, and you’re likely to hear Monster, Young Adult, or maybe even the occasional wildcard answer: Snow White And The Huntsman, which she did indeed carry. But no one will say Mighty Joe Young. Hardly anyone even remembers the 1998 remake of the black-and-white fantasy film from 1949. On my first day of third grade, my teacher asked us to write about what we did over summer and share interesting facts about ourselves so she could get to know us. I proceeded to write about two pages worth of intensely detailed plot summary and raving commentary about both Mighty Joe Young’s story and its star: Charlize Theron as the heroic Jill Young. That entry in my third grade journal is the only overwhelmingly positive review the film ever received. It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered this is not the cinematic experience everyone instinctively drifts back to when they think of Theron. But I’m not entirely alone; I’m pretty confident my dad can still recite every line from memory.
I’ve spoken in the past about how my diverse tastes in music were cultivated naturally, but while my mother’s musical preferences tended more toward the easy-listening side of things, my father was a bit more unique. Like many guys in my neck of the woods, he was a country music fan, so I grew up listening to a lot of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash, but it would take a few more years before I realized that not everyone my age had been raised to appreciate the merits of Al Jolson. My dad was raised predominantly by his grandparents, so even though he was born in the early 1940s, he ended up being shaped a fair amount by their tastes in music, which is how he came to be a major Jolson aficionado… and how, in turn, I ended up as one, too. Though many people may be repelled by his association with blackface, he was a showman extraordinaire, a guy who was gifted with some serious pipes and knew how to use them. Yes, he had one hell of an ego, but when it came to performing, it was warranted. I don’t really go around trying to preach the gospel of Jolson, because his voice is definitely unique and either you’re going to like it or you’re not, but I’m definitely a Jolson fan, and I expect I’m one of very few people in their 40s who can say that.