AN OUTRAGEOUS CONTAGION

Not A Hologram is a weekly column in which ‘80s through ‘90s hold-over Tim Blevins wonders if the 20th Century still matters.

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At eleven years old I wanted to be Jem.

To be clear, I didn’t want to date her (my pre-puberty emissions were already a-washed over the Prime-adjacent chassis of Elita-1). Rather, this idolization stemmed from the animated lifestyle this drawing of a person lived. She was new wave in the 80s-est fashion of the word and she was assisted in this pop appearance by Skynet’s more sociable sister Synergy, a self-aware holographic projecting computer that chose Jane Fonda’s Workout book as its avatar. The kismet of those two granted a glimpse of how I could appear, neon-shocked with a mane of pink atop the glam applications of Anne Magnuson, pre-Making Mr. Right.

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But Jem wasn’t just Jem. She was also Jerrica Benton, the 20-something executive of Starlight Records. This duality was key to her character as well as one of the selling points to the original toy line. With a quick comb of the hair and snap-fastened change of outfit, you had two dolls for the price of one. Dolls that I would smuggle out of my sister’s closet when she was rehearsing Coppelia at ballet class.

She had Jem and her sister Kimber (which meant I had Jem and her sister Kimber) and I would race them through the streets of New York in pursuit of some stolen alien power source. Inevitably they’d topple through a dimensional portal to a world of giant dressers and the monsters who used them. From there they’d fight their way back just in time to attend the flashy metropolitan gala where they would confide in each other how the adults didn’t “get them.” It was a familiar enough play scheme with the exception of that last part, as invites to this event were never addressed to Spidrax or Starscream.

Like most ‘80s idols, Jem had a band. Now it wasn’t the Misfits … that anarchic trio of electric distortion with Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z. as their lyrics. No, Jem fronted the poppier, more approachable band, The Holograms. And, by the modern day judgement call of blanket nostalgia, the Misfits were the band to like. They were loud, brash and holding there own on a triple bill with Crass and the Plasmatics. Meanwhile, the Holograms … ahm … ran an orphanage? Errr… cared for morals? Never blew rock off Barbie And The Rockers? I’m sure you remember the Misfits as being more fun. But at that time my focus was still focused on a particularly pink paladin.

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But why did that series of acetate cells put to the illusion of motion and based on a doll meant to compete in the “girl’s market” matter so much? Why did I fantasize about her teaming up with Bumblebee in a four issue Transformers crossover entitled “The Rocker And The Robot?” Why would I sit there on a sick day, wrapped in a blanket with one hand on the dial, fully enraptured past the awareness to swap channels should someone come into the room to make a non-existent gender call?

The answer, like all answers, lies in comic book logic. But with a fashionable flip of the normal narrative

To start with, Jerrica Benton had the corporate responsibilities of running a company. She had to fill out paperwork, stress over budget matters and perpetually babysit brats at the Starlight House. And that’s just a crushing affair as drab as the less shiny side of a reversible sash. She was trapped in the trappings of adult life without any space for personal experimentation. That is, until she stumbled upon the technology that Mysterio would have filled his fishbowl for.

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Thanks to Synergy’s lack of a grasp on holography, Jerrica was able to don the flamboyant pop star appearance of Jem. And Jem was excitement. Jem was adventure. She was basically everything missing from Jerrica’s perceived reality of life. And I say perceived because everything about Jem seemed to be a smoke and mirrors approximation of Nina Hagen war paint. Yet what I saw … wasn’t a Hologram.

To me , Jerrica had found herself. Jerrica was Jem, but not the way Bruce Wayne was Batman or Norrin Radd was the Silver Surfer. Those costumes were donned because their lives were shattered by a petty bullet and a hungry man in a hat. But Jerrica became Jem so she wouldn’t be tethered by her 9 to 5 job. Now I know there were episodes where she had that dual identity struggle of “am I Jem? Am I Jerrica?” And at nearly 13 I would want to shout so loudly through that cathode tube:

“YOU ARE JEM! THAT’S WHO YOU ARE. AND IT NEVER HAS TO BE ANY DIFFERENT.”

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That whole secret identity thing is a cypher for the conflicting roles society forces us into. And, most of the time, the more exciting one to follow is also the one under most distress. Given the choice, Peter Parker would rather be Peter Parker, at school with his angst and not having to worry about an alien symbiote who eats brains. But as an audience, we prefer the cosplay. We want our characters to dress up and play pretend on a sci-fi scale. And always at the expense of what our main character most wants … a life more ordinary.

And that human experience never made sense to me. I didn’t want to just be in high school. I didn’t want to just work for S.T.A.R. labs. I didn’t want to just be a millionaire playboy (not the reason I’m not … but you get the train of thought). So as I wrestle with this mid-life responsibility on the cusp of 2020, (a year whose calendar will bring nothing but metaphors for hindsight), I do sort of wonder … can I be just THIS? A 43 year-old with waxed up hair and painted nails surrounded by comic books, movie posters and a vintage Jem doll standing atop my work space. Can I still love cartoons? Can I still dissect Star Wars? Can i just indulge in the plastic theater that Hostess, Hasbro and Sire records have to offer? Or is it all an illusion to still think that’s who I am?

Well, Jem wasn’t an illusion. She was Jerrica Benton. And she took the stage like a pink detonation of kabuki pop, wearing fashions of an intensity that scorched the surrounding Earth. This Jem people saw onstage wasn’t a holographic light show. She was exactly who Jerrica wanted to be.

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So, sure, my childhood hero was also a truck. And the career I discussed with my guidance counselor was Ghostbusting. But to look back at something that truly (truly, truly) impacted me ... Jem was the step I needed to know that my choices do matter. This lifestyle some deem juvenile, with all its Tiffany albums, wind up Mousers, and Mystery Science Theater on VHS, ... if that’s sincerely the person I want to be.. then I can be that person. Its not just some stage persona bathed in illusion. Its me. And its legitimately outrageous. And somewhat contagious. And since there currently seems to be no applicable cure … .. I might as well ride it out.

-sigh-

Tim

Tim is Tim Blevins, co-host of the 20TH CENTURY POP! podcast and author of the (possibly) upcoming graphic novel THIS IS NOT YOUR PLANET. He spells Pizazz with too many Zs.


20POPCAST PLUG:

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On this Thursday’s episode of 20th Century Pop! Bob and I are once again there for you with another look back at one of our favorite cafe-era sitcoms. FRIENDS: THE BEST AND WORST ONES finds us trying to deem our top and bottom episodes from memory It was only after making our list that we actually watched them so … it’ll be interesting to hear if our judgement calls hold up.

You can stream episode 096 of 20TH CENTURY POP this Thursday at 20POPCAST.COM or, even better, subscribe to the show on APPLE PODCASTS, STITCHER and other ANDROID DEVICES (despite all the Ross).


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WHAT I WATCHED:

JAYCE AND THE WHEELED WARRIORS (1985)
Working my way through this box set of what it was like to have David Cronenberg as a babysitter.


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WHAT I LISTENED TO:

DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE (1982) by Huey Lewis And The News
A fairly horn-less ballad without any real sense of romantic entanglement that has always doubled as my favorite piece of News.


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WHAT I READ:

THE ART OF THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) by Vic Bulluck & DEborah Call
This battered, first edition Ebay bid became a full afternoon exhibit.


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Talk to TIM BLEVINS on TWITTER @subcultist 
See what he’s seeing on INSTAGRAM @subcultist
Subscribe to his podcast 20TH CENTURY POP! (with co-host BOB CANNING)
on APPLE PODCASTSSTITCHER and ANDROID.
Then follow them on TWITTER @20popcast and on INSTAGRAM @20popcast