While watching the 1985 cartoon series Jem, one thing became startlingly clear: I now know where my generation gets its idea of the 80's from.
Sure, I'm aware that there was a culture that existed outside of the cult of Madonna and leg warmers during that era, as are many of my peers. But it's not what we think of when we think 1980's. We think of neons and pastels, of too much make up and too much hair. We think of a time when you could walk out the door with a mustache and a mullet and not have someone ask you why you look like a jackass.
Trust me on this one – given the number of “80's parties” I saw in college, I might as well have majored in “People Born After 1989's Idea of the 80's.” Bad joke, but it's true. And even if we didn't sit around taking notes on Jem, or even had heard of it, the show is at least a pretty clear look into the mind set of a 18-25 year looking back on a decade they barely know.
So what was Jem, anyway? Well, it was a show created by Hasbro to sell Jem dolls (which hit the shelves in 1986), and it did so by shoving practically ever feature of mid-80's pop culture into a 30 minute block in an effort to get kids to bite. It begins with the death of Jerrica and Kimber Benton's father, Emmett, an executive-type who ran a record company called Starlight Music and a foster home for girls called Starlight House. When a former employee of Emmett's named Eric Raymond decides to try and take over Starlight Music, with help from a music group he created called The Misfits (a sort of punk girl group not at all related to the actual Misfits), things look bad for the two sisters... until Jerrica discovers that her father has left her a magic machine capable of coating her in a hologram that can transform her into pop superstar Jem! It also has the image of a woman inside of it and is called Synergy. Yes, Synergy, a buzzword so infamous that even I know it was a buzzword in the 80's. Speaking of buzzwords, did I mention the go-go attitudes of all the characters yet? No? Well, they have them.
It also turns out that she can also activate the hologram by touching a set of special earrings and saying “Showtime, Synergy,” which naturally comes in handy all the time. Using her new found popstar powers, she forms the band Jem and the Holograms with Kimber and some friends from the Starlight House and, armed with a catchphrase of “Truly Outrageous,” proceeds to do musical battle with The Misfits over the course of the show. And when I say “musical battle” I'm really, really stressing the “musical” part: each episode featured three new songs, and many of the major plot points are further emphasized by cutting away to a “music video” of one of the bands, complete with MTV-esque labeling in the bottom corner of the screen. Additionally, a good number of episodes center around a music based show down of some sort.
An even more frequent occurrence: colored hair. Even on boys, and not even punk boys (in the episode called “Glitter and Gold,” the punks we meet are a band called The Skulls, who look like the offspring of a supervillan's henchman and a skinhead). Blues, pinks, greens, oranges – it's like they're all dropouts from Clown College. Or at least they would, if it weren't for HOW PERFECT EVERYONE'S HAIR IS. ALWAYS. It's easy to imagine an elderly Jerrica and Kimber sitting in rocking chairs on a porch somewhere, their skin weathered and their bodies bent with age, but their hair cascading perfectly down to their shoulders. In fact, if their hair were doing anything else, it wouldn't be Jerrica and Kimber.
It's also impossible to imagine this porch scene without at least four different colors of neon clothing. Seriously, I would bet money that the 80's were the roughest time for the manufacturers of bicycle reflectors in the history of bicycle reflectors, if Jem is to be believed. There must have been no need for them when everyone's neon pink and green sweater could be seen at night, underwater and through very thin walls. The make up is even worse: between the lightning bolts/cat scratches of The Misfits and the “I put this on in the car” look of the Holograms, it's hard to say which group looks more like a cheap hooker. This not to place all the hate on the ladies though. The guys dress no better, typically sticking to full suits, pastel shirts, terrible sweaters, or some unholy combination of the three.
Given the massive scope of the show, how the hell Hasbro managed to tie all of this music and fashion together to sell toys is a pretty good question, albeit one with a very easy answer: they included a cassette tape containing a song by Jem and the Holograms or one by The Misfits.
And it worked, at least for a time. Between their release in February of 1986 and August of 1987, over three million of the dolls had been sold, a statistic which also means that the cassette tapes included went triple platinum. The major competitor during that time was Barbie, of course, who, together with her band, the cringe worthy Rockers, fought a very real retail war with Jem.
Unfortunately for Jem, victory eventually went to Barbie. In November of 1987, Hasbro announced their plans to pull the doll line. The show itself carried on until May of 1988 before it too was halted after the show's contract ran its course.
Though canned, was the show ever really forgotten? Absolutely not. A quick Google search of “Jem fan site” reveals nearly a dozen fan sites, their quality ranging from professional material to absolutely horrendous Anglefire sites. Through this fandom and nostalgia for 80's in general, the memory, fashion and attitude of the show and decade has been preserved.
After all, it's what brought you here today. It's also why you still see far too many drunk freshman in oversized neon sweaters and ratty windbreakers stumbling around the student ghettos of your city.
LA Times “Barbie Prevails; 'Jem' Singing Her Swan Song: Hasbro Doll Being Pulled as Mattel Beats the Band:” http://articles.latimes.com/1987-11-03/business/fi-18333_1_jem-dolls
LA Times “Truly Outrageous:” http://articles.latimes.com/1987-08-22/business/fi-985_1_triple-platinum
Rock Jem: http://www.rockjem.com/