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no$talgia: one childhood for sale, cheap
multinationals making much money marketing my memories? maybe.
by adam kraemer (@DryWryBred)
6.5.03
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Ever wish you could go back in time to a simpler point in your life? No, not the 10 minutes before you decided to drink all those tequila shots. I'm talking about the moments of your youth, when the biggest worry you had was that your footy pajamas made your toes sweat, or a few years later when your hardest math homework was figuring out if line A was parallel or perpendicular to line B, or any point of time when the hardest decision you needed to make over the course of a day was whether to dig a hole or climb a tree.

Of course you'd love to go back, at least for a little - it's the "if I knew then what I know now" syndrome. I, for one, know that I would definitely have asked out Heather Camaratta. Well, live and learn (and maybe someday learn to spell her name right). Anyway, my point is that at some time or another we all deal with bouts of nostalgia; we all want to be kids again, or at least reminded of the good things about being kids. So we go out and buy things that enable us to do so - and somewhere, some company with absolutely no need to be at all innovative rakes in our cash like, well, like a gardener raking leaves (I know; not my most original analogy ever). Think about it - across nearly every industry are companies or divisions of companies set up solely for the purpose of repackaging and reselling our childhood. And we buy, buy, buy, buy, buy.

Why am I thinking about all this right now? Is it a pre-midlife crisis? Nope. No sports cars in my immediate future. What got me on this topic is that about two weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a link (it's been removed, unfortunately) to a web page where you could make designs using a virtual Lite-Brite "game." I put game in quotes, of course, because it's really only a challenge to anyone who can't recognize letters or who is 100% colorblind.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about and can't follow the link above, this was a light board with holes all over it for different inch-long multi-colored semi-transparent plastic pegs. Then a child would take one of these pre-printed paper sheets that would fit over said board, and push the correct pegs through, based on the letters printed on the sheet (y=yellow, p=purple, r=red, etc.), and it would eventually form a picture of, say, the Smurfs or Strawberry Shortcake or some nearly recognizable zoo animal. It's like paint-by-numbers for those kids without enough hand-eye coordination to stay within the lines.

Admittedly, I never really liked this game as a child. You neither killed anyone nor saved anyone nor set anything up so you could knock it down at the end. And the only way you could save the picture is if you never did another Lite-Brite for the rest of your life and left the colored pegs in place. Their impermanence makes Etch-a-Sketch look like the cave paintings at Lascaux. But as I looked at this website, I couldn't help but be happy that someone (Hasbro, apparently) had recreated something so closely associated with my childhood. And it's not like I spent all afternoon at work playing with it (I made a really pathetic attempt at drawing a clown freehand and then went back to my favorite internet pastime of searching for naked pictures of former classmates), but it did get me thinking about how much we all tend to put on a pedestal those things that remind us of the more pleasant aspects of childhood.

If you don't believe me, think about the feeling you got when you read my previous reference to the Smurfs. Kinda fills you with a warm feeling, doesn't it? Of course if you're the sort of person who hated the Smurfs, then maybe you'd prefer "The A Team," "Kidd Video," "Jem and the Holograms," or "Scarecrow and Mrs. King." Well, to each his or her own, I always say. Regardless, my point stands - we love those things, whether it's because they remind us of a simpler time, or whether they're just fixations from our formative years. And we love them, in many cases, more than whatever our adult equivalents happen to be. The attachment formed in our youth almost grows stronger as the years progress.

These companies are good at what they do, too. They know our demographic and they know exactly what makes our eyes light up. I was watching Saturday morning cartoons a couple of months ago at my brother's apartment, and I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that every toy they advertised was either something that I remembered from my childhood or a slightly more modern version of stuff we used to play with. Instead of Operation they had the Operation Brain Surgery Game; they had Electronic Battleship (no more of that pesky keeping track of stuff manually); they had Hungry Hungry Hippos (original version); they had some sort of Girl Talk game that was just a "safe" version of Truth or Dare; they had the Candy Land Adventure Electronic Hand-Held Game. I kept waiting for some new game called "Electronic Don't Tip the Waiter (Because He's Probably French)," but no dice. I think you get my point, nonetheless. And while, yes, these games and commercials are aimed at kids, ultimately, it's not the children who are going to do the buying. A parent is going to look at Mr. Potato Head and then at Bob the Builder and think, "Who's this Bob guy?" Cha-ching: another sale for the anthropomorphic tuber.

(As an aside, it really doesn't matter which of those two choices the parent makes - it all goes to the Hasbro corporation anyway. In doing a little research for that last paragraph it turns out that Hasbro owns both Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers. So basically Hasbro and Mattel [Fisher Price, Tyco] are the only toy companies left in the entire country, as far as I know.)

It's not just toys, of course. Across the popular culture board, these companies know that they can trot out their "25th Anniversary Commemorative Grease Plastic Combs" at, say, $15 per comb, and someone out there - millions of someones, probably - will buy it. They exploit our need for nostalgia like Kathy Lee Gifford exploits her children. And we even see that they're doing it, and we still pay for it. I admit it: I own the entire TimeLife "Sounds of the '80s" collection (and, no, I don't own a commemorative comb from any movie. I'm fairly certain I just made it up). And it's not entirely because the music is good (some is, but a lot of it really isn't); I bought that collection as much because of any musical value as because those songs reminded me of certain moments in my life - roller skating parties and sleepovers and my friends and I pretending to be a band and me torturing my little brother by tripping him repeatedly under the guise of letting him play soccer with us.

Hell, there are plenty of products from when I was a kid that I would still love to see turned into grown-up versions. I want a pair of Superman Underoos. I want to see a Scooby Doo lunchbox/laptop computer case. I want a book with a built-in computer chip on every page, so it could read itself to me as I read along. I want an action-figure robot that transforms itself into a set of graphite golf clubs.

I can't necessarily say that it's totally reprehensible, though. As I think I've proved, there's definitely a market there for nostalgia. Why do you think the Beatles and Elvis CDs sold so well in the past years? It's just repackaged nostalgia. It's not like Elvis came back from the dead (yes, he's dead, get over it) to record a few extra new tracks for the #1 Hits CD. Yes, I know they were remastered and remixed. But no one bought that CD because they've always lamented the fact that the third "Ah-ha-huh" in "Hard Headed Woman" was always a little too muted or because they absolutely need the JXL Radio remix of "A Little Less Conversation." It's all about the memories (and the music, of course, though big fans probably owned all those songs anyway).

Music, television, and movies, in general, have always had a cozy relationship with nostalgia. From records like Nino and the Ebb Tides' "Juke Box Saturday Night" (don't ask) to movies like George Lucas' American Graffiti and Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused to television's "The Wonder Years" and "That '70s Show," you'd think we can't get enough of "the good old days." And maybe we can't. Either way, a) it certainly explains why Poison, Vince Neil, and Skid Row still have audiences showing up for their tour this summer and b) I don't care what anybody says; I definitely want my local WB affiliate to start rerunning Sha Na Na episodes ASAP.

When I was home over Thanksgiving, my brother and I were asked (read: told) by my parents to go through all of our old toys in the basement and clear out those things that weren't "worth holding onto" (i.e., everything that wasn't a Star Wars toy). That was rough. G.I. Joes, Transformers, Indiana Jones action figures, original signed copies of Cat in the Hat, some Krugerrands the old guy down the street used to give me - all thrown on the bonfire in the driveway. I swear I wasn't crying; that was the smoke getting in my eye. But seriously, it was weird just relegating portions of my childhood to the garbage; I was never going to play with Castle Grayskull again, but it doesn't mean that I wanted it thrown out, either.

And I'm sure there are plenty more ideas for tapping this market. Heck, I came up with one the other day. It occurred to me that if you could somehow figure out how to open a bar where all of the employees were Muppets, you'd just rake in the cash. Imagine how much you'd pull in on tips alone if Kermit were your bartender, Janice was waiting tables, and the house band was Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. And I'm not talking about being served by people in costumes; they made those things ride bicycles, they can make them pour martinis. Million dollar idea, I tell you. Along the same lines, but a much worse idea, of course, is the Muppet strip club - not even Kermit would want to see Miss Piggy in a thong.

Obviously, I've been speaking mainly for my generation, really, but I'm sure that previous generations probably feel/felt the same way about their cherished childhood detritus. I'll bet my parents look back very affectionately on "Howdy Doody" and "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin." And I'm sure my grandmothers remember the radio shows they and their parents used to listen to and the toys they used to play with. And my grandfather probably has his own fond memories of flying a kite with a key tied to it during thunderstorms.

So it's a business; but it's also part of our lives, both past and present. And maybe 20 years from now, I'll look back on where I was today, and again yearn for that simpler time - no children, no mortgage, both testicles, no artificial hip. And I'm sure I'll be watching VH1's "Best of the Aughts," wondering where the time went, and thinking about buying my son some sort of holographic Battleship game. And these things will probably still make me happy. Because while I know it's as important to embrace the new as it is to remember the old, my parents had better never throw away my Millennium Falcon. That's a keeper.


ABOUT ADAM KRAEMER

A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.

more about adam kraemer




COMMENTS

trey askew
6.5.03 @ 10:24a

Ah, the glory days. Little to no responsibility and nap time was a scheduled part of the day and widely accepted.

Adam, you should have cashed in on your childhood like everybody else these days, through the magic of Ebay!

adam kraemer
6.5.03 @ 10:27a

I know. Actually, by "bonfire in the driveway," I really meant "boxes in my brother's attic." I think we tossed some of the M.A.S.K. stuff, though.

russ carr
6.5.03 @ 11:06a

Here's the link for the Virtual Lite-Brite. Use it responsibly.

dr. jay gross
6.5.03 @ 11:08a

Adam - You've captured the flavor of 'nostalgia'....my youth has lured me away from the pressures of a wasted life and has brought clarity to a day when things really made sense. The only thing that bothers me about this article: Why in hell didn't you put your old 'toys' up for auction (instead of throwing them away) and then take the wad of cash earned there to buy some NEW toys?? (shame on your Mother)

sarah ficke
6.5.03 @ 11:10a

My dad owns a Howdy Doody cookie jar, yet he felt no compunction about tossing out my My Little Ponies. Thank goodness he let me keep the Smurf figurines.

I have to admit that I love the nostalgia stuff. It's fun in ways that most of the things I like now are not. The X-Men movie is cool, but it's not fun in the way kicking back and watching Smurf reruns is. Smurfs are no-strings-attached fun, and I think everyone has a tendancy to miss that sort of thing.

erik myers
6.5.03 @ 11:13a

You don't think that the X-Men movie is no-strings-attached fun?

Truthfully: I tend to stay away from things I'm nostalgic about because I don't want my bubble to be burst. I remember things a certain way, and I want them to stay that way. I don't want to watch old G.I. Joe reruns and find out that the show was actually really asanine.

I don't mind the action figures, because it's still my imagination working -- that's fine. I'll always love my old He-Men and Transformers.

adam kraemer
6.5.03 @ 11:16a

Okay, the story behind not selling the toys on eBay is basically that my parents had wanted us to clean out the basement for a while. Selling the stuff would have a) put off the toy exodus for who knows how long and b) been a huge pain in the ass. I could have done it, but I don't have any storage where I live. My brother probably has never been on eBay in his life and my parents are a little too busy to monitor auctions, plus they really had no idea what our toys were. How's my mom going to figure out how much to charge someone for Destro, let alone know his name? Besides they were all out-of-the-box and played with and missing their accessories, etc. No one's going to buy a Jabba the Hut with one arm lost.

juli mccarthy
6.5.03 @ 11:21a

You'd be AMAZED what people will buy on eBay. I was cringing reading this because I know I would have been able to sell everything you mentioned.

adam kraemer
6.5.03 @ 11:33a

Oh, I know I could have sold it, but I don't think the returns would have been worth the hassle of organzing everything and then shipping it, etc. It's not like I have this huge desire to spend the next month or two in my parents' basement.

On another topic entirely, a friend of mine just e-mailed me to complain that I've now got the "Jem" theme in his head. I'm of the impression that she was not truly outrageous.

[edited]

amy watson
6.5.03 @ 12:05p

Adam, I can't believe you mentioned "Kid Video" - I remember my next door neighbor and I would play out things as if we were on the show. I know, I was a dork. Also, I would totally love a pair of Wonder Woman underroos like I had when I was kid. Or even better, a Wonder Woman bathing suit. I loved that thing so much I had 2!

adam kraemer
6.5.03 @ 12:17p

I remember being a bit annoyed that the girls' Underoos could double as a bathing suit, but the boys' were just colored briefs. Oh, well.

Speaking of Kidd Video, I just found this link. Be very scared.

heather millen
6.5.03 @ 12:30p

Just this Christmas I bought my neice a newly re-released Care Bear simply because I got all nostalgic in Target about how much I loved mine.

I'm pretty sure she quickly figured out that the bear's head wasn't going to spin or his belly grumble or anything neat like that and just threw the thing into the wall and called it a day. But whatever. I know that I got that warm fuzzy feeling you talk about here.

matt morin
6.5.03 @ 12:58p

I'm kinda in Erik's camp - usually when I go back and watch/play with that stuff, I realize how lame it was. (There are some exceptions though.) So I tend to just want to remember them fondly instead of actually reliving the moments.

adam kraemer
6.5.03 @ 1:19p

I caught an episode of Scooby Doo recently. That was a much dumber show than I remembered. Like when they come back from commercial and Fred gets the "gang" up to speed on what's happened so far (obviously for the audience): "Well, gang, Daphne's uncle's been kidnapped, but luckily we've found a clue, though nobody knows where Shaggy and Scooby are." I just wanted Velma to be like, "We know Fred. We were here, too, remember?"

[edited]

deb leipzig
6.5.03 @ 1:28p

First of all - thanks for the VH1 mention there at the end...And not to step on your hopes and dreams, but I just booked Kermit for an interview and discovered several things:
1. Muppets are VERY expensive
2. Muppets (Kermit specifically) require 2 people to make him "alive"
3. Muppets are very selective and specific about projects they lend their likeness to.
AND
4. Muppets (Kermit specifically) can only hold the weight of a greeting card in their "hands."

I am sorry to have to be the one to tell you.

[edited]

erik myers
6.5.03 @ 1:30p

I think what's even worse than the reruns of the shows that I loved, though, are the new-hashed versions of the shows that I loved.

The new Scooby Doo is bad. Almost as bad as the new He-Man, and the new Transformers (though Beast Wars was cool). And those aren't nearly as bad as the new X-Men (Evolutions) and the original of that cartoon isn't even that far gone.

I think it shows, somewhat, that our entertainment culture is running out of new ideas so they're trying to market the old ones as something new -- and it's horrible.

erik myers
6.5.03 @ 1:32p

Deb.

You're my hero. You're going to interview Kermit the Frog?

I think that's the coolest thing I've ever heard.

russ carr
6.5.03 @ 1:59p

Yes, but...! You could have audioanimatronics-based Muppets, rather than the marionnette/puppet kind, with internal robotics surrounded by the familar soft foam. The Muppet 'bots could be built strong enough to carry drinks. There are a couple of clever guys (can't find the website) who have built an automatic cocktail machine (push a button, it mixes the drink from its tanks of various liquors and mixers), so that takes away the tedium of having RoboKermit have to move from bottle to bottle...he can just reach under the counter and hand you your drink...
Compile a good interactive AI program, with a sound library created from original recordings of Jim Henson's voice...
Hey. It could work.

adam kraemer
6.5.03 @ 2:15p

See? This is what I'm saying. Deb, next time you talk to Kermit, suggest it.

matt morin
6.5.03 @ 2:19p

Somehow, no matter how many original Jim Henson voice recordings you splice together, you're never going to get Kermit to say, "So, you want sex on the beach, huh?"

heather millen
6.5.03 @ 2:26p

Perhaps not. But that Muppets song I had you download did mention sexy lingerie.

Man, I want to meet Kermit. Or more, Miss Piggy. That pig's got spunk.

adam kraemer
6.5.03 @ 2:33p

That pig's got Frank Oz's voice and a man's hand up her ass.

heather millen
6.5.03 @ 2:41p

Your point is? Sounds like West Hollywood to me.

adam kraemer
6.5.03 @ 3:23p

Oh, no point. I actually had a Smucker's Grape Jelly commemorative "Great Muppet Caper" glass with Miss Piggy crashing through the window on the motorcycle.

Actually the hardest part of this column was having to limit myself to the things from childhood that I could reference. If I had included everything that reminded me of childhood, I'd still be writing the thing.

mike julianelle
6.5.03 @ 4:13p

I LOVED Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Don't Tip the Waiter! Nice work recalling that junk. Oh, anyone interested in this kind of nostalgia, but with a decidedly warped angle that all us aimless boozehounds can appreciate, check out the FANTASTIC novel "The Toy Collector" by James Gunn. Not for everyone, but great for everyone else. One of my favorite contemporary books in a LONG time. Oh, and The Beatles still sell because their music is still great.

adam kraemer
6.5.03 @ 5:16p

Yeah, but if you're a big fan, you probably already owned everything that was on the #1 CD, right?

mike julianelle
6.5.03 @ 5:52p

Well, maybe. But some of the early pop hits are on albums I don't own, and they make up like 10-12 songs on that cd.

juli mccarthy
6.5.03 @ 9:27p

Adam, I sold my entire set of Great Muppet Caper glasses on eBay recently - for forty bucks. I'm tellin' you, it's worth the time.

adam kraemer
6.6.03 @ 9:33a

Well, it might be too late for everything but the Star Wars stuff. I did recently locate an original Obi-Wan Kenobi, though.



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