PopCulture25YL looks back at the music, shows, comics, books and whatever else we want from the month that was October of 1994 to explore why they’re still relevant to us 25 years later. This week brings us Gagoyles, Aaahh Real Monsters!!!, Friends, Madonna’s Bedtime Stories and Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas.
VHS In The VCR
Gargoyles by Alex Boruff
When I was a kid, around six or seven specifically, one of my favorite VHS tapes was an officially licensed release of the five-part series premiere of a new Disney TV show called Gargoyles. The episodes, simply titled “Awakening” Parts 1 through 5, told the story of a clan of creatures in medieval Scotland who were petrified stone in the daylight and flesh-and-blood beast-men by night, and how their leader Goliath and five others were magically frozen in their stone forms for centuries, until brought to modern-day (circa 1994) New York City. They must adjust to this strange new world around them and figure out which of its denizens are their friends and which are their foes. And, of course, they also fight crime. It was dark and moody and had complexity beyond anything I was used to seeing in cartoons, with the possible exception of Batman: The Animated Series.
It became one of those formative series full of “firsts” for me. It was my earliest understanding of New York City as a place, as more than just the name of some city. I got my first exposure to Shakespearean characters such as Macbeth and the fairies of Midsummer Night’s Dream long before I ever actually read any of Shakespeare’s plays. It sparked my fascination with complex villains, through recurring antagonists Demona—a gargoyle turned bitter and cruel from centuries of being hated and feared by humans—and David Xanatos—the billionaire super-genius who awakened our heroes in New York in the first place—who was just as likely to join forces with the gargoyles as fight them—as long as doing so served his own ambitions.
I watched as much of the series as I could, although being a small child in the days before casual online streaming, it was difficult to actually catch it on television, so I missed out a bit on the excitement of recurring plot points and continuing narratives—something a lot more novel in animated shows then compared to now. That emphasis on continuity, in addition to the darker tone and subject matter, made Gargoyles one of a very few Western shows of its time pushing the envelope on what was seen as permissible in animation. Nowadays we are almost spoiled for choice when it comes to family-friendly animated shows that also have the depth and complexity to appeal to adult audiences: Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, the Tales of Arcadia duology, soon-to-be-trilogy, Steven Universe—not to mention plenty of anime, a cultural import that was only starting to get traction with mainstream American audiences 25 years ago.
I’ve been re-watching Gargoyles for the first time as an adult lately. It’s easy to compare parts of it unfavorably to more recent and accomplished animated shows, but I think the material still holds up pretty well even in a modern context, and its value as a boundary-pushing series of its time should never be underestimated. 25 years on from its premiere, I’d like to see it make a resurgence in popularity, both to be appreciated for its place in the growth of Western animation, and enjoyed as a good piece of entertainment.
Aaahh!!! Real Monsters by Myles Hughes
The ‘90s were a bold and exciting time for animated television. For kid-friendly cartoons there was a veritable smorgasbord of entertainment options, usually split between two categories. There were your superhero or superhero-adjacent shows, like Batman, X-Men, and Spider-Man, which warmed up a whole generation of future fans for the onslaught of comic book properties currently dominating all forms of media. And then there was a far broader category, which could perhaps most generally be described as the “weird stuff”.
These were the shows that were unafraid to be visually and narratively inventive. Some of the most interesting ones were more experimental, somewhat abstract and even a little disturbing. This was the era that gave us Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life, truly pushing the boundaries of what one could get away with in a children’s cartoon. A celebration of the grotesque repackaged as something palatable and even endearing to the oddball kids who found they had an easier time relating to bizarre-looking outcasts than clean-cut caped crusaders. It was this latter category that gave us the uniquely delightful Aaahh!!! Real Monsters.
Created by Gábor Csupó and Peter Gaffney for Nickelodeon and based on a concept by Csupó and his wife Arlene Klasky (whose company Klasky Csupo had already seen considerable success with Rugrats), the show follows three young monsters who live in a garbage dump and attend monster school, where they learn the ins and outs of scaring people. Ickis (Charlie Adler) is a diminutive purple rabbit-looking thing who’s often more afraid of the people he’s supposed to be scaring than they are of him, but is fiercely loyal to his friends and can grow to enormous size when under pressure. Oblina (Christine Cavanaugh) typically appears as a sentient black-and-white candy cane, though she can transform into virtually any shape as the situation suits her, and regularly finds herself being the voice of reason when things get hairy. Krumm (David Eccles) most closely resembles a naked hairy baby, except that his eyeballs are detached and need to be carried around. The most carefree of the trio, his scaring abilities have less to do with his outward appearance than with his ghastly odor, which can clear a room in record time.
So far, so gross, right? That’s not even the half of it. As mentioned, the trio and their numerous classmates all live in a garbage dump, which probably sounds less than ideal to you or I, but is a virtual paradise to the monsters. The characters delight in the consumption of filth and waste. Every other shot seems to have a bug or two scurrying around, often seconds away from being a snack for whomever is nearest. Indeed, it is the cleanliness of the human world that frightens these monsters the most. They do their best to steer clear of anything we might consider normalcy as they fulfill various homework assignments issued by their vindictive and temperamental professor, the Gromble (Gregg Berger).
Yet this incessantly disgusting quality is a big part of what gave Aaahh!!! Real Monsters its charm. The world is viewed exclusively from the monsters’ perspective, and the definition of normality is skewed accordingly. If you were the right age to no longer be afraid of something spooky under your bed, yet found yourself open-minded enough to wonder where that spooky creature came from and what its life was like when it wasn’t creeping up behind you, then this show hit the perfect sweet spot. An endearing cast, a unique visual style, and more than a little raunchy humor made it a winner with its target audience. Sadly, after four seasons it never quite achieved the more mainstream success (and later nostalgia) of its contemporaries, although that may be more fitting for a truly odd show that always embraced its outsider status and was never afraid to wear its creepy heart on its sleeve.
Friends- The One With The Butt by Abbie Sears
The last episode of Friends to air in October 1994 happened on the 27th, and is brilliantly titled “The One With The Butt.”
This episode begins with Joey acting in a musical theatre play that the group deems to be awful, however talent agent Estelle leaves him her card. As we know, Estelle goes on to be Joey’s agent for the rest of the series and this is where it all began. Perhaps she recognised the sparkle we see in Joey despite this play, even though I think the play seems quite fun! “All you want is a dinkle! What you envy’s a schwang, a thing through which you can tinkle, to play with or simply let hang!” Yep, those actually are the words…
The woman in the audience who gives Joey the card is Aurora, who is one of the most beautiful women you’ll ever see. Recognising this, and anticipating rejection, Chandler asks her out and she actually says yes. However on their first date it becomes clear that this won’t be a lasting relationship when she opens up about having both a husband and a boyfriend. After telling the gang that this is every guys dream and having a wonderfully magical fling, Chandler decides that a woman seeing so many guys is too hard for him and luckily he gets out of that relationship.
Joey’s new agent Estelle gets him a part as Al Pacino’s butt double in a movie (hence the name of the episode). This of course couldn’t go by without some classic snarky Chandler remarks. “Are you going to invite us all to the big opening?”
Joey thinks this is going to be his “big break,” however, on the same day he starts filming, the crew fire Joey because he’s “acting with it” too much with the part. How is that possible?!
Monica tries hard to prove that she isn’t obsessively compulsive, which proves wrong when she lies in bed at the very end of the episode fretting over shoes left out on the floor by the couch. This is the real first insight we get into Monica’s OCD that becomes very apparent later on. Ironically she describes herself as being kooky by trying to be messy, but she’s pretty kooky the way she is!
CDs on Rotation In Our Six-Disk
The Creative Segue of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories by Rachel Stewart
“It took me much too long to understand how it could be / until you shared your secret with me”
“Secret” dropped just in time for the homecoming dance season. I’d been a Madonna fan much longer, since the time I was old enough to sneak and watch Madonna videos on MTV, much to the dismay of my mother. And while this album dropped in fall of ‘94, I remember playing it well into the summer of ‘95. It was an album of proper poolside jams for sun-tanning and gossiping with the girls. The general ‘70s R&B groove was infectious (“Survival,” “Don’t Stop”) and outrageous (“Human Nature”). I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a continuation of sorts for Madge’s previous album, Erotica, which featured a heavier R&B theme alongside jazz and synths. (I’d discover this later when I was finally able to get my hands on it at a second-hand shop.)
As much as this album is a continuation of the grittier sound and look she laid down in Erotica, there are glimmers of what would be in just a few years time: slow jams like “Inside of Me,” “Love Tried to Welcome Me” and “Sanctuary” showed Madonna’s guarded and wounded heart amongst the backdrop of techno and electronic elements which would become the focal point of her masterpiece Ray of Light. The title track “Bedtime Story,” written by Bjork, gave Madonna one the most stunning music videos of her entire videography, filled with computer graphics usually lent to the likes of Peter Gabriel and imagery leaning more towards MTV’s Liquid Television hour than prime-time rotation. Her constant need to collaborate with others rendered an album that was sensual and artistic but rough around the edges much like the cover’s iconic artwork—Madonna’s eyes smudged black and severe red lip against blurred pastels and lace.
And then there’s “Take a Bow.” Babyface’s signature production and style is all over it, and Madonna’s vocal is warm and earnest. The ballad topped the charts, and allowed naysayers to experience a softer side of an often brash and outspoken icon. However, most importantly, is the video, a sepia-tinged affair between a beautiful woman and a bullfighter. Madonna had stylized herself into a 1940s starlet for another purpose: to prove to Alan Parker that she could play Eva Peron in Evita. (She sent a copy of the video with a four-page letter explaining why she was the best choice.) The gamble paid off in multiple ways for Madonna – she landed the role, gained an entire upper register in her vocal range while training for the role and she became pregnant with her first child Lourdes during filming. Again, all of these personal journeys would come to their ultimate artistic fruition in Ray of Light but in October of 1994, Madonna was still discovering herself and letting us tag along for the banger of a ride.
Mariah Carey- Merry Christmas by Jason Sheppard
Turn on any radio station, anywhere in the country at any time of day on December 1st and chances are you‘ll hear the sound of chimes followed by the lyrical sighing voice of Mariah Carey making a plea to the angels of the season to “make her wish come true.”
This is the opening to “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” – the smash single from Carey‘s first holiday album, Merry Christmas which was released twenty five years ago on November 1st, 1994.
That previous January, Carey had already scored a #1 Billboard release with Music Box. When Merry Christmas was released near the end of the year, the other holiday albums going up against Carey‘s were Neil Diamond‘s The Christmas Album 2, Trisha Yearwood‘s The Sweetest Gift (which for some reason, was released the second week of September) and Kenny G‘s Miracles: The Holiday Album (which went to #1 that season and two years later in 1996). Still, Carey‘s Merry Christmas was the second best-selling holiday album that year.
I’m not sure how much play any of the tracks from the Kenny G album gets these days but “All I want For Christmas,” the Phil Spector girl-group influenced jam is without any doubt Merry Christmas’s most popular song and if you’ve been inside a shopping mall or attended an office party during the holiday season at any point within the last 25 years, then chances are high that you’ve heard this song. I‘m sure everyone at one point has sang along to it in the car on the way home from gift shopping and many of you have even danced to it, haven‘t you? (Don‘t lie,Santa‘s watching.) Even national broadcast news anchors can‘t help themselves from rocking out to it.
The song went on to become one of the top-selling singles of all time, so guess what? We’re going to be listening to it for at least another 25 years.
So how did this song originate? Incorporating the dynamic sound of Carey‘s previous songs “Emotions“ and “Music Box,” Carey enlisted the co-writer of those songs, Walter Afanasieff to collaborate with her on “All I Want.” Afanasieff (who apparently wrote his bit in 15 minutes) didn’t think much of the song at first but felt it would be a fun, cheery contribution to the album which was filled with slower traditional gospel-backed holiday fare such as “Silent Night“ and “O Holy Night.”
To get into the holiday spirit once the song was ready to record, Carey had the New York recording studio she was performing in decked out in decorations from corner to corner – even though she was recording the song during the blazing hot month of August.
Besides “All I Want,” several tracks on the album stand out as well. The exuberant “Joy To The World” differs from the album’s previous tracks as it incorporates a pop-dance sound which was so prevalent during the pop-rap sound of the early ‘90s era. This could have turned into complete kitsch but Carey sings her soul out with that gospel choir doing its very best to try and keep up with her. You can tell that his must have been a fun recording session.
Also noteworthy about “Joy To the World“ is the way it combines the traditional holiday tune with the 1971 Three Dog Night classic of the same name which, fun fact: was written by Hoyt Axton— the dad from Gremlins. Oh, another fun fact: Randy Jackson of American Idol fame performs as bass player on the album.
When you look back at music in the year in 1994 it was a bold time for the industry. Bands like Weezer, Green Day, Oasis, Korn, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck and Hole were certainly taking music in daring new directions. On the other side of the spectrum, acts such as Madonna, Johnny Cash, Gladys Night and Pink Floyd were releasing some of their best stuff in years. And then their were the newcomers such as Liz Phair, The Cranberries and Sheryl Crow who sang from the heart and proved that there was room – and an audience for all styles.
Carey was—and is—one of the most popular female vocalists around who appealed to the commercial pop-loving public while writing and performing her own songs. Embraced by fans and the industry—she won two Grammy‘s in 1991 for “Best New Artist” and “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance”—Carey, like Madonna, was one of the artists who could make whatever they wanted. If she wanted to release a Christmas album five years into her career, she was going to release one. Of course, nobody, not even Carey herself, knew it would turn out to be one of the most popular Christmas albums ever.
And to think, when Sony music executive—and Carey‘s ex-husband—Tommy Mottola first suggested an album of Christmas music to the then 24-year-old singer, she initially refused. Carey felt she was too young and too new to the industry to be doing a Christmas album. However, the singer came around and the eventual album, Merry Christmas, has since sold 15 million copies and its breakout single “All I Want For Christmas“ has been downloaded 3.2 million times (to date) on Spotify, been watched over 550 million times on YouTube, earned Carey around $60 million, inspired a 2015 children‘s book, a 2017 animated movie and currently ranks as the 11th best-selling single in the history of music.
Take that, Kenny G.