(Listen to the episode here.)
Annie: Howdy there, Internet! I’m Annie.
Kit: I’m Kit.
Maq: And I’m Maq.
A: And this is The Jem Jam, where we do an episode-by-episode review of the 1980s cartoon Jem and the Holograms, because we have awful taste.
K: I have really good taste. You guys are making me do this.
A: So we thought that we would start with an Episode 0, to give you guys an intro to what we’re gonna do, who we are, how we got into Jem, a little bit about the history of the cartoon and just get all that out of the way so we can get right into the “action,” with Episode 1 covering the first episode.
K: Sure, “action.” That’s what we’re calling it.
A: Hey, there’s–
M: Smash cuts.
A: There’s glamor, there’s glitter, there’s fashion, fame…
M: There’s the Misfits, and their songs are better.
A: Their songs are definitely better.
I figured we would start by going over our “dynamic,” if you will, of how we got into Jem. I am, I guess, the oldest of the group, so I actually remember Jem and the Holograms being on air. It wasn’t anything that really captured my attention as a kid. I remember seeing a blonde woman who had a lot of fashion, with earrings, and I remember wondering why no-one was calling Barbie by her name. Which is probably the opposite of what Hasbro was trying to do. I just put it in the back of my head and remembered it as a weird 1980s show, as you do, until basically–I believe it was during college. When Mackenzie and I were roommates, and we had been going through Netflix watching shows, we came across Jem and the Holograms and were like, “This looks awful and 80s and girly. Let’s do this.” And then I became legit obsessed with it.
M: When I was younger, the only thing I remembered about Jem was that my older sister Christina was obsessed with it. And I have a habit of avoiding anything my older sister likes, which is terrible because her two favorites were Jem and Labyrinth, which are now two of my favorite things.
A: Oh, dear.
M: So we fast-forward to college, when I was rooming with Annie, and we were sitting around the house, flipping through Netflix, and we saw Jem and the Holograms. And after that we started coming up with our own character designs, talking about how we wanted to do a Jem reboot, and designing all the characters with actual personality traits, which they’ll become devoid of very swiftly in this series.
A: We have a reboot idea. Which means that I think we’re both super stoked about the upcoming comic book series.
K: I never watched Jem. I was dimly aware of it in the same way that I’m dimly aware of things like He-Man, She-Ra, and the other stuff of the era. I’m significantly younger than these two old ladies–
K: –so the cartoons that I was growing up with were actually a lot of Mainframe’s output during the late 90s. All the stuff that you weren’t quite sure you were allowed to be watching on a Friday night. So Beast Wars, Reboot, uh… it was called Shadow Raiders in Canada, but I think its actual title was Battle Planets, but you can’t have “battle” in the name of a kids’ show in Canada…
A: War Worlds, I think, or–
K: War Worlds, maybe. Yeah. It’s the one with all the themed planets and they were constantly on each others’ nerves and each planet only seemed to have, like, two or three actual inhabitants.
A: That never caught on in the States.
K: Yeah, I’m not surprised. I’m really not. But anyway, then I became internet buddies with Annie, and by extension Maq, and they dragged me into this thing and I’ve never seen an episode of Jembefore in my life, so I’m coming into this completely blind. This should be interesting.
A: We’re very excited.
M: Oh, we’re so excited.
A: So I kind of read up on this, I dunno about you guys. Did you guys do your homework?
K: I didn’t want to risk spoiling myself.
A: Fair enough.
M: I read a little bit, and then I rewatched a few of the Christy Marx documentaries on my DVDs.
A: Right. If you end up liking this show, if you get into it, and it seems to be in a tenuous spot on whether or not it is or is not on Netflix and you want to throw money at this, there is a complete collection of the entire show on DVD that also has some great special features like interviews with the creator of the show, as well as–
M: She’s hilarious.
A: Yeah. As well as some segments of the story bible, which is really cool.
K: The DVD itself is this enormous ten-pound brick of glitter. You will know it when you see it. And it is quite possibly the best thing you could ever add to your DVD collection. I don’t care if your DVD collection has a theme. You need this.
A: It is hot pink, as it should be. And there’s these amazing–
M: Amazing character picture inserts.
A: They’re… unheimlich, in the greatest sense of the word.
M: There’s this one picture of Kimber in particular where her head is half a foot sideways from where it should be for her neck. And so she’s not quite human anymore, and her chin is kind of disjointed and off center, and it’s beautiful.
A: Okay, so the show got its start in the late 80s. The important thing to know is that it was a Hasbro property, as opposed to Mattel, who owns Barbie. Hasbro came up with this idea that they wanted to make a Barbie competitor that was hip and fashionable, which means fashionable in the 80s, which might frighten you.
M: Ah, the beauty of the 80s.
A: It was a period, certainly.
K: That sure was a decade in time.
A: Exactly. So they came up with this concept of a glam rock band, basically, and a woman named M, which was, like, “mysterious” or “mystique” and “magical”. But then they realized that you can’t copyright a letter, so they came up with Jem instead. They wanted to actually create a whole story around this. They had just the most basic trimmings of, “This is character, she has sister, also band, go.” So they contacted a woman named Christy Marx, who we’ll probably be talking a lot about here because Mackenzie and i have come to really respect her. She was a writer for a very long time for the G.I. Joe cartoon, and she was very much inundated with “boy things,” with all that kind of crazy crap. In interviews, I believe, Mackenzie, correct me if I’m wrong, she talks about how it was really interesting to go for extreme girly soap opera.
M: Yeah. And several of her comments on the episodes in general, she’d talk about how in this episode she wanted to just ramp up the drama a lot, and how if she did this in G.I. Joe, she’d just have some more people attacking or something like that. Because that’s all the boys would care about. And so she’d talk about how she just wanted to ramp up the soap opera here, and so she’d introduce a new boy for Jem to get interested in, and Rio–of course–would get mad, and she talks about, constantly, how just ramping up the story that way was really entertaining to her.
A: Yeah. So if this show comes across as a crazy soap opera, there’s a reason for that. Their goal was, with the show, to create a program that was very much girl-focused, but that their brothers would not change the channel on if it was on. So they wanted enough action stuff going on that would actually intrigue a boy, albeit not enough that would ever actually tell his friends that he watched Jem. So that was sort of the focus.
So she created the show, she created all the characters, who were eventually watered down from the story bible versions to be a bit girlier. Interestingly enough, in the story bible, Christy Marx actually made a set of rules for how the hologram earrings work that the show blatantly disregards afterwards.
Eventually the doll line comes out, it’s pretty popular. But Mattel has heard of this by now, and so they debut a doll line called Barbie and the Rockers. The Jem dolls were bigger than the Barbie dolls, so the clothes weren’t interchangeable, so parents were less likely to actually jump ship to a brand new doll line because that would be an expensive waste of time.
The show goes on for like three seasons, the dolls don’t really come out well, even though Hasbro, in order to keep everything about Jem even more secret about like whatever new dolls they’re introducing or whatever new clothing line they’re introducing, they come up with code names. And still Mattel outdoes them because they’ve been doing Barbie for so much longer. So the show eventually peters out, as does the doll line, and we’re sort of left with mostly the show now, which is this weird relic where you can kind of tell the commercials are supposed to play heavily on. There’s some great moments in the first episode that are very much “buy all our playsets and toys.”
And so that’s essentially a bit of the history of Jem, which might help contextualize some of these things. But it’s pretty crazy with and without it.
M: The first time Annie and I watched this, we didn’t have much of this context. We just watched them straight and it was hysterical. And that’s when we started learning about Jem, and it became even more hysterical.
A: Yeah. It was a relief to hear Christy Marx talk about the show and realize that she was very much a down to earth person who thought this whole thing was bonkers, too.
M: There are several times in her talks where she’s just like, “I don’t know what’s happening here, I don’t know why the background artist did this, but you’d have to talk to them about it.”
I actually don’t have the full set because the full set isn’t out. They have the first two seasons out, and they have the first half of season three, but as as soon as you get to Riot, there’s nothing else.
A: Oh, you’re kidding! So that’s just like the first couple episodes of season three?
A: Oh my god. Which is a travesty, because season three introduces a third glam rock band.
M: And they are the best.
A: They’re the best. They’re from West Germany, because it’s the 80s.
K: I didn’t think West Germany produced that many glam rock bands.
A: To be fair, one third of the band is from America.
M: And also the other two thirds of the band kind of encompass all the glam rock you would ever want or ever need and they do it so well, why would you have more glam rock bands?
A: They’re really great.
So every episode has two to three–usually three–music videos from the two competing groups of the show, the Holograms and the Misfits. There’s usually a split of two Holograms songs and one Misfits song, but that changes here and there. During a couple episodes, including the eponymous “Jem Jam,” there are actually songs by some of the little orphan girls. But for the most part you’ve got these two to three songs. And they create these little MTV music videos for each of these songs where crazy stuff happens.
Here’s my theory about these: the music videos are very much akin to songs in a musical on Broadway, or in a Disney movie. The sentiments are going to be topical. What happens in them may not be something that happens in real life. I believe a lot of them are metaphors. I don’t think most of them actually happen. But I think these songs, because a lot of them are written very vaguely, like a song specifically about the Misfits wanting to know who Jem is, it’s called “Who is She Anyway,” a lot of it could be construed as the singer talking about a new girl that her boyfriend’s into, and comparing herself to that girl. A lot of them could be construed as generic baby songs.
M: Except for the one that’s on a train.
A: Right, except for the one that is just about taking a train and that’s what most of its lyrics are. “Taking a train.”
K: Well that’s the case with most of the songs, isn’t it? I was watching the first episode and going, “All of these songs just have the same phrase repeated over and over and over again.”
M: Basically, yeah.
A: The songs aren’t great. There are some pretty decent ones in there. By and large, the Misfits’ songs are, in fact, better. The Holograms are designed to have a very 80s pop sound. The Misfits are composed to have a rock fusion sound, and the Stingers are a bit of a jazzy.
The way these generally went into the script was the writers would basically say, “Here’s where a music video goes, here’s the gist of what we’re trying to communicate here.” And the composer would just go nuts with this. It’s also worth noting that some of these songs were meant to be kind of standalone anyway, because the dolls were packaged with cassette tapes with these songs on them.
K: Oh my god.
A: Yeah, that was a thing. I try and think like most of these songs probably don’t actually happen. They’re not gonna drive around in a car and sing a song to each other to make themselves feel better. It’s just “here’s something topical from their discography.” At least that’s how I rationalize it to myself.
M: See, while Annie rationalizes it, I just embrace it and I’ve decided that they are driving around in their little hot rod–please buy the complete set–and they’re just playing the music and singing it to each other because these girls are insane and they live in a post-apocalyptic future.
K: So wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. You’re saying that they’re hallucinating the whole thing?
M: I’m not saying they’re hallucinating. I’m saying this is after the apocalypse, and the only way to survive is via pop music.
A: I think that’s also a valid interpretation.
K: I think, at this point, any interpretation is valid. All the goofiness aside, I think it’s pretty damn impressive that the composer managed to come up with three new songs every week for this thing.
M: Some of them are repeated.
A: Right. All of the episodes for season one are entirely original songs. Starting in about season two, I want to say maybe one song per episode is a pre-existing song from the season one discography. But that’s still an impressive amount of new content every episode. Altogether, I have a lot of respect for the show, because one of the big things was very much promoting diversity. In fact, it put an African-American character prominently within the cast while not making the fact that she was African-American, like…
K: The entirety of her character.
M: The same is said for Aja, who is Asian.
A: It’s worth noting that all the girls’ names are disassociated from their characters. I think Kimber and Aja had each other's’ names for a while, early in production. And they’re all actually music references. But I think Aja’s supposed to be Japanese-American?
M: I think I remember reading that somewhere, too. I was actually trying to look up her name just now to see what it was, but that didn’t help at all either because her last name is Leith. So…
A: Again, all music names.
M: And later we also get Raya, who is Hispanic.
A: That is a super big part of her character, though.
M: Yeah, it is.
A: To the point where her father is a florist whose every other line is like, “ay dios mio!”
K: Oh no.
A: Yeah, they kind of dropped the ball on Raya. But after that, after Raya’s sort of on her own with the band, it is true that she is very much… she has a character.
This is something I’m actually really excited about as the comic is going to come out. They’ve done things where they’ve made sure to include LGBTQ representation. Canon LGBTQ representation. Adding more racial diversity, body type diversity to the cast because they don’t have to worry about selling fashion dolls based on one body. And also the artist, the one who originally did the redesigns, she actually came out on twitter as trans yesterday or the day before.
M: Oh, awesome.
A: Yeah. To see the promotion of diversity within the comic’s creative team as well as on the comic’s pages–
M: Yeah, that’s amazing.
A: Okay, so that’s all for us in Episode 0. We will see you guys next time for Episode 1, in which we start from Episode 1, “The Beginning.” Until next time, I’m Annie.
K: I’m Kit.
M: I’m Maq.
A: And don’t forget to be outrageous.