Listicles / Screentime!

5 pop culture gems from my youth I want my kids to love


I remember the first time it happened. The first time doesn’t feel like “Oh my God, I’m old.” Not exactly. It feels more like “Oh my God, they’re young.”

About six years ago, I was teaching Italian 111 to mostly undergrads, and someone interrupted my class to deliver an envelope to one of my students. So I said, “if it’s a severed head, I’m going to be very upset.” If nobody had gotten it, I might not have noticed the uninformed nature of their nervous chuckles. Instead, one lone student nodded smugly, proud of his (apparently obscure) ’90s pop culture knowledge. “Wayne’s World” he whispered to his neighbors, who responded with shrugs. Because, see, not only did they not recall that particular line, but they’d never seen (or maybe even heard of) the movie.

It’s strange, this feeling “old.” Born as I was in the first years of the ’80s, I still fiercely locate myself before the Millennial Generation (or Generation Y, as we dismissively called it). So accustomed did I become to arguing with my older brother about whether or not I qualify as a Generation X’er, it still seems natural to fiercely insist on my relative maturity.

Back to the point. The point is, it was sad that these kids didn’t know about Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar. Sure, it’s stupid humor, but it’s smart stupid humor. Maybe even brilliant. I hope our kids watch it, and love it. Which probably means they need to not be introduced to it by me. Which probably means they won’t.

But honestly, folks, if they’re going to learn to objectify the female form (which unfortunately, they will), it should at least be through the inspired terms of Wayne and Garth:

“She’s a Robobabe. In France, she would be called ‘la renarde,’ and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her.”

Par exemple.

5 pop culture gems from my youth I want my kids to love:

1. Wayne’s World (1992)

Especially the first one. For the reasons stated above. (I was only 10 when this came out? Sha! As if!)

Oh, it still feels so shiny-new.

2. R.E.M., Automatic for the People

It wasn’t until I was 12 or so, around 1994, that I discovered this album started listening to “Night Swimming” on repeat (and continued well into the new millennium). I’m slight in stature, so if I were 12 today, I’d probably still be required to sit in a car seat. But by the time I hit 7th grade, man, I was a deep and world-weary sophisticate. I mean, I knew kids who were smoking cigarettes in the alley after middle school. I wasn’t doing that, of course. I was still buying candy from the corner store, but only Pixie Stix and Pop Rocks. You know, candy with names what sounded vaguely narcotic. So it was cool.

Not only does Automatic for the People remain one of the best albums of the 1990s (probably ever), but it helped me glide into the dulcet melancholy of this early adolescence like nothing else could. I will always associate it with staying up late on a landline phone with a curly cord in my candlelit bedroom, while playing with red, melted wax that smelled vaguely of strawberries.

3. Violent Femmes

Especially the eponymous album, which, incredibly, was released the same year I was born. I was sure that it sprang fully formed out of my own afflicted soul the very moment that “Blister in the Sun” first vibrated in my ears. Meanwhile, “Please do not go” still features the best strolling bass line ever to accompany heartbreak.

Can anyone be young and energetically troubled without this album? Can it possibly occur? What a terrible thought.

 4. Edward Scissorhands

Partly because any short-list of ’80s/’90s gems must include the first Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration. But mostly because it’s just a really damn good movie.

This quirky 1990 Frankenstein story is everything a monster movie/romantic tragedy should be. Set in the suburbs and framed in snowy fable. A beautiful heartache you will want to preserve forever in an ice sculpture modeled on a young Winona Ryder.

5. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Another musical treasure from the last decade of the 20th century. Although it came out in 1998, I remember this album as a perennial sound track to my college years. Especially in 2002, when I studied in abroad, and the Italian roommates of my best friend there played it non-stop. (And requested translations. My newly acquired Italian couldn’t keep up with Ms. Hill’s mellifluous hip-hop/neo-soul tempo, so my interpretations would usually devolve into “Well, she’s angry, see..”)

This one ages so well. And it’s been a cherished companion in recent years. Maybe because pregnancy and motherhood deeply affected her lyrics and tone. Or maybe it just takes more than a few years to fully behold as her odes manifold.

All I can say is: don’t forget what you’ve got, teenagers of the ’90s.

Our poor, poor children… I can only hope 2020s pop culture treats them half as well.


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