Those of us who grew up watching JEM and The Holograms were forever changed. Jem had pink hair and was a rock star and she was also secretly running her own music company and helping orphans. Plus, the villains she faced were awesome: Pizzazz was a bossy bitch who made her first appearance by riding into an office on a motorcycle shaped like an electric guitar. How could you watch a show like JEM in your formative years and not come out a little more empowered and a lot more into neon pink?
Re-visiting JEM (which is easy, thanks to the Hub network: 7pm Eastern on weekdays, 10am Eastern on Saturdays) reveals that the show holds up better than you might expect. It has more going for it than candy-colored nostalgia: A soapy, serialized cartoon that follows a long-form arc about three intertwining bands’ romances and rivalries would be entertaining enough, but each episode also includes three music videos that showcase some of the most original and ambitious two-dimensional animation ever made for television.
JEM is more than eye candy, it's Pop Rocks for your brain. Add to that the visceral memory of the music and the avant-garde '80s fashion, and the complete-series DVD set that drops today moves from “truly outrageous nostalgia purchase!” to “cathartic experience equal to five years of therapy.”
In honor of the release, I was lucky enough to speak with JEM creator Christy Marx. Here are some insights from the woman behind 53 of JEM’s 65 episodes.
Looking back on JEM, there 's a lot of business sense in the series: Jem owns a company, and she’s securing contacts and managing sales. Was this a progressive way to get little girls interested in business?
Christy Marx: It wasn’t any deliberate intention that I can think of. To me it was just a logical answer to what would be an interesting set of opposite but complementary roles this character could have. If you have a character who’s a rock star, okay, I know, it would make sense if in her other identity she was running a music company! It was just part and parcel of the background idea that I came up with, just to make the characters work together and have it be logical. It wasn’t so much that I sat down and said “I want to have a businesswoman role model.” I thought of it more as, “What would make a good, interesting, interwoven set of relationships between these characters?”
JEM was such a complicated and engaging show. Were kids in the '80s smarter, or are animated shows not as smart as they used to be?
You know, there have always been shows that I think simply wrote to a higher standard, I think GI Joe did. With JEM I never believed in writing down to kids, I never thought you should simplify or dumb things down for kids. Nowadays you look at a show like Avatar, the animation series—it's wonderful in that respect too, it's really well written and has those kinds of layers to it as well. It's still being done, it's not that it isn’t being done, but there’s always been a division, I think, between shows that are probably written to a higher level of quality and shows that aren’t.
The show's music videos were so visually stunning and original. What was the process for creating them?
I would write a paragraph: Okay, here’s the music video, here’s what they’re talking about, here are some ideas for the visuals of what might be going on here. And then that would go to storyboard artists, who would work out the visuals, and then the music and lyrics were done in New York, so all that was done entirely separate from me. [Christy was based in Los Angeles.] I would get a tape back of all these wonderful songs, and the lyrics would be just absolutely in keeping with what I had asked for in the script. The storyboard artists did a fantastic job of making it work. It was a really nice combination of talents.
I don’t know if those two artists in particular are, but I know for sure there are a lot of young women out there right now pursuing musical careers who are very strongly influenced by JEM. There’s a singer named Mya who is very strongly influenced by JEM, so much so that I’ve been in contact with her and I know she loves JEM. And I’ve seen music videos by young women’s groups with a direct connection, sometimes they even parody the JEM logo. I’ve had young women write to me saying, I’m pursuing a musical career because of JEM.
That must be really gratifying.
Absolutely. But it's not just me, of course—they’re influenced by the great art we had, the wonderful music we had. It was a beautiful combination of talents that came together for the show.
Do you identify more with Jerrica or Jem?
To me they’re two sides of the same coin. I’m certainly a very practical, down-to-earth person, so maybe a bit more with Jerrica. I’m not a performer who would want to get onstage and sing, that's for sure.
In Japan they have concerts where a holographic animated image performs in front of a live audience.
Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that amazing? I look at that and go “Holy shit! This is astounding!” Life imitates art.
Do you think something like that could ever happen for JEM? What does the future hold?
Oh, I have no idea what the future holds for JEM at this point. That's really up to Hasbro and Hasbro hasn’t been talking, so I have no idea if they have plans or not.
[Did you sense the tension? Hasbro owns all the rights to JEM and has been very selective about promoting the property, which makes the DVD release kind of a huge deal.]
So where do people go to get their JEM fix?
Well, it plays on the Hub, and now there’s the DVD release. It's a really, really nice package. I’m impressed.
Do you have any parting words for fans of the show?
I would love to hear from a new generation of fans, I would like to know whether the show, though it's from a specific time period—I would really like to get a sense of how well it's communicating to a new set of 12-year-old girls.
Remember ya'll, JEM and The Holograms: The Truly Outrageous Complete Series goes on sale today. No word on whether there’s a discount if you show up in costume to buy it, but it certainly won't cost you more and how fun would that be?