Week three with Bitch, ya’ll. Today’s “Tuning In” is all about My So-Called Life‘s Rayanne Graff and her brief stint as the lead singer of a rock band.
Tonight’s post focuses on an oldie but a goodie TV theme song from my youth. Remember this chestnut?
Clarissa Explains It All was a Nickelodeon sitcom that ran between 1991 and 1994. It also catapulted Melissa Joan Hart to teen TV stardom and movies like Can’t Hardly Wait and Drive Me Crazy. Hart played Clarissa Darling, a teenage girl with a typical family, an annoying little brother we all called Fergface, a dude best friend named Sam, and a quirky wardrobe that would make Blossom Russo envious.
Clarissa is also one of the few TV girl protagonists to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. In fact, she’s a smart, pro-active girl that some scholars, notably Sarah Banet-Weiser, argue is a third-wave feminist character. I’d have to revisit the show to gauge its cultural relevance and feminist politics. But let’s talk about the opening credits.
First of all, what an outfit. I wouldn’t let my daughter wear it out of the house without a more modest pair of shorts and a sweater, but I wouldn’t begrudge her burgeoning fashion sense. And I’d definitely be proud of her inheriting her mother’s love of colored tights.
I also like the theme song. Sure, it’s dated, but it’s really spunky and contains female vocals, thus potentially connecting the protagonist to the theme song and perhaps to a considerable portion of the show’s intended audience. It also may have been influential to subsequent teen television programming from the decade. Having the melody sung as a series of “nah”s brings to mind the intro to Daria‘s theme. And the nudge to “just do it!” at the end reminds me of Rayanne Graff saying “go now, go” in the theme to My So-Called Life.
Oh, and fun fact. Apparently Clarissa‘s theme was co-written by Rachel Sweet, who had a minor country hit in 1978 called “B-A-B-Y.”
But the thing I’m struck by is that the opening credit sequence hinges on Clarissa trying to write her first name, which the audience sees being formed backwards. Pointedly, all of the other principal characters keep interrupting her, though never keep her from completing her task. I especially love that Clarissa performs a quick series of stunts to ward off her brother before snapping her fingers to make him disappear. I also like her happy little shrug when she’s finally left by herself to finish writing her name before flipping it so that we, the audience, can read it.
Girl studies scholars like Carol Gilligan have written about the importance of names to the development of pubescent female identity. This theorization also applies to the movie Coraline, wherein the main character is constantly having to assert that her name is not Caroline.
I feel like Clarissa is staking a similar claim of selfhood here. Let’s do her the kindness of giving her the space to form the words.
I was talking with my friend and neighbor Rosa-María during Glee‘s fall finale about Freaks and Geeks. We were specifically talking about the final episode, “Discos and Dragons,” which she just rewatched. In it, Michiganian teen protagonist Lindsay Weir is loaned a copy of The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty by her hippie high school guidance counselor Jeff Rosso and steps into a larger world.
I’m not a Deadhead. For those of you watching Community, main character Jeff Winger’s religion/Paul Rudd analogy in this week’s episode is pretty much exactly how I feel about the band (i.e., we understand the appeal and don’t begrudge it, but also don’t share it). To me, I’ve long wondered why anyone would listen to the Dead when there’s Santana, a peer jam band that was more rhythmically intesting with a better lead guitarist. And before anyone starts mailing me bootlegs, I have also heard American Beauty. My first listen even took place around some pretty optimal conditions. It didn’t take.
That isn’t to say that I’m not fanatical about other things. For one, I’m a huge Animal Collective fan, who are themselves a bunch of hippies with a rabid fan base. And while I don’t think the two bands sound that much alike, both espouse feel-good truisms like “What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?” and “You have your fits I have my fits, but feeling’s good.” And of course, Animal Collective’s “What Would I Want? Sky” samples the Dead.
I’m fanatical about this show too. It’s one of my favorite television programs, perhaps of all time, and unlike some of the critically-acclaimed fare of the decade (ex: The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, 30 Rock, The Office, season two of Friday Night Lights, season three of Arrested Development), I don’t think I know anyone who has seen Freaks and Geeks and doesn’t like it. I’m especially fanatical about how much music factors into both the characters’ lives and the tone of the show. For a show set in pre-MTV suburban Michigan, it nails the radio domination of classic rock, the percolation of punk and post-punk, and the general antipathy toward disco. Thus, it makes sense that Lindsay and many of her peers would be into the Dead, as they’re also into The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Rush.
As an aside, one of Lindsay Weir’s clearest televisual counterparts is not a Deadhead, even though the band was fashionable at the time of her show’s season-long run. Angela Chase, the angsty protagonist of ABC’s ultra-90s’ drama My So-Called Life was given her father’s tickets to a Dead concert in “Father Figures” because he couldn’t make the show. She scalped them out of anger toward her father, who she caught talking to an attractive woman who was not her mother outside their house. She also did it for the chance to talk to her crush Jordan Catalano, who was willing to buy the tickets from her. But it’s also clear that Angela doesn’t get what all the fuss over the band is about, much to the ire and bewilderment of her Deadhead friend Rayanne Graff.
I think Lindsay becoming a Deadhead is really interesting. Throughout Freaks and Geeks‘ 18-episode run on NBC and the Fox Family Channel, Lindsay worked toward defying expectations. Sometimes, these expectations were put upon her by her peers, whether they be her kid brother Sam and his nerdy friends, the Mathletes she used to be close with as a geeky good girl, or the burnouts she hangs out with throughout the series’ run. Other times, they were put upon her by authority figures, whether they be the concerned faculty at William McKinley High School or her parents, who feared this bright girl was throwing her life away by running with a bad crowd.
But the best moments for me of this show were when she defied her own expectations, which were already considerable. She does it when dumping freak Nick Andopolis, an otherwise nice boy who was completely wrong for her, and later when she tries to be his friend. She does it when she rejoins the Mathletes only to quit again after realizing that she doesn’t get any joy out of it. She does it when she tries pot for the first time, only to discover that she really doesn’t like it. She does it when she sticks up for her friend Kim Kelly in English class when they both dismiss Jack Keroauc’s On the Road, to the disdain of their pretentious teacher. She does it to dazzling effect when promoting her family’s sporting goods shop while sticking it to Vice President George H.W. Bush and his lackeys for throwing out the original question she was going to ask him in assembly during his visit to her school.
She does it here too. Originally skeptical of the Dead’s profundity, she gets a gentle nudge from a stoner couple at her school (one of whom is played by Samaire Armstrong, who I enjoyed on The O.C. as Seth Cohen’s music geek girlfriend Anna and who had an enviable platinum blonde pixie cut with hot pink roots in the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Just My Luck). When Lindsay gets the record home, she slowly absorbs the music and ends up “getting it,” whirling around exuberantly in her room.
As an aside, kudos to actress Linda Cardellini for being able to make what could be an otherwise cheesy scene believable.
Discovering the Dead couldn’t come at a better time for Lindsay. As her junior year winds to a close, she finds out that she’s been selected to participate at a state-wide academic summit at the University of Michigan. The idea of spending two weeks of summer vacation participating in competitive seminars and hobnobbing with her supposed intellectual peers sounds like a flattering offer but a pointless exercise to her. It sounds like little more than résumé padding to me, though I probably would’ve gone if offered it at that age).
However, the idea of following the Dead from Texas to Colorado with her Deadhead friends and Kim sounds like an ideal way to spend part of her summer vacation. So she decides to skip out on the symposium to go truckin’.
And while I have no doubt that Lindsay ends up going to a good college anyway, I’d imagine that those two weeks did more to shape her as a young woman than battling wits with a bunch of eggheads about great literary and philosophic work ever could. She’s probably the kind of person UC-Santa Cruz are looking for to manage their Grateful Dead collection. At the very least, I’m sure she’s got some items to donate.