Where Has All the Millennial Pop Art Gone?

The great, wide world of popular media has done its damnedest to make sure I am nostalgic for the Power Rangers this year.  Between seeing the original mighty morphin’ Rangers resurrected for cheap nostalgia pops in Netflix’s Power Rangers: Once and Always, seeing them spoofed for laughs in Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist horror anthology Smoking Causes Coughing, and seeing the vintage television aesthetics of their Japanese source material echoed in Hideaki Anno’s recent Ultraman reboot, the Power Rangers have been on my mind all year.  Of those relentless nostalgia stokers, Once & Always felt the most accurate to the schlock TV I loved as a kid, in that it’s mostly just subprofessional actors bullshitting around in open fields until actual martial artists who know what they’re doing jump into the frame to save the day.  It rides an uneasy imbalance between rushing out more anonymous background television for children under the Power Rangers brand and comforting those children’s parents with background garbage familiar to their own Millennial youth.  If the one-off reunion special were only 20 minutes long and broken up by toy & cereal commercials it would have been perfectly in step with the way I remember the Power Rangers as my 1990s mechadino babysitters, as if the original show were never cancelled and its teen stars slowly succumbed to death & wrinkles on air week to week for decades on end.  In some ways, I suppose the special itself is the commercial, in that its entire purpose is to re-spark interest in the Power Rangers brand, which has effectively been dormant since its excellent-but-failed franchise starter in 2017.  I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Netflix currently holds the streaming rights for the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers TV series, which officially makes Once & Always, as cheap & underdeveloped as it is, the most effort they’ve ever put into advertising one of their shows to date.  And since most exhausted, world-weary Millennial parents aren’t going to have the time, patience, or awareness to seek out niche, higher quality Power Rangers-adjacent media like Smoking Causes Coughing, they’re going to scratch that nostalgic itch in the quickest, most convenient way possible – never venturing outside what’s available on Netflix.  Not me, though.  I’m different.

Because I’m first & foremost a movie nerd, I had to scratch my mighty morphin’ nostalgia itch by returning to 1995’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie.  To my shock, it was not available to stream through subscription, rental, nor library loan despite the opportunity for profit raised by Once & Always, and I had to blow the dust off my early 2000s DVD copy to watch it again.  In a way, I get why the Power Rangers movie would be allowed to slip out of general public access, since it’s getting just as old & dated as it is goofy & vapid.  I was eight years old when I first begged my parents to see Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie in the theater, and so it has always felt like a prestigious cultural event to me when compared to the more casual, tossed-off nature of the television show it was cashing in on.  Everything I loved about the show as a kid was given a high-end upgrade for the big screen, from the teenage superheroes’ regular-size power suits to their kaiju-size mechabeasts.  As a result, it remains an excellent time capsule of the niche bullshit only a 90s Kid™ could possibly care about, starting with a preposterous Star Wars scroll that quickly explains the Power Rangers’ lore as intergalactic teen crimefighters recruited by a noble space alien named Zordon.  Watching it as an adult, I was amused imagining my parents suffering through its endlessly inane babble about morphing, morphological beings, zords, megazords, ninja zords, ectomorians, and electromagnetic deadlock as if any of that means anything to anyone.  Its convoluted lore is all in service of incomprehensibly edited fight choreography, surreally dated CGI, eXtreme sports posturing, and rushed one-liner insults labeling the bad guys “Mr. Raisin Head” (because, as you will surely remember, Ivan Ooze is purple) and “dingledorks” (that one explains itself).  Power Rangers: The Movie is idiotic pop art at its finest, all sloppy live-action cartoon nonsense from top to bottom.  It’s a crowd-pleaser for a crowd of 8-year-olds and, presumably, an extreme bore for their baffled parents, a tension that only gets funnier as the decades pile on and no one age-appropriate is left around to care.  So few people care, in fact, that it’s been allowed to slip into distribution limbo so the only audience who can legally access it are the dingledorks who happened to fish it out of Wal-Mart’s $5 DVD bins two decades ago.

Because I am weak in will & intellect, my 90s nostalgia trip did not end there.  One of the major 90s-specific pleasures of the Power Rangers movie is its tie-in CD soundtrack, which includes contributions form artists as disparate as Van Halen, Devo, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Snap!.  As formidable as some of those names are in the music business, though, the soundtrack’s biggest get was “Trouble,” the international breakout hit of British pop duo Shampoo.  I vividly remember the song dominating kids’ media in the 90s, to the point where I still sing its delightfully obnoxious “Uh oh, we’re in trouble, something’s come along and it’s burst our bubble, yeah yeah” chorus to myself every time something minorly inconvenient happens in my daily life.  What I did not remember is that its initial promotion in America was tied so closely to the theatrical release of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie.  Not only does it underscore a children-only block party at the film’s emotional climax, but it was also domestically marketed through the lost artform of the tie-in music video, featuring the Shampoo singers dancing in Deee-Liteful psychedelic voids alongside the Power Rangers and their neurotic robo-sidekick Alpha5.  A proper DVD release of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie would have included that music video as a Bonus Feature, but my Wal-Mart discount bin copy instead includes a useless “Behind the Scenes” advertisement for the film where Amy Jo “Pink Ranger” Johnson bravely compares her big screen debut to the special effects spectacles of Star Wars & The Wizard of Oz.  Thankfully, the Power Rangers version of the “Trouble” music video was at least uploaded to YouTube where, as of this posting, it can be enjoyed in glorious, grainy 480p.  This indulgence, of course, led me down an entirely new 90s-tastic pop culture rabbit hole as I allowed Shampoo music videos to autoplay after the sassy Brits were done dancing alongside their new intergalactic crimefighter friends.  What I discovered was that Shampoo has a deep, rewarding catalog of post-riot grrrrl, pre-Girl Power classics that never reached the US with the same ferocity that “Trouble” managed to, partially because they could not call on the power of the mega ninja zords to boost their signal every single.

The commonly accepted narrative is that Shampoo never made it as big as they could have because they were immediately eclipsed by an intense international obsession with the Spice Girls, who smoothed out the smaller group’s rougher, punker edges into pure bubblegum pop.  The real heartbreaker there is that Shampoo even had a single called “Girl Power” that debuted only one week before the Spice Girls broke out with “Wannabe”, which is a shame since “Girl Power” opens with the lyrics “I don’t wanna be a boy, I wanna be a girl. I wanna do things that will make your hair curl.  I wanna play with knives. I wanna play with guns.  I wanna smash up a place just for fun.”  It’s wonderful.  I don’t mean to mourn Shampoo’s premature downfall at the expense of shading the Spice Girls, though, who were just as substantial superheroes in my childhood mind as the Power Rangers, thanks specifically to the strength of “Wannabe” and to the group’s own cash-in pop art movie Spice World.  Tragically, Spice World is also currently unavailable to rent or stream through legal means in the US, so I again had to blow the dust off an ancient DVD copy from my modest collection – this time presented in a luxurious Full Screen frame.  Although my DVD copy is “guaranteed” to be “packed with girl power” in a way no streaming service would dare to ensure, I still find the state of the film’s availability to the general, streaming-service-reliant public shameful.  Way more shameful than the lost-to-time Power Rangers movie, even, since Spice World is a much more competently made, purposefully goofy artifact of 90s kitsch.  It plugs the Spice Girls into a high-femme variation on A Hard Day’s Night, sending the 90s pop group on episodic, for-their-own-sake adventures where they get to be immensely charming on camera while interacting with Elton John, James Bond, Bob Hoskins, Riff Raff, and other various space aliens.  Its most pivotal scene is a montage where the girls cosplay in different cute outfits that don’t quite fit their individual vibes and then switch around personas by cosplaying as each other in a playful pop art photo shoot.  Spice World is cute, it’s joyful, and the only reason it isn’t more beloved as an MTV era pop art classic, really, is that the MTV-produced Josie and the Pussycats movie bested at its own game just a few years later.  Well, that and it’s got a shamefully shitty post-DVD distribution history in the US.

My rapid spiral into full 90s nostalgia was finally sated by the time I revisited Spice World (and then—full disclosure—rewatched all available Shampoo videos a second time through).  Although it’s heavily indebted to the pop art past of Swingin’ 60s London, it’s an aesthetic object that could have only existed in the period when I was most media obsessed as a child, which is where we all tend to retreat when we’re looking for comfort in cinematic junk food.  In the process of pulling out both my Spice Girls & Power Rangers DVDs, though, I did a quick inventory of what other childhood junk media I own that’s not currently streaming.  One title that jumped out at me was the movie version of The Worst Witch, which stars a young Fairuza Balk and features the heavily memed “Anything Can Happen on Halloween” musical number performed by Tim Curry against surreally cheap green screen effects.  You’ll likely always be able to watch that music video tangent out of context in low-res YouTube clips alongside your favorite Shampoo jams, but if you want the entire Worst Witch movie available to you at all times for a full warm bath of 90s Kid™ Nostalgia, you have to resort to illegal torrents or purchases of used physical media.  I was also reminded in this process that I ran into friends at French Quarter Fest a few weeks ago who said they had recently watched the animated Super Mario Bros movie that’s currently dominating the box office and were dismayed afterwards that they could not access the live-action adaptation of the video game that alienated the world when we were children (despite being a Power Rangers-level camp classic in my mind & household).  I, of course, offered to lend them my DVD copy, which was a service they could not even access through the public library.  Plenty of the other pop art novelties fron my youth I’m holding onto are currently streaming in higher quality than you’ll find on my used Blockbuster & thrift store DVDs: Howard the Duck & Teen Witch (Tubi), Big Time Pee-wee (Showtime), Barb Wire & Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze (VOD), etc.  Any of those statuses might change as soon as next week, though. The illusion that everything we could possibly want or need to watch will always be available to stream at home is being constantly undermined, but it’s especially absurd when titles promoted & regurgitated by contemporary nostalgia stokers like the new Power Rangers & Super Mario Bros movies aren’t conveniently offered to the consumers being targeted.

-Brandon Ledet

5 thoughts on “Where Has All the Millennial Pop Art Gone?

  1. Pingback: Lagniappe Podcast: Yes, Madam! (1985) | Swampflix

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