With the live-action reboot Jem and the Holograms now in theaters, it’s a good time to look back at the cartoon that launched countless tween rock n’ roll fantasies during the golden age of MTV.
Produced by Marvel Productions, Hasbro and Sunbow Productions — the same collaborators responsible for the high-testosterone G.I. Joe and Transformers cartoons — Jem ran from 1985 to 1988, offering girls a radiant rock star whose life was full of the glamour, glitter, fashion and fame promised in the series’ first theme song: “Jem –Truly, Truly, Truly Outrageous.”
The show dealt with the exploits of Jerrica Benton, a mild-mannered music executive and orphanage operator, who, thanks to a pair of special earrings and Synergy, a holographic computer developed by her late father, morphed into the mysterious and wild-haired rock star Jem. (The Holograms are her band, who are aware of her true identity.) In addition to globe-trekking adventures, deep-cut drama, and a rousing rivalry with the bad-girl band, The Misfits, each episode of Jem served up an original song or three that captured the energy and optimism of 1980s kids TV.
For the uninitiated and the devout fan, Billboard has unearthed the five best episodes of the series and the songs that made them sing.
5. “Midsummer Night’s Madness” (1988)
Dealing with dual personas was sometimes too much to handle for Jerrica, especially when her oblivious boyfriend Rio began mooning over her alter ego. Things came to a head in this episode, which is set in Greece, when Jerrica used Synergy to create a third persona, an olive-skinned brunette named Jamie, to test Rio’s loyalty. If that weren’t enough entertainment for a 13-year-old to handle, curious oracles, manipulative musicians and randy Riot of the German hair band The Stingers turn the proceedings into a farcical fable.
Jem Jam: Channeling Stevie Nicks in the episode’s title track, Jem delivers a moody melody that plays perfectly under a music video that casts the cartoon’s characters as Greek gods.
Sample lyric: “Cupid’s come to town, shooting arrows willy-nilly, turning the world upside down.”
4. “Hot Time In Hawaii” (1986)
In another adventure abroad, Jem and the Holograms are poised to face off against The Misfits in an athletic competition that predates Rock N’ Jock. True to their bad reputations, the latter band doesn’t train for events like pole-vault, cycling and swimming. Instead, The Misfits cheat, employing spring-loaded sneakers, oil-slick-spewing bikes and a gigantic robotic shark. But when even a mechanized monster can’t scare off a determined Kimber Benton, Jerrica’s younger sister and the band’s keyboardist and main songwriter, the villainesses turn to kidnapping the Holograms’ guitarist, Aja Leith, and chucking him into an active volcano for not-so-safe keeping. No other episode better exhibits The Misfits’ hysterical hatred for the Holograms or the show’s lack of concern about reality.
Jem Jam: Honolulu might be paradise for many, but not The Misfits, who work complaints aplenty into their jaunty joint, “We’re Misfits In Hawaii.” Ukuleles have never sounded so sinister.
Sample lyric: “We’re the Misfits In Hawaii singing a Hawaiian song. We’re the Misfits In Hawaii wearing a sarong, but it looks so wrong!”
3. “Father’s Day” (1987)
Rather than portray Misfits frontwoman Pizzazz Gabor’s obsession with ending Jem’s career — or worse — as one-dimensional evil, this heartbreaking story revealed why the green-haired girl is so full of rage. While Kimber mourns her late dad, Pizzazz’s affluent father is presented as a callous parent. When Pizzazz suggests they hang out to celebrate Father’s Day, he coldly replies, “If you want to buy me something, fine. Just don’t make it too expensive. It is my money.” Though Pops Gabor later acknowledges Pizzazz was traumatized by her mom’s abrupt abandonment of her family, he fails to heal their wounded father-daughter bond by episode’s end. Sympathy for Pizzazz was a feeling so alien that it cemented “Father’s Day” securely in fan consciousness.
Jem Jam: Before there was Madonna‘s sentimental ballad, “This Used to Be My Playground,” there was Jem and the Holograms’ “You’re Always in My Heart.” Go ahead, watch this vid and try not to tear up over flashbacks of tiny, candy-colored hair future rock rivals, or that shot where Pizzazz’s dad fails to run after his hurt, headstrong daughter.
Sample lyric: “Photos fade. Youth is gone. But you’re always there in my heart. Time goes by. Life goes on. But you’re always there in my heart.”
2. “The Band Breaks Up” (1987)
One of the series’ most satisfying episodes shined a spotlight on two of its oft-overshadowed characters: Kimber and Stormer, The Misfits’ keytar player. Both feeling overlooked by their respective bands, the duo teamed up as a new act and became good friends. Kimber urged Stormer to embrace her sensitive side, and Stormer encouraged Kimber to stand up for herself. Sure, by episode’s end, both went back to their original bands, but only after each commanded the respect she longed for and deserved.
Jem Jam: Complete with sparkling keyboard tones and self-assured lyrics, Kimber and Stormer’s impromptu duet, “I’m Okay,” could have easily fit on the soundtrack of a 1980s girl-power movie like Working Girl or one of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley Saturday Night Live skits.
Sample lyric: “I have faith in myself. I’m okay! I’m going to make it through the day.”1. “Journey Through Time” (1988)
No “best of” list of Jem episodes would be complete without the one where the Holograms made actual music history, thanks to time travel. And like so many of the series beautifully bonkers plotlines, it began with a nefarious deed by The Misfits: Using a time-travel device invented by super geek Techrat — a floppy-haired dude who hates being touched — The Misfits send Jem and her group into the past intending to rob them of a future. Instead, in an episode that pre-dated Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the band encounters a number of music legends including Mozart (a version borrowing heavily from the 1984 film Amadeus, right down to Tom Hulce’s Oscar-nominated giggles), and thinly veiled homages to swing king Glenn Miller and guitar god Jimi Hendrix. The adventure culminates in a flashy finale track that makes Jem and the Holograms more popular than ever.
Jem Jam: “Rockin’ Down Through Time” name-checks a heady list of legends, including the late John Lennon, while infusing the show’s standard peppy pop-rock with a dash of classical and swing inspirations. Rock me, Amadeus, indeed!
Sample lyric: “Gershwin was a man of note. Glenn Miller lead the band. Lennon stood tall, ahead of them all. Elvis deserves a hand.”