Tastemaker is a recurring feature in which Strange Currencies contributors share stories of the events, experiences, and cultural artifacts that helped in shaping their musical tastes.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been hard at work paring down the final list of songs for the A Century of Song project that I plan to begin publishing next month. Naturally, as I make those difficult last cuts, I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly each song means to me, and how they fit into any kind of “narrative” about my life as a music nerd. This has led to some reflection on how I first encountered these songs, and how important some of them were in shaping my lifelong musical tastes. This exercise in introspection has brought me to the conclusion that one of the most formative artifacts of my young musical life was an odd curiosity of eighties pop culture – the 1988 TV special, Meet The Raisins!, starring The California Raisins.
Meet The Raisins! represented the apex of one of the most bizarre fads of a particularly bizarre decade of pop culture. The California Raisins began as part of an advertisement campaign – a collaboration between Sun-Maid, the California Raisin Advisory Board, and Vinton Studios. Will Vinton – a lifelong Portlander – was a pioneer of the stop-animation technique that he later dubbed “Claymation.” The Raisins made their first appearance in a 1986 commercial, which featured Vinton’s creations singing and dancing to Marvin Gaye’s 1968 hit, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” It was a surprise success that would grow into a cultural phenomenon.
The Raisins returned for a segment in a 1987 holiday special, A Claymation Christmas Celebration. The Emmy-winning show was a hit, and The Raisins – who “performed” The Temptations’ version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – were its breakout stars.
The California Raisins were inescapable in 1988, at least for a third-grader in the Philadelphia exurbs. However, like many quick-rise fads, there seemed to be far more effort put into marketing memorabilia than in generating any new Raisin-centric content – especially unsurprising, given their commercial-based origins. Personally, I had at least one California Raisins t-shirt, a couple of toys, and the obligatory lunchbox.
Raisin-mania reached a peak in the fall of 1988. In the same week that 50.3% of the American voting-age population managed to find the time to elect George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis, millions of Americans tuned in to CBS during primetime to watch the premiere of Meet The Raisins! – a “mockumentary” about a fictitious group of anthropomorphic raisins, and their rise, fall, and return to stardom. Not only was my family among those millions watching, but we also recorded the broadcast to preserve it for posterity. I watched it this week for the first time in thirty years.
Revisiting Meet The Raisins! after three decades confirmed just how much I must have watched it as a kid. I found myself anticipating its lines, puns, and transitions before they happened, and while some elements of it haven’t aged as gracefully as others – particularly the ethnic stereotypes – I was pleasantly surprised at how well most of it held up. While the animation is definitely a product of its time, it has a charm that is often lacking in modern computer-based animation. Perhaps the most unexpected element is the work that went into creating a “personality” for its main characters – something lacking in the Raisins’ initial brush with stardom.
As far as storytelling is concerned, Meet The Raisins! is part-Spinal Tap, part- Behind The Music (which was several years away from its premiere). It finds the group struggling to follow up its initial taste of success with a series of ill-advised stunts, and ultimately reaching the top with an appearance on the Ed Succotash Show (fruit and vegetable puns are packed in at an alarming rate throughout its half-hour runtime). It’s relatively-standard fare for an 80s-era “family” program, but the novelty of Vinton’s Claymation was the first element that set it apart from the crowd.
Of course, the other thing that set Meet The Raisins! apart was its soundtrack – a mix of 50s-60s R&B tracks. It was on this program that a generation of American kids – myself included – was arguably introduced to Stevie Wonder (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”), The Temptations (“Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”), Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”), and several other classics. These songs had existed on the periphery of my awareness – in Time-Life infomercials and occasional brushes with “oldies” stations – but never before had they appeared in something that so clearly targeted my own demographic.
While Meet The Raisins! didn’t immediately prompt me to become a collector of old Motown singles – my music buying days were still a couple of years away – those songs stuck with me. In effect, a blatant attempt to appeal to the nostalgic impulses of an older generation created a new source of nostalgia for my own. It was a formula that reached back at least as far as Happy Days and American Graffiti, and would be similarly followed in years to come by other cross-generational touchstones like The Wonder Years.
Meet The Raisins! caught me in a transitional state of pop culture engagement. Perhaps it’s telling that my most memorable prior music objects-of-obsession were the Disney records that I had as a young child, and that the next would be U2’s concert documentary, Rattle and Hum, released in American theaters on the exact same day that Meet The Raisins! premiered.
If I recall correctly, my older brother attended an opening night showing of Rattle and Hum. If that is the case – and if Wikipedia’s release dates are correct – I must have felt a certain degree of younger brother jealousy as I stayed home to watch my “kids’ show.” I can’t recall. I do know that I watched that VHS copy of Meet The Raisins! a ton of times. When Rattle and Hum was released to home video – almost immediately – we dubbed a copy of it, too. I watched that one even more. I was, metaphorically, being drug into more “grown up” tastes with each successive viewing.
I haven’t seen Rattle and Hum in several years, but the last time I watched it, I thought it was a pretentious mess, and a blatant attempt by U2 to place themselves among the pantheon of “Great Rock Acts” by paying homage to the “Great Rock Acts.” Parts of it were unintentionally laughable – and not just a shirtless Bono in high-waisted pants and suspenders. When I watched Meet The Raisins! this week, I enjoyed it quite a bit. In fact, I enjoyed it enough to watch it a second time with my son the next day. It may have been a blatant attempt to cash in on a fad before it ran its course, but it did so while introducing me to some remarkable music.