Remember how magical the world of music seemed when you first began listening to your "own" songs? Between the cavalcade of larger-than-life personalities and words that were naughty and cool because we couldn't understand them, discovering music during our youth was a wonderful thing. Of course, I'm speaking more of the acts than the songs themselves: every kid had their favorite cartoon characters, movie stars and toys, and likewise, MTV and our elder siblings' collections of strange vinyl/cassette/CD covers provided a wealth of potential role models and things to grow obsessed with. Somehow, this paragraph is my segue into Fisher Price's "Pocket Rockers," from 1988.

"Tiny Tapes, Tiny Players." Pocket Rockers was a line of multicolored, arguably fashionable tape players that combined the time's hottest hits with a more "toyish" aura. The players looked positively ridiculous, reminiscent of the cube-shaped shit that assuredly fell from the graceful ass of that "Fruit Stripe" zebra. You didn't have to be all that into music to want one of these: Pocket Rockers were as much fashion accessories as tape players, where any kid lucky enough to land one clasping it onto their belt buckles and climbing the social status ladder by way of asinine decorations.

Though the players weren't around for too long, they were definitely successful. In fact, the popularity of "Pocket Rockers" caused a ban in my public school, ultimately making any kid brave enough to skirt the principal's (that's PAL, not PLE, 'cuz he's your PAL!) law seem all the more chic. Things like "snap bracelets" and "Hypercolor" T-shirts were nearly a prerequisite for students who wanted to maintain their social standing, but Pocket Rockers was the ultimate grace. If you attached one of these things to your crotch, people were going to like you.

And, lest we forget: these things played music!

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The music was where Pocket Rockers really shined, as previous attempts at this sort of "tunes for kids" device mostly used generic crap, shitty beats with no lyrics, or some other junk nobody in their right mind -- young or old -- would want to listen to. The key to Fisher Price's success was licensing songs from real stars and hit-makers. Of course, the selections were limited to the more homogenized, "safe" musicians -- but hey, they were really on MTV, and that's all the kids cared about. The same singers and groups prominently featured in pinup rags sold their songs to the Fisher Price devils, and while the technology and range of acts was pitiful by anyone's standards today, it more than sufficed for kids in 1988.

I'll tell you about the acts in just a bit, but first, the tapes. Commonly referred to as "two-tracks," each tiny tape contained a single song on each side: when you finished listening to one, you flipped a switch and heard the other, repeating the process over and over until both songs became so putridly familiar that you never wanted to hear either of 'em again. The sight of eight-year-olds rocking out to assorted bubble gum pop is still common, but when you factor in the device shown below worn right on the kids' beatin' bodies, it really makes you wish that 1988's first-graders carried cameras around more often. There were several different players, but here's the one I remember the most prominently...

Beautiful, isn't it? Course, once you hit middle school, wearing a Pocket Rockers player on your belt was the equivalent of donning a "Kick Me" sign on your back and a "Burn This" sign over your genitals. Your fellow students would never forgive the assault of kiddie colors and wild dot patterns, even if the decisively baby-fun Fisher Price was smart enough to keep their company logo hidden in the battery compartments.

The players became way more successful than most would've bet on, and Fisher Price corresponded with several additional accessories, and other players in even wackier colors. The line was boosted to include headphones, carrying cases, tiny speakers and more. There was even a strange display case for the tapes that looked not unlike a translucent, mini-sized "Plinko" board from "The Price is Right." If you can't picture it, don't worry. It's a pretty awful comparison; I just can't think of any other way to describe it. The players ran on the typical "AA" batteries, but again, listening to music only played a small part in their longevity. Somehow, Fisher Price managed to take something like two-track tapes and make 'em just as collectable as all the many dolls, action figures and trading cards that were ravenously hoarded. What's worse: you were actually advised to wear the tapes!

Yep. If I'm being honest, this was the point that really sold me on Pocket Rockers. There were these small, clear belt clips that each tape fit into, and with those, kids could wear them on virtually any part of their clothing. So, these weren't just tapes: they were "cool" accessories. In the commercial, we get a shot of a kid (who must be enivably cool 'cause he's wearing huge sunglasses) leaning against a fence with no less than 26,000 Pocket Rockers tapes adorning his small frame. At the time, I had zero interest in Debbie Gibson or a rainbow-washed box that'd play two of her songs: I just wanted to cover my body in those neat tapes.

Adding to their collectable nature was the fact that each tape was just as unique in appearance as song content. They were adorned with all sorts of wacky stickers and icons, so you weren't just decorating your clothes with what amounted to small-scale cassettes. As you'd suspect, the main goal of any kid taken with the fad was to simply cover themselves with as many Pocket Rockers tapes as possible -- and if you don't think this was a brilliant move on Fisher Price's part, lemme tell you a story.

In grade school, the lunchroom had this small "store," converted from a storage closet, which mainly sold notebooks, glue, #2 pencils and other assorted "useful" items. Eventually, the school realized that they'd make a lot more money selling novelty items, and for the lack of anything better, began offering two-inch "happy face" pins for 50 cents a pop. Let me tell you, there wasn't a single student in that lunchroom who wasn't wearing a dozen of the things in two weeks time. It became some great competition, with everyone gunning to be the idiot with the most "happy face" pins on their body. I think my record was 36, and I've got the needle scars to prove it.

Pocket Rockers tapes indulged in the same idea. It wasn't just about wearing one or two of the tapes -- it was about wearing more tapes than anyone else, no matter how much it cost, no matter how stupid it made us look. If you're wondering how Fisher Price persuaded the more manly part of their clientele to listen to Tiffany and Madonna, there's your answer. It didn't matter who was on those tapes, so long as the stickers on the outside looked cool.

Incredibly, the Pocket Rockers commercial shed some light on another craze of the time, and perhaps an even bigger one. One of the kids in the ad mixes the clip-on tapes with one of those cheap chain necklaces full of plastic charms. I can't recall where the charms came from or who produced 'em, but these things were as good as gold to kids. They ranged from tiny tennis rackets to small bells and beyond, but my personal faves were the ones that "shrunk down" real items. There were charms that looked perfectly like tiny-sized Colgate toothpaste tubes, cans of Pepsi and so on. Since I had a penis, my friends wouldn't let me wear these things without reprimand. I was so jealous of the girls who got off scot-free on their adventures in covering themselves with crappy vending machine charms.

Just as the commercial illustrated, kids in my school often wore the Pocket Rockers tapes right along with their assorted charms. Today, those plastic doodads fetch way more than you'd think: a mere dozen of the more "official" charms (the ones that didn't look like a free toy from the dentist) can sell for as high as 50 bucks.

Up above are just some of the acts available on Pocket Rockers tapes -- the variety was wide enough to make the toys unisex, but they certainly seemed more popular with the girls. Obviously, Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were the most iconic of the collection, but you'd be surprised at some of the other tapes available. Beastie Boys and Tears For Fears, for example. Still, most of the tape assortment was composed of forgettable one-hit-wonders, and none of today's 80's mixes would even come close to mimicking Fisher Price's collection. BUT WHO CARES? YOU COULD WEAR THEM ON YOUR NECK!

MTV very much frightened me as a child. I'm not sure why, but the combination of not understanding why these musicians dressed and acted like they did mixed with lyrics that no grade-schooler could comprehend made me a bit apprehensive towards the whole thing -- and that stayed with me for a long time, as I was a very late bloomer with my own musical tastes and interests. I dunno...when I saw pictures of KISS or Twisted Sister, I sincerely believed that they were real-life monsters and demons who drank blood, killed people and hid under my bed waiting to eat me. With the perennial mind of a four-year-old, it was hard for me to understand which Pocket Rockers tapes were worth getting. In fact, there was only one that seemed like a safe bet:

Yep. Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters" anthem. It's the only Pocket Rockers tape I can distinctly remember listening to, but even moreso, it's one of the only songs I recall as being universally "OK'ed" by the kids at school. The song was a hit with everyone, though I have to wonder if Ray had anything to do with it. Put a frog or my grandmother in front of a microphone: if they were singing about Ghostbusters, they were gonna be well received with children. If I'm remembering correctly, the flipside of that particular tape contained "The Monkees" theme song -- probably the only other title from Pocket Rockers' that I completely comprehended. Hey, it was always on television, and for once, I knew the damn words.

By 1991, Fisher Price's entire stock of Pocket Rockers crap was delegated to the clearance bins, and save for a few rip-offs from other companies in more recent years, the craze went out with a whimper. The evolution of these types of fads becomes more clear to me when I observe my many nieces and nephews' assorted interests, and these days, they've all got CD players that put mine to shame. The technology involved here is beyond dated, but we can always reflect, reminisce, and pray for another fad that gives us a reason to cover our torsos with two-track audio tapes. Follow the link below to download and watch the original "Pocket Rockers" commercial, which'll explain the nuances of a really questionable fad item a whole lot better than I can on three hours sleep and passing interest. Bye!

- Matt (1/21/03)
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