If you mention the word Jem to most people, especially anyone who grew up in the 1980s, the first thing most people think of is the cartoon’s iconic theme song. In less than a minute, we learn everything we need to know to enjoy and understand the series. Jem is, in fact, truly outrageous, and her life is full of glamour, glitter, fashion and fame. She leads a band of female musicians, and she also has to contend with her rivals the Misfits, who brashly proclaim that they’re songs are better (and they’re gonna get her). And all of it is wrapped in an of-the-moment dance/pop package sparkling with style and dripping with hooks.
The thing that set Jem apart from other 80s cartoons and toy lines was the music. Obviously, one of the perks of getting the dolls themselves was that each one came with a cassette tape of original music meant to be in-universe recordings of the characters and their bands. But once the cartoon came on the air, it was clear how vital the music was to the Jem universe. Far from being an add-on, it was a strong part of the very core of the series itself. It was a reflection of the characters and their philosophies as much as it was a more temporal representation of the fictional bands’ musical output.
The series’ fiercely devoted fanbase has continued to keep the music alive, and recently, a number of fans have taken to remastering the songs to return them to their original clarity (perhaps most notably by YouTube user StarliteJem who has reconstructed over half of the series’ original music). Listening to the remastered recordings, it becomes clear just how much effort was placed into the construction of each song from composition to final mixdown. In the space of 90 seconds (often less), each track delivers a coherent and remarkably efficient mix of emotion, narrative and even social commentary in any number of styles and genres.
(Please note: While no attempt is being made to diminish the hard work of the people who worked on the music, including lyricist Barry Harman and singer Britta Phillips, most of the discussion will be in an “in-universe” fashion out of simplicity.)
To understand the depth of the music, we first need to look at the players. The focus of the series, of course, is Jem and the Holograms. With a focus on harmony and accessibility, the Holograms perform dance/pop that incorporates everything from New Wave to prog rock while staying solidly mainstream. Their main rivals, the Misfits, on the other hand, relish in defying the standards of traditional pop, their music a subversion of classic pop tropes that draws from punk, underground and more experimental avenues. When the Stingers arrive in the show’s third season, they serve as a kind of bridge between the two established bands, incorporating the Holograms’ smooth sounds with the Misfits’ confrontational attitude.
If all three bands had existed in the real musical landscape of the 1980s, it’s clear that the Holograms would have almost certainly been the most popular, if only because many of their songs seem to be so radio-friendly. That is not to say that the songs are boring or predictable, only that the Holograms are content to work within the boundaries of established pop. They might always color within the lines, but their strength lies in exactly what kinds of colors they use. To be sure, the production and arrangement of each song is almost always lush and pleasant, focusing strongly on simple but effective harmonies. Their songs tend to be mixed and produced to simulate the band’s live performance. Aja’s guitar in “There’s a Melody Playin’”, for instance, is panned to the right, whereas Kimber’s piano parts tend to be panned a similar distance to the left. Drums are front and center, right behind Jem’s vocal, with fills often sweeping from one side to the other to mimic Shana’s (and later Raya’s) visual drum patterns.
This approach to harmony and cohesion is also a major theme in the lyrics of the Holograms’ songs, which focus as often on empowerment as it does on love and friendship. Jem’s soaring vocal (provided by Britta Phillips) is as much an instrument as any guitar or keyboard, and it blends easily with the rest of the ensemble in the same way. Jem’s/Phillips’ voice has just enough rocky rasp in it to give the songs a bit of edge and maturity, but it also has an incredible range, capable of smooth soprano cooing or full-throated belting.
The true key to the Holograms’ music, though, is vulnerability. While the subjects of their songs were often uplifting and optimistic, the expression of those topics represented a kind of courageous openness that listeners can easily relate to. “I Believe in Happy Endings,” one of the group’s best ballads, opens with Jem even admitting that optimism is often seen as a kind of delusion. That vulnerability also helps the music convey the less favorable parts of life — such as the uncertainty of “Who Is He Kissing?” or the outright paranoia of “Nightmare” — often in cleverly hidden ways. “Deception” is one of the few Holograms songs that ends with a fade-out, and it repeats a chord progression that never resolves itself, much like how Jem’s real identity was kept secret throughout the run of the series.
The Misfits exist in a sharp contrast to the Holograms, almost like a response (even if the Misfits were technically formed first). Where the Holograms focus on unity, the Misfits thrive on chaos. The Holograms play within pop music rules, while the Misfits not only break those rules, but demand that the pop landscape be altered to include their sound. The Holograms are open and vulnerable, the Misfits are unapologetically cynical and aggressive. Their songs are structured less as the output of a live band and much more as an experimental wall of exuberant yet melodic noise, layered with synthesized instruments like the synth brass in “I Love a Scandal” and peppered with sometimes-jarring found sounds like the ones that make up part of the rhythm section of “Gimme a Gimmick.”
Oddly enough, the Misfits do share some compositional elements with the Holograms, as both bands’ main in-universe songwriters (Kimber and Stormer) are piano/keyboard players. It’s telling that when the Misfits hijack the arrangement of “There’s a Melody Playin’”, they have to do very little to completely transform the song into “There Ain’t Nobody Better.” The main differences is that the Misfits intentionally subvert the same influences that the Holograms pay homage to. The Misfits are fond of the quick eighth-note piano chords of 50s rock, and their call-and-response background vocals are highly reminiscent of any number of classic 60s girl groups. This is perhaps best exemplified in their song “Congratulations,” which turns the subtextual brattiness of those girl group harmonies (in songs such as “Leader of the Pack”) into overtly textual statements.
For all its aggression and braggadocio, the Misfits’ music can, at its core, be seen as a more proactive version of the empowerment message the Holograms try to convey. Instead of relying on faith that things will work out, however, the Misfits encourage their listeners to channel their inner badass and take drastic action in a much more immediate way. They’re all about the here, the now and the tangible. In one of their few songs about love, “Lovesick,” they see ephemeral things like romance as a distraction and annoyance. If the Misfits ever recorded a tender ballad, it was never released and likely never will be.
The introduction of the Stingers in the show’s third season was a curious development in the show’s musical evolution. If the Holograms were representative of the 80s New Age movement toward a larger global consciousness, and the Misfits were the avatar of the 80s “greed is good” meme, the Stingers existed somewhere exactly in the middle. Their songs were often as brash and assertive as the Misfits, but they were also capable of producing highly-effective love songs; compare the PG-rated cock rock of “Take It or Leave It” with the hot adult contemporary ballad “Under My Spell.” Similarly, the narrator of the hyperactive “Mind Games” could be seen either as a man who plays mind games on others or as a representative of the mind games played by the corporate culture that dominates the media.
The Stingers were also dynamic in a way that neither the Holograms nor the Misfits could replicate; they had a man on lead vocals but also a strong, supportive female presence. That presence was provided by disco star Vicki Sue Robinson, and her soulful performances added an extra layer of sweetness that help to sell the leonine tone of much of the Stingers’ output. When she’s brought to the forefront in the song “Destiny,” it’s commanding and captivating. This combination of male and female energies helped to further set them apart from their rivals.
Unlike the other bands, the Stingers never got a chance to evolve much past their initially solid sonic palette; the show and toy line ended shortly after they arrived. But even during their brief stint in the limelight, viewers were easily able to grasp what they were all about thanks to their music. Perhaps more than nearly any other element, the music was the heart of the show and of the characters. It’s one of the many reasons the show has endured as long as it has and why fans still get “Universal Appeal” and “Set Your Sails” stuck in their heads at random intervals. In fact, you probably just got one of those songs stuck in your head right now. Like Jem herself even says, music really is magic.
* * * * *
If you’ve got any on the songs from the show in your head, you can hear most of them in a brand new way on StarliteJem’s YouTube channel. Please take a moment to thank him for all the hard work he does remastering these classic songs. If you’d like to listen to a playlist of some of the songs discussed in this article (and more of each band’s greatest hits), check out this handy dandy playlist compiled by Johnny M himself.
To read more about the impact of Jem, check out articles discussing the show itself, the legacy of the franchise, and FBOTU’s exclusive interview with Jem herself, the lovely and talented Samantha Newark. (Plus, make sure you check out our review of Sam’s latest album.)
Stay tuned for a review of the live-action Jem and the Holograms movie…coming very, very soon!