This week our new friends at The Onion’s A.V. Club are looking back on 1997, a year that included possibly the worst two weeks in musical history and proved that stuffing modern CGI graphics into old movies could be a horrifyingly effective way to jump-start a film franchise.
Soul patches, the swing music revival, boy bands, fucking Smash Mouth: everything in 1997 felt so sincere, so joyous, so free of consequences and irony. It was a kind of sweet spot in modern times, past the worst of the AIDS epidemic and the Cold War, but well before 9/11, the global recession and presidents prone to provoking nuclear war over Twitter. Some of you may be too young to know this, but there was a time when we maybe collectively felt like the future might be better, not shittier. That’s how a lot of the 1990s felt.
All of this got me thinking, as I am ostensibly paid to do, about the cars.
Particularly after this story, which examines one of the better episodes of The Simpsons, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” from February of that year. If you haven’t seen that one, it’s about how a committee of TV executives tries to make the Simpson kids’ favorite ultra-violent cat-and-mouse cartoon more real, more EXTREME, more relevant to a 1990s audience.
They do so by adding a dog character who embodies pretty much every grating cultural trait of that decade. He’s loud, he does extreme sports, he wears sunglasses and denim shorts and a leather jacket, he raps—and he implores you to recycle.
Needless to say, Poochie doesn’t work out. His arrival is heralded as the “Worst. Episode. Ever.”, and that alone is a line that endured well past this show’s prime.
The storyline was also apparently a meta-commentary on The Simpsons’ questioning its own relevance after being on TV for about a decade, and on what studio executives and audiences supposedly expected from the series as it went on. From The A.V. Club:
The Itchy & Scratchy staff dutifully plows ahead on figuring out how to “rasta-fy him by 10 percent or so,” knowing that questioning the executives’ meaningless buzzwords will only get them fired. Meanwhile, Roger Meyers Jr. is forced to figure out how to make his cartoon more appealing to fickle yet demanding—and stupid—viewers who “want a realistic, down-to-earth show... that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots.”
Caught in the middle are people like voice actor June Bellamy (an affectionate stand-in for the late June Foray) and Homer himself, who just wants to please the audience and “make them laugh and cry until we grow old together.” It’s a tricky balance to acknowledge that behind every “soulless by-product of committee thinking,” there are also people with actual dreams and good, artistic intentions without coming off as mawkish or condescending. “Poochie” manages to engender a twinge of compassion for all involved, even if they’re uniting behind a rapping dog.
This kind of commentary can be applied to a great many product and marketing decisions, including cars. Especially cars.
If we think of cynical, committee-driven attempts for an aging brand to stay “relevant” and “hip” with whatever flavor of the week the coveted youth demographic wanted at the time, the best example I can think of was the Pontiac Aztek. That went into production a mere three years after that Simpsons episode but could unquestionably be considered a product of the sincere and extreme 1990s, even if it came out at the end of it.
Infamously crafted by a crowded General Motors kitchen of designers, engineers and bean counters to be aggressive for aggressive’s sake to the Gen X-ers and their extreme urban camping active lifestyles, the Aztek sold poorly, was dogged by quality problems and came out looking more brutal than beautiful.
I think it’s fair to say the Aztek isn’t really as bad as everyone thinks it is. It probably wasn’t that much worse than any GM car of that era, many of which were kind of terrible. But it was still a high-profile, well-recognized failure, the kind of failure that gets taught in business schools today. And it didn’t save Pontiac, but who knows if anything really could.
But what’s crazy is that for all its many flaws, the Aztek actually presaged what was to come. Quite well, in fact. It was one of the first true crossovers of the modern post-AMC Eagle era, an SUV-ish body on a car platform (in this case a minivan platform) that came in front- or all-wheel drive but lacked true off-roading capability. Now, the crossovers rule the market, even in previously large car-averse places like Europe. The Aztek may have died on the way back to its home planet, but it sent an invading army to take its place. (Most of them look better than the Aztek, though.)
But this isn’t about the cars that were ahead of the curve. It’s about cars designed to make brands relevant and edgy that ultimately failed. What’s your favorite example of that?