When the 2007 live action-animation hybrid movie of Alvin and the Chipmunks made $60 million in its opening weekend, it took people by surprise. Hadn’t the besweatered musical trio outstayed its welcome by just a few decades? Who on earth still thought there was life in this quaint Baby Boom-era novelty act? Whoever it was, I bet he or she got a huge bonus and a promotion. They also have my undying gratitude for creating yet another Chipmunks-related cultural product. I’m not quite a completist – that would be quite an ambition, considering that the “group” has released nearly forty studio albums! (Yes, you read that right.) But I have maintained a fierce affection for the ’Munks over a period of many years, in defiance of the ever-increasing cynicism of kids’ entertainment.
Some folks like the Chipmunks – yes, besides me – because they think the little guys (that’s Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, for those of you living under a rock) are cute. Others find their animated shenanigans amusing. I confess that the corny humor of their kiddie-fied, punny songs (for example, in a Rick Springfield cover, they sing, “Jesse’s got himself a squirrel and I wanna make her mine”) makes me cackle. However, I became a CFL (Chipmunks Fan for Life – I just made that up) for the same reason one becomes attached to any other musical act: I like their music. For whatever reason, I actually like how pop, rock and country-western tunes sound when performed by adult humans and sped up to sound like what someone imagined oversized singing rodents would sound like. In a possibly related note, I also consider Fran Drescher’s nasal, accented voice charming. I was originally drawn in by the premise – the image of Alvin dressed à la John Travolta on the cover of the Urban Chipmunk album struck me as hilarious at age nine – but I stayed for the love of the music itself. Trust me, once you’ve heard those smooth, high-pitched harmonies on numbers like “Bette Davis Eyes,” “My Sharona” and “Arthur’s Theme,” your perspective on the recording arts is forever altered.
Of course, there was a whole world of Chipmunks culture produced before I existed or became self-aware, starting with the “Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” in the ’50s, The Alvin Show on CBS in the ’60s, and numerous Grammy (!) wins and nominations in those decades. The franchise is an intergenerational family business, originated by Ross Bagdasarian Sr., an actor who had bit parts in Rear Window and Viva Zapata! and co-wrote Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-a My House.” After the patriarch’s death, his son and daughter-in-law took over the mantle and recording duties. I can only suppose that, like me, children across America were ready for a Chipmunks revival in the mid-’80s, because just at the point that I was perfecting my impression of Alvin singing “On the Road Again,” the Saturday-morning Chipmunks cartoon came on the air. I was ten years old. There may be no starker example of the difference between Generation X and our current youth: can you imagine any present-day fifth or sixth grader yukking it up like a maniac every weekend over a group of talking animals that don’t do mixed martial arts or shoot lasers out of their asses?
Granted, I was a bit slower in letting go of childhood than were my peers. I would have been happy to go on playing house and freeze tag into the double-digits, but my classmates were increasingly preoccupied by other things, preferring instead to spend lunch period applying and re-applying their pink frosted lipstick, and abandoning our collective passion for the Annie movie for a screamy obsession with Duran Duran. I wasn’t ready. The only “grown-up” record album I owned was The Best of Blondie (I had discovered Debbie Harry when she appeared on The Muppet Show). I just kept on rocking NBC’s Saturday morning lineup, which the Chipmunks shared with classics like The Smurfs, as well as less well known but no less loved offerings like the Mister T cartoon, It’s Punky Brewster (featuring Glomer), and Kidd Video. I even got my mom to take me to a live event at the Felt Forum (now known as the WaMu Theater, even though WaMu no longer exists) called Alvin and the Chipmunks and the Magic Camera, where adult actors wearing Disneyland-style costumes sang and danced and solved some sort of mystery, all Scooby-Doo-like. I was somewhat conscious of being perhaps the only kid taller than 4’ in the audience, but I consoled myself that at least it wasn’t Chipmunks on Ice.
Despite owning four full-length Chipmunks albums and getting my weekly cartoon fix every Saturday, I found myself distracted from my fuzzy friends as I approached sixth grade. Both time and technology played a role. I began to realize that I could turn on the radio and choose what station to listen to, without my mom or dad’s approval. I became aware of Thriller and bought a copy. I saw Flashdance on VHS at a friend’s house, and soon that album was in my room too, next to Mickey Mouse Disco and Carol Channing reading selections from Winnie-the-Pooh. The same friend who had bought me Chipmunk Rock and Chipmunk Punk for my tenth birthday gave me She’s So Unusual and Can’t Slow Down for my eleventh. And for Christmas that year, I received a boom box that allowed me to record songs directly from the radio. My immersion into adolescent popular music was well underway. Alvin’s vocal on “Bette Davis Eyes” was gripping, to say the least, but I found that Kim Carnes’ version wasn’t too shabby either.
But rest assured: the boys, as Dave Seville calls them, may have had to share my affection with other supergroups, but they have never been abandoned. Their unique and inexplicable power can take hold of me without any obvious cause, though I suspect that they may reassert themselves at times of great flux or stress – for example, second semester of my senior year in college, when one evening I began to blast the ’Munk version of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and conduct my own one-woman dance party in the hallway of my dorm. I’m willing to bet that my neighbors were far more embarrassed that night than they were on any of the occasions when my boyfriend and I had engaged in noisy nookie. But the classmate who lived across that thin wall from me didn’t judge – for my 22nd birthday, she got me a copy of The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles, on CD.
So keep it up, Bagdasarian Productions – I’m ready for The Squeakquel! The boys are gonna cover Foreigner, their rivals/love interests the Chipettes will no doubt give us the definitive version of “Single Ladies,” and it’s a full-on Chipsplosion on “Shake Your Groove Thing.” From disco to rock ballads, from Peaches and Herb to Beyoncé, there’s something for everyone. Ding-dang-walla-walla-bing-bang!
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