Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Krossed Out: Chris Kelly and the Slow Death of the '90s

A lot has been said, written and tweeted about one Miss Amanda Bynes.

Those who know me, know that I had such a huge thing for her. We were born in the same year so, for the most part, I was able to follow her entire career, starting with the Nickelodeon sketch comedy show, All That. 

Amanda got her start on the show’s third season in 1996 and stayed on until the sixth season in 2000. She was also on the Nick game show, Figure It Out and her own comedy show, The Amanda Show, which started at the end of the decade.


She had modest success in the 2000s, starring in a number of movies along with a lead role, along with other 90s star Jennie Garth, in the WB sitcom What I Like About You. I never watched the show while on its original run but caught up pretty quickly on its reruns on ABC Family. Much like one of my new favorites, Melissa & Joey, What I Like About You used the 90s sitcom formula (filmed in front of a live studio audience of course.)


Amanda decided to retire a couple years back because she was tired of acting, it was a little surprising. How could such a talent call it quits so soon? Her comedy antics, in some circles, had been compared to Lucille Ball (High praise, probably way too high, but it’s been mentioned.)

But then the downfall.

Her tweets became bizarre and she was in the headlines for her run-ins with the law. This child star has gone, not just bad, but off the deep end, her self-destruction on blast for all of us to see.


Some of her more recent tweets are “selfie” pictures of herself, topless (but covered) and her head half-shaven. In recent weeks she also tweeted about wanting the rapper Drake to be running roughshod over her...um...lady parts.


People who know me know how big of a thing I had for her, but now that has definitely changed. Her appeal; her goofy, quirky nature that she portrayed in her work, along with a certain sweetness to her, is all gone. Maybe I’m naive, or idealistic, or plain stupid, but part of me thinks Amanda’s antics are all just an act. Yes, silly I know, but I just cannot believe how ridiculous she has gotten, so ridiculous that I think she may just be trolling everyone in the world right now and playing up the insanity.

Again, maybe I’m just being a hopeless fan, but she’s making Lindsay Lohan look pretty good right now, a little too good.


So, having gotten all of that Amanda Bynes commentary out of the way, it got Frankie and myself thinking about certain 90s child stars who died way too soon.

Just last week, word came that Chris “Mac Daddy” Kelly, one half of the 90s teen rap duo Kris Kross, died at the age of 34.


Kris Kross consisted of Kelly and Chris “Daddy Mac” Smith. They were discovered in Atlanta by some guy named Jermaine Dupri in 1990, and two years later, at the age of 12 and 13, their hit song “Jump” was number one on the Billboard 100 for eight weeks and certified double platinum. The song was on their debut album Totally Krossed Out which sold over four million copies. They were huge on MTV, which helped showcase their unique fashion style of wearing their clothes backwards.


I was about 5-years-old when I first heard “Jump.” I didn’t really know too much about music at the time but I knew my older cousin John, who is six years older than me, listened to Kris Kross.

Growing up as an only child, I always credit John with being the brother I never had so whatever he thought was cool, of course I thought it was cool too. Any video game he played, I played too. His hand me down Oakland Raider Starter jacket and Philadelphia Eagles Starter sweatshirt would become treasured items.

So naturally, he would watch MTV, the “Jump” video and listen to his Kris Kross cassette tape, and I couldn’t help but be all about it.

What turned Kris Kross into a hit?

I think it was the perfect storm of factors. Jermaine Dupri, only 18 in 1990, is a good hip-hop mind. He discovered the young duo and produced their first hugely successful album. They were a bit of a novelty when you think about it. Rap can be a gritty game and these two kids had a bit of an edge to them, their pre-pubescent voices spitting out lyrics like...
Don’t try to compare us to another bad little fad
I’m the Mac and I’m bad givin’ ya something that you never had
I’ll make ya rump rump wiggle and shake your rump
‘Cause I’ll be kicking the flavor that makes you wanna Jump
Sure they’re not spitting lyrics out like Pac or making any social justice commentary, but to use a sports/food analogy, there was “a little bit more mustard” in what these 12 and 13-year-old boys were saying and how they were doing it. Throw in the fact that they wore clothes backwards (easy fashion fab) in the “Jump” music video, which spread through the ultimate hype machine at the time, MTV (again, when the ‘M” stood for “Music.”), and you’ve got yourself a hit on your hands.

It doesn’t hurt too when the hook of your song is catchy and, even better, only one word. They got to tour with Michael Jackson, made cameos in TLC and Run DMC videos, and made appearances in two TV hits, A Different World and In Living Color. How bout a video game too? Kriss Kross: Make My Video hit the Sega CD (Yes, I actually had the Sega CD, but unfortunately not this game. I did however get Power Factory Featuring C+C Music Factory, that’s a whole different story.)


So, of course, you know how this story goes.

Maintaining a high level of success is extremely difficult in entertainment. Mac Daddy and Daddy Mac were so young when they hit it big, replicating that success as they got older and those “perfect storm” qualities that they had early were gone. They went on to release two more albums, to modest success, again not duplicating the success of Jump and Totally Krossed Out.

So, when word broke that Chris Kelly died, it brought nostalgic feelings from many who grew up in the 90s.

Reports say that Kelly is suspected of dying of an overdose, a mixture of heroin and cocaine from the night before. His reported drug problems through the years are not unlike other child actors and musicians. Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris and others in the industry offered high praise for Kelly and what Kriss Kross brought to the table, showing that the duo, like other child stars, may have faded away but left their mark with their moment in the spotlight.

Jonathan Brandis was four years and five days older than me. 


He hanged himself at age 27, not long after I'd graduated from college. More than any other celebrity death up to that point, that one affected me. I don't know why. A lot of the girls I knew from college were shocked, absolutely floored the day he was found dead. So was I. I thought he had a decent head on his shoulders and actual talent. He seemed like a guy who could make it as an adult one day. 

Sadly, that potential went unrealized.


I wasn't a superfan by any stretch, barely what you'd consider a fan. Still, I liked what I'd seen of his work, minus The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter, a horrible movie by any measure. Brandis took over for original star Barrett Oliver as Bastian Bux, a meek young kid who finds himself transported to a faraway fantasy kingdom through a magical book, and is manipulated by an evil sorceress into betraying his old allies. The first movie remains a favorite for kids of my vintage. The sequel is an awful retread that has little redeeming value.


Fortunately, Brandis rebounded with a pair of roles one might call defining--cross-dressing soccer player Matthew in Ladybugs and Chuck Norris superfan Barry (only mildly unbelievable at the time) in Sidekicks

Of the two, I found Ladybugs to be the most enjoyable, watching it several times. Brandis is a real find in it, an able comic participant with very good timing and a game willingness to do things for a laugh. But it's really a well-remembered movie for its goofy plot and for being the sort of Rodney Dangerfield movie for '90s kids who'd never seen a Rodney Dangerfield movie. Sidekicks was another hit for Brandis, joining him with Chuck Norris (playing himself here). Brandis plays a kid who daydreams about fighting alongside Chuck Norris, only to get the actual opportunity at a martial arts tournament. It was a modest domestic success, but cleaned up overseas. It also led to one of Brandis' most memorable roles (mainly by virtue of being on network television).


That was as boy genius Lucas on seaQuest DSV, the Steven Spielberg-produced NBC adventure series about a futuristic submarine and her crew. Brandis' Lucas was the Wesley Crusher of the crew, only nowhere near as annoying, to my recollection.

seaQuest cemented Brandis as one of Hollywood's young heartthrobs, but it also quickly hemorrhaged viewers. The show was retooled twice, and Brandis was one of the few to stay on during its entire run (and the only actor to appear in all 57 episodes). Brandis also had a recurring role on Disney's Aladdin series as the evil sorcerer Mozenrath, but he was out of my cultural consciousness shortly after, which is kind of sad. 

As teen idols go, Jonathan Brandis wasn't terrible at all, and actually seemed like he could sustain a successful career later in life, as opposed to being one half of a novelty act like Chris Kelly. But it wasn't to be.  Brandis' career petered out and his dissatisfaction reportedly drove him to depression and alcoholism, and finally to suicide.

Succeeding young and burning out way too quickly. It defines a lot of child or teen stars in recent decades, maybe none more than River Phoenix.


But unlike, the others we’ve mentioned in this piece, Phoenix was going one direction at the time of his untimely death, and that was up. He started acting in commercials when he was 10, was in the 1986 classic Stand By Me, got an Oscar nomination a few years later for Running on Empty and even got to play the young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

He was multi-talented, loved to perform music, was socially-conscious, had his whole life ahead of him and had one of the most badass names in the history of entertainment.


But it was all taken away from him, after he died from an overdose in October 1993. He died before he was set to perform with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers at The Viper Room, the L.A. club owned by Johnny Depp. Incredible star power who were there at the time of Phoenix’s death, which shocked everyone.

Throw in the fact that he had a bunch of films he was slated to do, which could have put him on a track of a Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, and you can argue that River Phoenix’s death is on the level of a Biggie and Tupac in rap, Len Bias in basketball and of course, James Dean in film, as greats who died at or on their way to the top.

Well, this wasn’t the most upbeat column ever, which gets me back to Amanda Bynes.

Say what you will about her, but she, like all of these former child stars, actresses and actors, is human too. But before any of us are quick to criticize, we can’t be lost on the fact that these people see and experience things that we’ll never be able to comprehend.

Imagine living the high life at such a young age?

Seeing more money at 13 than most people in the entire world will see in their entire lives. The attention you get leads to ultimate praise or ultimate scorn and you just have to deal with it. And then, if it all falls apart and that success isn’t there anymore then you have to learn to deal with it too.

It’s why I hope Amanda Bynes is trolling the world with her outrageous behavior. We’ve seen this script before, but hope for a better ending.

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