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The Boston Phoenix Street Scenes

Elmo hits prime time.

By Carly Carioli

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  On the occasion of Sesame Street's 30th anniversary comes the prime-time network premiere of Elmopalooza! (this Friday night on ABC, released to home video on April 14, with a soundtrack CD due March 3). It's a string of decidedly un-Sesame-like MTV-styled videos pairing Muppets with the kind of Top 40 musical guests whom Sesame Street has always stayed hip enough to embrace -- the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Fugees, Shawn Colvin. And it's all tied together with a storyline that has the classic Street gang putting on a star-studded gala at Radio City Music Hall with the likes of Chris Rock, Cindy Crawford, and Richard Belzer.

The joke is watching Sesame Street's eternally innocent puppets deal with the cynical world of show biz. But as seemingly good-natured as the whole thing is, the punch line left a rotten taste in my mouth. Grover may get lost on his way to Radio City Music Hall, but he's nowhere near as lost as ABC is in trying to find the elusive, delicate balance of music, education, irreverent pop-culture commentary, and fun that's always been Sesame Street's trademark.

Years before MTV figured it out, the Children's Television Workshop understood that by putting enticing visuals together with tunes you couldn't shake from your head, you could hook an entire generation. As committed as Sesame Street has been to education, it has been equally devoted to inspiring a love of popular music, both through its own unforgettable tunes ("Rubber Ducky," "Doin' the Pigeon," "C is for Cookie") and through the songs of guest stars like Luciano Pavarotti, Ray Charles, and the Spin Doctors. The show embraced cultural diversity (Los Lobos, Melissa Etheridge) long before it was commercially agreeable to do so. It spanned genres from showtunes to country to new wave (remember the Billy Idol-ish puppet who sang "Rebel L"?) to psychedelia. It was through Sesame Street that I first heard Little Richard, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder; knew Harry Belafonte as the guy who sang "Coconut Counting Man" with the Count; knew James Taylor as that boring guy who hung out on the roof of good ol' 123.

Now that the show's original audiences are old enough to make their own music, it's clear that Sesame Street left an impression just as indelible as punk rock. Nothing summed up the exuberant youthful spirit of Green Day's Dookie better than the album's back cover, with its photo of an Ernie puppet peering over a crowd. And the Bosstones are practically Muppets themselves.

The problem with Elmopaloza! really isn't in the performances, which are all new versions of old Sesame standards. It's almost impossible to go wrong with En Vogue cuddling up to a snaggly-toothed orange devil as they turn "I Want a Monster To Be My Friend" into airy new-jill soul, or Shawn Colvin nuzzling up to Ernie on a sweet rendition of his "I Don't Want To Live on the Moon," or the Bosstones hamming it up with the Count on "The Zig Zag Dance." (When the Count starts counting Bosstones -- "One Mighty! Two Mighty!" -- you know everything's right with the world.) It's just that Sesame Street the TV show has always exploited celebrity as a means to widen its educational palette -- making B.B. King sing the alphabet, shape-shifting a Huey Lewis tune into "Hip To Be a Square." The show never let its celebrity guests get off as easy as they do here. Rather than mining Jimmy Buffett and Gloria Estefan for Sesame-fied versions of their hits, the Elmopalooza producers have allowed these stars to mine the special for cuddly, do-gooder PR spins.

Perhaps the Elmopalooza producers have confused Sesame Street with its celebrity-vehicle cousin, The Muppet Show. The special's connecting skits, which concern the behind-the-scenes machinations of broadcast TV, rely on jaded in-jokes about network programming and celebrity egos. It amounts to a TV special about, well, putting Sesame Street in prime time. The only real message is -- surprise! -- the medium itself. And though that's exactly what MTV is about (and what Elmopalooza's videos appear to mock but in fact end up simply mimicking), it's precisely what Sesame Street has always subverted, by turning the hits of Bruce Springsteen ("Born To Add"), Madonna ("Cereal Girl"), even the Stones ("I Can't Get No Cooperation") into lessons that resonated long after kids switched the channel.

CTW knew that you could make children's programming without condescending. And it is perhaps with that in mind that Aerosmith's Steven Tyler recorded the version of Oscar the Grouch's "I Love Trash" that appears on the CD soundtrack but was left off the TV/video special (probably because it could frighten small children). Reconfirming his status as the world's biggest teenager, Tyler launches into a full-blown boogie-metal arrangement (guitar solo and arena-ballad chorus included), screaming like a banshee: "Hey -- you wanna talk some trash?! Waaauuugghh!!" Kick out your jammies, kids -- Uncle Stevie's huffing like James Brown and jive-talking like Tom Waits. Granted, it's better than anything on Aerosmith's Nine Lives, but like the rest of Elmopalooza!, it kinda makes you wanna shout: "Can't somebody tell these people how to get to Sesame Street?"

Carly Carioli can be reached at ccarioli@phx.com.

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