The shape and character of nostalgia — and how people deal with it — has changed since the Internet became the internet. Objects and experiences that would have lived out pointless half-lives in the cobwebbed, guano-spewed corners of our brain’s attics are suddenly, and unpredictably, lit up once more. Until we see proof — an eBay listing or a VHS transfer on a third-tier streaming website — we might assume that our memory of the giant ice cream monster that eats itself is a heavily corrupted memory of something else, or maybe that it came from a dream. When we bump into the source decades later, the rush of recognition — the confirmation that this semi-conscious dream-stuff has a real-life counterpart — is among the most satisfying experiences available to us.
Holy sh*t! I remember that thing. That was real?
I recently encountered, in a friend's attic, a relic that set off this neural chain: The Nickelodeon Time Blaster (codename: “Rise ’N Slime”). Nickelodeon was responsible for shaping the zeitgeist of that Belle Époque of childhoods: the American 1990s. This clock is the apotheosis of '90s Nick values — a perfect document, an avatar of the network’s suppositions about children’s desire to be around slime, electricity and large buttons.
The bedside clock was one of several appliances in a series made for Nick by a New York company called Long Hall Technologies in the second half of the '90s. They were advertised in magazines, on Lunchables boxes and almost always offered as prizes on Double Dare. There was a rebrand of the telephone called the Talk Blaster as well as a cassette player/radio — seemingly a design collaboration between Nikola Tesla and the Burger King — called the Blast Box. Every one of the myriad blasting machines boasted the signature Nickelodeon aesthetic, which appears grounded in the fantasy of a radioactive steampunk treehouse. “Early Slimepunk” might be a good shorthand.
The Time Blaster is a asymmetrical hunk of Lorde’s-lips-colored plastic with accents in a green and purple lifted from “Barney & Friends.” This cartoon garishness was at the heart of Nick’s whole thing; the Time Blaster was a radical contrast to the austerity of your grandma’s alarm clock, which they were likely to suggest was a gramophone made of newspapers — aka boring. It is a child’s cardboard box time machine rendered in glorious polyethylene, as if brought to life by a wizard nearing the end of his to-do list.
The top of the clock is made to look like an induction coil with a light-up green zig-zag hopping across the middle. (In the Nickelodeon universe, electricity is just a different slime.) The off-on control is a double throw knife switch straight out of a finger-sized Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. The radio tuner is a wonky purple gear. On top, for snoozing, is a big red button, which as you might know is one of Jung’s seven archetypal buttons.
The alarm noises differed depending on the model, but were all sufficiently abrasive to please the children of the slime: a blast-off countdown, a staccato reveille, a cuckoo clock, a boing-boing, a MIDI marching band, a train whistle, a rooster, an uninspired “wake up” chant and, of course, the classic Nickelodeon doo-wap jingle.
Each of these options was as terrible as the generic honk of a traditional alarm clock, but they made kids think “in a world built for adults, this thing was built for me” — even if the parameters of “for me” were defined by adults at Nickelodeon and demonstrated a blithe disregard for the dangers of chemical waste.
So much of the marketing I was exposed to as a child took cues from Nickelodeon’s sludge crusade. Commercials for Lunchables, Fruit-By-The-Foot and various iridescent yogurts showed giant tuba horns spewing flavor goop onto crackers and into tubs. Sunglasses-wearing mascots surfed waves of School Bus yellow cheese. The delineation between good muck and bad muck was mostly arbitrary and entirely prescriptive — “You guys love bugs and mercury and radioactive mud but you hate cafeteria food, which is a grey paste that comes from a grim woman with a mole and an ice-cream scoop.” “What about other grey pastes?” “Good question! They are excellent."
I never had a Time Blaster because my parents didn’t like cartoons or Nickelodeon. My father’s kindest review of any cartoon was: “Their heads are shaped wrong.” But many of my friends had them and I coveted them. Out of spite for my parents’ distaste, which I would later realize I had always secretly shared, I lusted after the goop and the gears. I once conspired to steal a Time Blaster from my friend Sean during a sleepover, but Sean threw up on me in the night and I soured on the idea. Nickelodeon left me ill-prepared for the reality of slime and I knew I was a pretender.
A television network created a distinct and comprehensive aesthetic of its own — a world resembling the Wonka factory on Halloween and spanning across multiple programs into commercials, snacks, and electronics — and from that world they plucked the Time Blaster. Does it blast the time? No. Does it blast ACME sound effects? If your definition of blast is generous. What it does now is remind us of simpler days when we coveted plastic things from television commercials. Days when game show sets were designed to look like power plants and we saved up proofs of purchase to use as currency. Days when the future looked like a mash-up of the present, the past, and a spilled-over garbage can — and we were stoked about it. Maybe the Time Blaster was never meant to blast the current time. Maybe it’s been waiting all of these years to live up to its name.