“Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dre-e-e-e-eam… dream, dream, dream, dream, dre-e-e-e-eam…”
If you were between, say, 11 and 15 in 1995, then Jonathan Taylor Thomas was your god. He was the coolest. Girls wanted to be with him, boys wanted to be him — or be his best friend, at least. No one in 1995 had such charisma — not Tom Cruise, not Julia Roberts, not Brad Pitt. Jonathan Taylor Thomas slayed them all.
Looking back at it from 2018, it becomes obvious that Jonathan Taylor Thomas was not the definitive celebrity of the mid-90s, despite some major box office success (The Lion King) and a mega-hit TV series (Home Improvement). Jonathan (I’ll use his first name because it’s weird to refer to him by his last) was part of the ensemble in these properties, and had little if anything to do with their popularity. To the outside world — those legally allowed to obtain a driver’s license — he was a cute kid. Parents of young teen girls probably had some idea of Jonathan’s incredible thrall over a certain demographic, but on the whole, we alone know the awesome power of those three letters: JTT.As a boy, I definitely noticed his allure, but it didn’t strike me as attraction. He was our idol, to be revered, envied, and worshipped. It’s not like we chose him. We were, perhaps, too young to cast a critical eye on his stardom — or his skills as an actor. His presence in our lives was largely manufactured in magazines — but isn’t that true of every star?
JTT was aspirational and impossible. As much as he seemed like a balanced, pretty average kid in public appearances, it was obvious that his blessed charms were unobtainable by the rest of us. But unlike the most popular guy in class, Jonathan couldn’t really be resented for his popularity, because we all just wanted to hang out with him so badly.
This is true, to a lesser extent, for plenty of other teen heartthrobs of the mid-90s — Devon Sawa, Rider Strong, Brad Renfro, Jonathan Brandis, and Andrew Keegan, to name a few. Of course, it was the also true of teen heartthrobs in earlier eras — David Cassidy, Davy Jones, Lief Garrett, River Phoenix — but we didn’t know that. We thought we’d discovered this unique phenomenon.I never owned a Bop! or Teen Beat magazine. Perhaps I never even opened one. But it was impossible not to know who graced each and every cover. Some combination of Devon Sawa, Rider Strong, Brad Renfro, Jonathan Brandis, Andrew Keegan, and always Jonathan Taylor Thomas. For girls, they were safe vanilla crushes, a gateway into obsessing over actual men. For boys, they set the standard for what the opposite sex was looking for. In some way, perhaps, I’ve spent my entire life bemoaning my lack of Jonathan Taylor Thomasness. (That would actually explain a lot about me.)
I saw Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ non-Simba big screen efforts exactly once, including Man Of The House and Home For The Holidays. I liked them well enough. I saw Casper, with its ethereal introduction of Devon Sawa, though it had no impact on me. I was too young for most of what Brad Renfro was doing, and missed him altogether until later. (I saw Tom And Huck at some point, but I don’t remember particularly enjoying it.) I watched Boy Meets World as I would watch any sitcom on primetime with kid appeal. I remember Now And Then‘s charms working better on me, perhaps because it was told from a more adult perspective. The only heartthrob movie I can remember being truly excited about is Wild America, a 1997 adventure dramedy starring Devon Sawa and Jonathan Taylor Thomas (and Scott Bairstow, who was super old). In 1995, Heat was touted as the first film to bring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together on screen. Wild America was our Heat.It actually wasn’t, since the film made a tepid $7.3 million at the box office (released on the 4th of July, the same weekend Men In Black made a killing). Not even die-hard Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Devon Sawa fans flocked to the movie, perhaps because 1997 was the year we got too old for that sort of thing. Ironically, I was perhaps finally old enough to find Wild America appealing, as a story about a close-knit band of brothers making a wildlife documentary totally appealed to me. I saw Wild America in theaters, but was disappointed by its kiddie approach to the subject matter. I never watched it again — but of course, it was the first thing I revisited for the podcast.
For me, the real news out of this subject matter was Ladybugs, a movie that reawakened a long-buried confusion about why “Martha” was so captivating. Ladybugs was released in 1992, thus kicking off the era of teen idols in question, and it does so in a way that seems pretty irresponsible for a supposedly family-friendly film. Let’s ignore Rodney Dangerfield’s woefully Stone Aged approach of women, since I was too young and the year was too 1992 for this to jump out as problematic. (It’s not an ideal film to view in the midst of “Me Too” and “Time’s Up,” I’ll say that much.)What’s really weird is how casually it dressed up a teen boy, played by Jonathan Brandis, as a girl, without any consideration or consequence. The idea itself is kind of funny, and might have worked if it subverted the premise’s inherent sexism with a cleverer screenplay. (It would also definitely need to not star Rodney Dangerfield.) If the kid in question was 10, it’d just seem silly. But to have a character who is obviously sexually aware, given his fantasies, fool female peers into thinking he’s one of them… well, it raises a lot of questions, doesn’t it? It’s hard to imagine that Matthew going along with this scheme so easily. Supposedly, he agrees because he’s lusting after one of the players, Kimberly (played by Vinessa Shaw) — though dressing in drag doesn’t seem like an ideal way to earn her affections. Missing from this movie is any examination of what other teens would say and do to a boy who was caught dressing as the opposite gender. It’s possible to imagine a version where Matthew is ridiculed for the ruse, but learns to understand some of the objectification and dismissal women are subjected to. Being a girl might theoretically help Matthew become a better man, but that’s definitely not where Ladybugs is going. The film has zero thoughts on gender, despite being a gender-switch comedy. Add Dangerfield’s pervy persona to this, and his interactions with young girls seem iffy enough, let alone helping his girlfriend’s teen son into a dress. Chester’s actions are far more questionable (and punishable) than this movie thinks they are.
Ladybugs is an unfortunate introduction to teen idolatry, but it was mine. “Martha” made her mark on pre-teen me, even though I still don’t really know what my squeamish reaction to Ladybugs is all about. Did I like Martha because she was a pretty girl? Because she was really a boy? Or just because this was the story of a boy who doesn’t adhere to gender stereotypes? (It’s a bad version of such a story, but seeing a young male hero celebrated despite some feminine behavior must have made some impression on me, a kid who was never into sports and thus, not a very “masculine” second-grader.) Ladybugs also takes a moment to leer at a scantily clad Vinessa Shaw, a moment that also ignited some kind of confusing sexual awakening, scored to the Everly Brothers’ “Dream” (forever scorched within me by this movie).
I didn’t recognize the appeal of these teen heartthrobs as actual attraction at the time, but I still look at pictures of these 14-year-old boys and think, “Wow. I’ll never be that cool.” It’s a disturbing thought to grapple with for a fully grown man. I’m not a pedophile, and I have no idea who the 2018 equivalents of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Andrew Keegan, and Devon Sawa are, except they’re probably on the Disney Channel or YouTube. That is to say, I don’t really consider teenage boys appropriate or appealing objects of lust. I don’t really consider them at all. But I’ll be damned if I don’t see a picture of Devon Sawa in 1996 and wonder if there was ever a chance that we could be friends… or more, maybe? (Besides seeming like a pretty chill guy, Adult Devon Sawa does nothing for me.) I guess a part of us is always the teenager we used to be, so maybe it’s okay to have the hots for a teenager who was our contemporary. I still don’t know if I wanted to be 15-year-old Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ best friend or soul mate, and the more I think about it, the weirder it gets.
I guess that’s the point of teen heartthrobs. We’re meant to idolize them from afar. We don’t know what the fuck we’d do in their actual presence. (At least, I didn’t.) We aren’t supposed to, because it lasts only a few years and happens before we’re ready to think about it, beyond a vague fantasy. Heartthrobs are a warm up, hopefully outgrown in a year or two, though they’re fun to revisit every now and then. It’s nice to go back to a time where “love” was so pure and simple, and oh my God it’s time to stop talking about this.