I was nine years old when Pokémon: The First Movie came out. Having been a fan of the Japanese cartoon series (I watched the English-dubbed version that aired on Canadian television) and the Game Boy games, I showed up early to the theatre, waited in line and even got one of the free cards that theatres handed out at the premiere screenings. I got a Mewtwo.
Even though many of those screenings were sold out, Pokémon felt like a niche phenomenon back in 1999. It predominantly catered to young kids whose parents begrudgingly bought packs of cards for their children and came along to chaperone their trip to the theatre. By most accounts from people who were in their teens or 20s at the turn of the millennium, Pokémon was too “childish” to be cool or relevant to their interests. But to kids like me, it was a hot trend and I devoted hours of my adolescent life secluded in my room, staring at a screen and either watching Ash Ketchum go on adventures or going on my own by playing Pokémon Blue.
Fast-forward 17 years and that demographic of people who once rejected Pokémon in the '90s and early 2000s now make up the driving force behind Pokémon Go, a new augmented reality app where users go out into the real world to capture, train and battle Pokémon. Whereas Pokémon was on the fringes of mainstream pop culture in the past (only occupying the sector of entertainment focused on kids, alongside other trends like Furbys, Neopets and the latest toy obsession, Shopkins), it now sits squarely at the centre of it all. The New York Times, Forbes and even music publications such as Pitchfork, Stereogum and Billboard are reporting on Pokémon Go’s sudden success. By stepping outside of a kid’s bedroom, Pokémon has found an entire audience waiting for it in the real world.
A place that really illustrates Pokémon’s interloping success in the '90s is something most people might not have even paid attention to: the Pokémon: The First Movie soundtrack. While the soundtrack itself had no thematic or sonic coherence and most songs weren’t originals written for the film, the roster of artists involved is quite fitting to Pokémon’s outer orbit of popularity.
With the exception of pop stars Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, *NSYNC and 98 Degrees — all of whom were just beginning to rise in fame at the time of this movie’s release — most of the names here are B-list stars who, like Pokémon, were also attempting to infiltrate the mainstream: M2M, B*Witched, Emma Bunton (of the Spice Girls), Ashley Ballard, Vitamin C and Aaron Carter. (There’s a notable British presence on the soundtrack, which makes sense considering the Pokémon franchise was introduced to the U.K. the year this film came out.)
This soundtrack was a veritable platter of B-sides and album deep cuts, which makes most of these songs forgettable throwaways like Aaron Carter’s “(Have Some) Fun With the Funk,” Emma Bunton’s “(Hey You) Free Up Your Mind” and Billie Piper’s “Makin’ My Way (Any Way That I Can).” This also made it look like labels showed some confidence in Pokémon, but not enough to offer up the best from their artists, as if they were saying, in keeping with the aforementioned songs’ penchant for brackets, “Pokémon is totally cool and worth investing in (we think).”
In 2016, some of music’s biggest names are Pokémon Go fans, and the franchise would have no problem proving credible in both the music and gaming communities. A quick scroll through social media and the list of celebrity Pokémon trainers is impressive: Demi Lovato, Wiz Khalifa, John Mayer, Big Sean, Steve Aoki. I’ve even found a kindred Pokémon-loving spirit in rapper Vince Staples who saw Pokémon: The First Movie and wanted to cry, albeit for not having a seat and not because Ash and Pikachu were fighting their biggest battle yet. Any of these artists would probably jump at the opportunity to cover the famous Pokémon theme song — that’s if they’re not busy trying to be the very best.