Friday, July 9, 2010

The Magic Moment

(Right now) Hey, it's your tomorrow
(Right now) Come on, it's everything
(Right now) catch that magic moment
Do it right here and now
It means everything

In the spring of 1993, Crystal Pepsi was going to change our lives. We were twelve years old, my classmates and I, wobbling on the precipice of puberty that would soon swallow us, when the commercials started. Conceived by executives as the ‘pure’ alternative to cola – free of dyes, free of caffeine – Crystal Pepsi was marketed as a new soda, yes, but also the new fuel for an unprecedented, eco-conscious moment in history, and its timing was impeccable.

In school we were learning how our older sisters’ hairspray ate holes in our sky, letting our big yellow sun wreck us with cancer and melt frozen continents. We were taught to snip the plastic rings that held six-packs together into tiny pieces, so that baby seals would not be strangled in their inadvertent nooses. The products we’d grown up with, we were learning, held death; responsibility was handed to us along with plastic scissors that we might become guardians of our world and preserve its wonder. It was, you might say, a tall order. We were twelve years old and we loved animals, but we also loved pizza and MTV.

And then there was Crystal Pepsi. It’s strange, in retrospect, to remember a product marketed so effectively that a nation’s schoolchildren held their breath in collective anticipation not just for the launch of a new soda, but the new world order embodied in that soda, but it was so. Sammy Hagar wailed “Right now,” and our mouths fell open into little fish-gaps. We waited.

The Crystal Pepsi commercial, launched during Super Bowl XXVII, was epic: Van Halen’s anthem rocketed from our TV sets while images of babies, computer screens and endangered species flashed in time with typed proclamations: “Right now nature’s inventing better stuff than science,” “Right now computers still can’t laugh,” “Right now artificial just doesn’t feel right,” and “Right now only nature needs preservatives.” We stared, breathless, as our anxieties and excitements about the future were fingered in their deepest crevices. For all of us at that time were becoming aware of the paradox intrinsic to our existence: that nature (did our minds flick, unconsciously, to the rolling lawns and surf spray of our childhoods?) was dying, while technology – the avenue to all things adult – bloomed.

Crystal Pepsi winked at us and held out a hand, promising to lead the way: It was all going to be fine – better than fine. In sixty glorious seconds, Crystal Pepsi defined the world we longed to join – not the world as it was, threatened by environmental disaster, but a magical hybrid world where mankind lived in harmony with nature – Eden with the Internet. In the land of the Crystal Pepsi commercial, animals we’d grown up doodling in our bedrooms were going to flourish at the same time as astronauts orbited the earth. Everything was possible. Soon we would dive into crystal clear waters and grasp the very essence of life. We would emerge reborn.

It’s difficult to explain the fervor with which we anticipated our first sips of Crystal Pepsi to those who didn’t live through the marketing campaign, or who lived through it at older, less impressionable ages. But the tension was real. I have only one memory from a week-long trip to Ocean City that year, for instance: sitting with my friend Sarah in her Aunt’s beach house, sprawled out on the industrial carpeting in the living room while the sun beat down on the sliding glass doors and children’s screams mingled with seagulls’ outside, watching the Crystal Pepsi rhinoceros slowly lower its head (RIGHT NOW!) and the astronaut float above the earth, giving the double thumbs-up (RIGHT NOW!) and yes, right now we all were thirsty for something different, and we couldn’t believe it was finally happening. It was almost here.

You are, I’m sure, anticipating the revelatory moment when we finally plunked our change into the vending machine, drew the ice-cold can from its bowels and cracked the tab open with a spritzy hiss. You are imagining what that first sip felt like, what our first true experience of cultural disillusionment tasted like, and I will tell you: it tasted sweet. That first sip tasted like nothing but sweetness, because we could not bear the knowledge, so immediate and visceral, fizzing on our very tongues, that Crystal Pepsi was, after everything, just soda.

Some of us argued – insisted – that it really was good (I, tragic optimist that I am, fell in that camp), while others rolled their eyes with contempt. Because it wasn’t good, not at all; if anything it tasted worse than regular Pepsi, a silly, pale, carbonated drink that none of us so much as worked up a craving for. A few of us attempted subsequent cans, and then we all stopped. The backlash was quick and it was ferocious: Crystal Pepsi sucked. The product was pulled from shelves.

The loss, of course, was not of a snack that failed to deliver deliciousness. It was the loss of faith in a promise of change. We, the first children to be raised with knowledge of global warming, holes in the ozone layer, rainforest desecration, we who were entering the first AOL chat rooms and shyly lying about our ages to strangers with stupid screen names, wanted to believe that the world laid out before us held hope. It wasn’t that terrible things were happening and we wanted improvement – it was that things both terrible and wondrous were happening concurrently, and we wanted assurance that we were headed in the right direction. Crystal Pepsi told us we could trust in known entities and their ability to adapt benevolently to change, and what we learned was that no one knew a thing. There were no parachute packs assembled to gentle us into wondrous new lands. The notion of a new world was itself a fallacy. It was all a sham, a bunch of bumbling idiots shilling syrup for change – for coins. Money. Worse, those idiots had somehow known what we needed to hear, and they’d exploited us. We were their suckers.

What did we do, after we’d thrown our half-full bottles of Crystal Pepsi in the trash? Did we run for our tire swings or stay past dusk on our trampolines? Or did we swing our hair, scoffing? We didn’t care, after all – it was just a freaking soda. Only a baby would care.