Here’s the thing we don’t talk about when we talk about turn of the millennium music.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, yes we had Spice Girls and Hanson. It was the golden age of boy bands—ask me if I prefer NSYNC or Backstreet Boys and get ready to see a flawless recreation of Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice. Britney and Christina were about to come out, and so, eventually, would I. It was the age of TRL, and you could like Destiny’s Child, Kid Rock, Korn, Mandy Moore, DMX, and Faith Hill all at the same time.
But the bops that really stuck with us? Those were from Blue’s Clues.
In our [redacted] years on this Earth, we have been on many dance floors at various stages of inebriation, having out-of-body experiences as, most likely, a Robyn or ABBA song plays. But try to tell me there has ever been a more euphoric music event than being in your living room while your TV was programmed to Nickelodeon and you’ve just “figured out Blue’s clues.”
Steve is singing. That animated cartoon dog is scampering around the screen. You’ve entered a new state of consciousness as you dance along. Life was good. And can we talk about the mail song? Try and tell me that you’ve gone to your mailbox once in the last 20 years without singing in your head, “Here’s the mail / it never fails / it makes you want to wag your tail…” (Don’t even get me started on the Thinking Chair.)
Kids’ shows have a way of permeating mainstream culture. Mention Teletubbies, Arthur, Wishbone, The Big Comfy Couch, or Zoboomafoo, and brace for a millennial’s monologue of nostalgia. Over the years, phenomena like SpongeBob Squarepants, Franklin, Bob the Builder, and, lately, Paw Patrol or Bluey puncture the zeitgeist outside of their intended pre-school audience.
The funny thing about shows like these is that people don’t just have recognition or memories associated with them, but a fierce sense of ownership. They are unbreakably tethered to formative experiences either they had or watched someone close to them—a child, a sibling, a niece or nephew—have. In that way, they almost transform into religious text. That is why everyone absolutely lost their damn minds over Blue’s Clues this week… and why it kind of irritated me.
Here’s the CliffsNotes for the uninitiated. Blue’s Clues is a children’s show that launched on Nickelodeon in 1996 and became one of those insane hits where buying toys themed to it sparked fistfights at Wal-Mart over the holidays.
The only human character was a man named Steve, played by Steve Burns, who was boyishly handsome and wore a green-striped long-sleeved polo (the kind it would take more than a decade for me to realize I could not pull off). His animated dog, Blue, would leave clues throughout his house about what adventures she (Blue is a girl, and the controversy over that may be the best argument against gendering colors) was getting into that day.
Steve would lead the audience through his discovery of the clues, typically involving educational puzzles, and then sing a little bit and wave goodbye.
By 2002, Blue’s Clues was attracting about 13.7 million viewers a week, which, for context, is about what The Big Bang Theory was getting in its final season. Amidst all that success, Burns abruptly left the show, setting off, in addition to a global audience of abandonment issues, a vicious rumor mill about his eventual doom and demise that metastasized in the age of the internet and online gossip.
There was talk that Steve embodied the White Guy cliché: that he left to pursue a career in music. Darker whispers followed that he was addicted to heroin and had actually died of an overdose. When he was spotted in public again, people thought he was still dead but then replaced by a lookalike to cover it up. It’s crazy shit. He eventually appeared on The Rosie O’Donnell Show to dispel the rumors.
Blue’s Clues continued on, with the character of Steve’s younger brother Joe, played by Donovan Patton, taking over. A 2019 revival, called Blue’s Clues & You! stars Filipino-American entertainer and model Joshua Dela Cruz, who is extremely charming and an absolute snack. (You’re welcome.) All of this backstory matters because the original Steve himself returned this week.
In a video posted to Nick Jr.’s Twitter account for the show’s 25th anniversary, Burns returned as Steve to address the audience. Not the current audience, but the audience of all those years ago, the people who are now all grown up and wondered—even if maliciously—what had happened to him. As it is when something detonates a grenade in the sweet spot of millennial nostalgia, the internet lost its damn mind.
“You remember how when we were younger, we used to run around and hang out with Blue and find clues and talk to Mr. Salt and freak out about the mail and do all the fun stuff?” he said. “And then one day, I was like, ‘Oh hey, guess what? Big news, I’m leaving. Here’s my brother Joe, he’s your new best friend,’ and then I got on a bus and I left and we didn’t see each other for like a really long time? Can we just talk about that? Great. Because I realize that was kind of abrupt.”
It was like an absentee father apologizing after decades of neglect. Burns was dressed as Steve, and explained in character that he had gone off to college, commiserating with the viewers over what grown-up life was like. “I mean, we started out with clues and now, it’s what? Student loans and jobs and families? And some of it has been kind of hard, you know? I know you know.”
The whole thing was so sweet, and of course people felt emotional and validated by it. But the strange part was how quickly it escalated from “this very nice internet thing” to a hysterical news story.
Major publications started to report the video as fact, that Burns had returned from decades of silence to clear up the mystery of what happened by explaining that he went to college. But the thing is: Burns was never silent, and he didn’t leave to go to college. This video was him in character as Steve, explaining Steve’s story. It isn’t—and was never—his own.
Burns gave many interviews over the years explaining why he left Blue’s Clues. Simply put, he was over it. He never intended to be a career children’s entertainer. He was getting older. It felt like the right time to go.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be doing children’s television all my life, mostly because I refused to lose my hair on a kids’ TV show, and it was happening, fast,” he said at the time. (He shaved his head the day after his final show. Asked if it was a rebellious statement, he replied, “Yes, the statement is, ‘We have male pattern baldness.’”)
In a 2016 interview, he reiterated, “I left the show because it was just simply time to go. I was pretty much playing a boyish, older-brotherish kind of character on the show. I was getting older; I was losing my hair; a lot of the original people on the show, like the people who created it, were all moving on to other careers. It just felt like time. I just had a gut feeling like it was time to go.”
I guess I’m just marveling at how quickly we all took a sweet and sentimental—and scripted—segment and took it at face value as real-life fact. It would be like, I don’t know, assuming whatever plotline Grace Adler had on the Will & Grace revival was Debra Messing’s actual life.
Left unaddressed, I guess, was that in the years since Steve went to college we became knee-jerk online reactionists who forgot about the necessity of following all the clues and engaging in critical thinking (maybe even in a Thinking Chair) before jumping to conclusions.
The truth is that I was slightly too old for Blue’s Clues in its heyday, but my little brother is nearly a decade younger than me. It’s an underreported blast to have a sibling that young. While all your friends and classmates are obsessed with being older and performing maturity, you get to unabashedly tap into kid things again, under the guise of entertaining your sibling. You’re also at an age where you can witness and appreciate how good your parents are at being parents. Plus, you get to watch Blue’s Clues.
This is to say that I’ve loved having the show and Steve back in the zeitgeist this week. But as a purist, I couldn’t let the misinformation slide! Maybe we’re all in a state where we’re desperate for the comfort of fictionalized nostalgia, to the extent that we manifest it as real life. I get that. Especially now when things are so confusing, we gather the facts and put them in our notebooks. But now what do we do?