A Survivor’s Tale Of The ’90s Yo-Yo Craze
The fidget spinner of our generation.
Four words would change my life in 1996: the yo-yo is banned. They came during an emergency assembly — an event which usually meant kids has been caught smoking, there were excessive uniform violations or someone had been called “pizza face” (a major bullying incident that took place the year prior).
My parents had recently yanked me out of a local primary school in the outer suburbs of Sydney to send me to the junior wing of a strict all-boys private school. Crazes ripped through both schools, but were always more intense in the latter. Each Monday the ‘cool kids’ (read: from more wealthy backgrounds) were armed with the latest must-have item.
I had endured the fever of crazes that consumed playgrounds: basketball cards, Tazos, rollerblades, Tamagotchis, Gak and Bart Simpson t-shirts. One of the greatest tests I faced was the arrival of Magic Eye books. I never once saw a dolphin or the balloons people proclaimed they could see.
I spent most of the Magic Eye craze waiting for someone to figure it out and then following them quickly with, “oh yeah, I see it too”. I’m not proud of it, but peer pressure makes monsters of us all.
The yo-yo craze swept Australia across 1995/96, and eclipsed nearly everything before it. It was like the little mound of past crazes gathering dust in our bedrooms never existed. Karate teachers and guitar tutors wept for they knew their time was up.
Playgrounds were buzzing with the little spinning discs, and kids were honing their hand-and-eye coordination skills like miniature assassins by learning tricks like ‘walk the dog’, ‘the elevator’ and ‘rock the baby. What I remember most is the noise they made when they ‘slept’, spinning on the end of a length of string. When you heard the sweet buzz of a sleeping yo-yo, you knew awesome tricks were coming… or a kid was going to get hit in the face. It was an exciting time.
As the craze went on, kids turned feral as a variety of different yo-yos became popular. There was the classic Coca-Cola yo-yo, which was prone to snapping strings due to its wooden core; a new nightmare for parents trying to find replacement strings. Moose then released a line of yo-yos with glitter, chrome and glow-in-the-dark which became the most popular. And then came The Brain, a yo-yo with special gears inside that made it ‘sleep’ for a long amount of time.
The Brain was the Ferrari of yo-yos, and it solidified a class structure into friend groups. If you had a Brain, you ruled the school. Kids would line up to ask their playground overlord for a turn; just seeing a Brain yo-yo was a big deal and you’d be bragging to your family about it at dinner that night. The Brain made you feel like you could control time.
Multiple tricks were possible while The Brain slept because it gave you the freedom to put together a routine. Nailing a bunch of tricks using The Brain ensured the admiration of your peers and increased the chances of someone sharing their Le Snack with you during little lunch. When the word got around that you could get The Brain to sleep longer by spraying WD-40 in the middle, tricks were replaced with the challenge of whose yo-yo could sleep the longest.
The Brain made you feel like you could control time.
There was a short window of innocence with the yo-yo before it became sinister. As soon as a yo-yo class structure rose, kids began stealing them from other kids’ bags or fighting each other in the playground because of an ownership dispute. The craze steered into serious Lord of Flies territory once yo-yo gangs started popping up.
It wasn’t isolated to my school, I’d hear stories from my friends about what was going on at their school and playground legends started circulate about incidents at other schools. There was a story about a kid mugging a classmate using a makeshift shiv fashioned from a plastic ruler. There were also the kamikaze kids who would steal yo-yos, get caught, and then decide if they couldn’t have a yo-yo – no one could. These incidents often ended with a yo-yo being thrown out a bus window. An older bunch of kids bullied a friend of mine and imprisoned his yo-yo in a Gatorade bottle.
Heartbreak became common, especially when lending a yo-yo to a friend ended in disaster. I’ll never forget the day my buddy snapped the string of my Coke yo-yo and it got crushed by the 7.21am, all stations to the City via Strathfield train. Parents awkwardly got involved over lost or destroyed items. The negotiations were the worst place to be aside from a doctor’s office while faking a sickie.
The craze at our school escalated so quickly, and with such ferocity, that I was relieved when our principal called the emergency assembly. There were rumblings on the bitumen that the yo-yo was on its way out, anyways. The Richie Riches at our school already had something called a Yoho Diabolo, but it lacked the portable ease of a yo-yo and you looked like a dickhead doing it.
Usually banning something makes it cooler but our class was exhausted from the skullduggery of the yo-yo life. Soon, the word spread that the yo-yo had been banned from other schools as the craze began to die off.
When I see kids playing with fidget spinners now, I get it. You never question why a craze brings you joy; it’s all about getting caught up in the wave of enthusiasm. Most of it has to do with ownership. When you’re a kid, something like a yo-yo is one of the first real things you own. A lot of pride comes from ownership, which explains why so many crazes are trinkets or collectables. We build little plastic empires.
After that assembly in 1996 we had a few weeks to take a breath before something bigger arrived: Pokémon.
Feature image background: Zabby Allen.
Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.