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Remembering the most absurd way we listened to music

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If you were a child growing up in the late 90s or early 2000s, odds are you remember the most entertaining and hilariously nonsensical way of listening to music: HitClips.

In 1999, Hasbro’s Tiger Electronics released the “slick micro audio systems” known as HitClips, tiny  memory card-like chips that contained a 60-second “clip” of a super popular song. In the early days, that meant tracks from Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Britney Spears, and later they included middle school anthems from Avril Lavigne, Hilary Duff, Simple Plan, and more.

While, from a tech standpoint, HitClips clearly weren’t the most innovative devices, they had such a strong cultural impact that for years, people actually felt compelled to spend money on tiny snippets of full songs — a concept that, in hindsight, seems impossibly absurd.

So what exactly made HitClips so successful? And could they ever follow vinyl’s path and make a comeback in today’s world? To answer these questions, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

I recently uncovered my old HitClips players when attempting to clean my basement, but much to my dismay, my extensive song library — hot jams by A*Teens, Baha Men, Aaron Carter, Destiny’s Child, Dream Street, and dozens more — is still packed away somewhere.

Luckily, a single chip was with the devices. Unfortunately for us, that chip happened to be *NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” which is now almost exclusively associated with memes.

The history of HitClips

HitClips initially debuted as toys in select McDonald’s kids meals, but became so popular that they transitioned to the main toy/electronics market. That’s when things got really exciting.

From 1999 to 2004, HitClips captivated the minds of budding young music lovers, and over the years, the brand ambitiously moved from basic listening devices to tiny CD players and fun extras.

Back in the day, a player cost $20.00 and a cartridge went for $3.99, which seems like a lot of money, even now. But the price seemed worth it back then considering the collectible tunes quickly became status symbols for America’s youth. In school hallways and on playgrounds, the more clips that swung from your keychains, backpacks, or belt loops, the cooler you were. Life was once as simple as that.

The basic player 🎶

Image: martha tesema/mashable

The anatomy of most original HitClips devices were the same. Each player was about two inches long, had a slot for the chip, a single headphone wire that connected to an earpiece, a “Play” button, and a clip on the back so that users could conveniently fasten the devices to their clothing.

One of the first HitClips players I ever purchased (picture above) had a headphone wire that was just 12 inches long, which essentially meant that unless you were extremely petite, there was no way you could clip that thing on your belt and listen to music at the same time.

HitClips eventually remedied this flaw, and though users still dealt with poor sound quality, no volume control, and an inability to enjoy music in both ears, I like other naive children considered these toys among my most prized possessions.

HitClips Discs 💿

Image: martha tesema/mashable

As if the tiny versions of cassette tapes weren’t adorable (and unnecessary) enough, in 2003 (near HitClips’ retirement,) Tiger Electronics created HitClips Discs that played not one, but TWO minutes of music. Ca-chingggg.

These li’l Oreo-creme-filling-sized discs completely upped the game, but also required completely new players. So in the spirit of not making the original HitClips chips completely irrelevant (they were pricey, after all,) several hybrid devices that played both varieties were invented.

The extras 😎

Image: martha tesema/mashable

As any true fan of the amateur listening device will tell you, the real HitClips magic lay beyond the straightforward players.

You were nothing unless you had some snazzy HitClips extras, like an FM radio scanner attachment, or a three-inch-long boom box that played your tunes out loud for all to enjoy. There was an alarm clock, a Dance Bot, and even a karaoke device called the HitClips Groove Machine that somehow featured Destiny’s Child in its commercial.

These came in handy and made the very limited devices a bit more functional. Who wouldn’t want to blast a minute of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” over and over again?

Less is more: An elaborate sham

The allure of HitClips is best summed by a moment from an episode of The Office where Michael Scott keeps listening to the iTunes Music Store preview of James Blunt’s “Goodbye My Lover” on repeat after breaking up with his girlfriend Carol.

When his colleague Dwight Schrute asks, “Why don’t you just buy the whole song?” Michael replies, “I don’t have to buy it. I just want a taste of it.”

Now, in this particular scenario, Michael was likely too cheap to purchase the full song. But the sentiment still remains. HitClips did an excellent job of making consumers feel like they needed only a taste of a song to be satisfied. And our silly little brains — distracted by the novelty of miniature music players and more collectible clutter for our keychains — cast aside any shred of reasonable thinking and believed this to be true.

Think about it: People were willing to spend money on part of a song when FULL SONGS existed for less. And in some cases, people (me) already owned the full songs and even full ALBUMS, but still chose to pay more money for a song clip. That’s madness. And it worked, because by 2002, Tiger Electronics had reportedly sold more than 20 million HitClips devices, bringing in $80 million. And that doesn’t include sales through 2004.

There’s certainly an argument that HitClips were more convenient to carry around than Walkmans or CD players, but when you really sit back and think about the logic of it all, it doesn’t seem to hold up. In reality, we all got duped with HitClips. But in the moment, all that really mattered was that we felt trendy AF.

Can HitClips make a comeback?

It’s been about fourteen years since HitClips were discontinued, and though they’ll always hold a special place in our nostalgia-hungry hearts, the thought of a resurgence today is truly laughable.

Nowadays iTunes gives you a 1:30 song preview for FREE, and charges $1.29 on average for a single track. So why would anyone go back to paying more for less music? 

Today we’re accustomed to high-tech touch screens, shareable playlists, and instant gratification. In other words, we’re spoiled. Imagine paying money for iTunes and Spotify song previews. You would NEVER — especially when you have access to free songs on YouTube and Spotify (if you’re willing to endure a few occasional advertisements). And since streaming caught on, most people have stopped purchasing music altogether in favor of streaming service subscriptions. 

Though HitClips would likely still capture the interest of kids, for the adults who once owned them, reverting back song clips would be a bit like trying to switch back to dial-up internet. (Okay, MUCH less painful than that.) The point is, we’re too advanced and too impatient now.

I will say, when I brought my devices to the office, my coworkers were really feeling them. And HitClips still remain a topic of nostalgia-tinged jokes.

Foolish or not, these toys were an important step in music history that helped prep the world for the iPod’s release in 2001. For many people, HitClips served as a first experience with a handheld, deconstructed mix tape. Unlike Walkmans and CD players, HitClips let you switch between songs and artists with ease. There was no skipping through tracks you didn’t like — you simply selected the song you wanted from your collection of clips.

Sure, they were much less advanced than iPods, but the concept foreshadowed the mind-blowing tech to come. And after the iPod came out, HitClips helped fill voids in the hearts of those who were still too young to own an Apple product.

HitClips aren’t likely to make a comeback, unless, as Twitter user @punchworm suggests, an ~extra~ brand tries to revive them for nostalgia’s sake.

But if you’re dying to live the HitClips lifestyle now, you can buy them on Amazon or eBay for a pretty penny. Until then, I offer you the best of both worlds with this HitClips-themed Spotify playlists.

But remember, you should listen to just a minute each song if you really want that nostalgic vibe.

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