If only to appease the adults suckered into watching garishly animated early-morning television with their drooling kids, children's TV shows have always been littered with jokes and pop culture curios that fly over the heads of their target demographic. Rocko's Modern Life snuck in phone sex jokes; Animaniacs went blue for a pun involving Prince; Spongebob Squarepants' creators used footage of Jim Jarmusch on John Lurie's existential fishing program as a split-second sight gag. That's part of what makes some of these shows so fun to revisit in adulthood, catching hidden dimensions that you never noticed—realizing the ways in which bits that seemed like non-sequiturs as a kid seeped into your subconscious and influenced the ways in which you process pop culture.
One of the strangest versions of this phenomenon, for me, was revisiting some late-period episodes of All That a few years ago. I wasn't yet a year old when Nickelodeon's SNL-but-for-kids sketch show first season aired. But because it ran for ten seasons, and because reruns aired pretty constantly, I spent a fair portion of my childhood watching—and rewatching—the nascent careers of Amanda Bynes, Kenan Thompson, and Jamie Lynn Spears unfold through surreal gags about fast-food restaurants, baggy pants, and children dressed up as old people. Most of the catchphrase-heavy goofiness didn't really hold up, but looking back, I realized one curious thing that Nick buried in its programming: sincere and legitimately great musical performances from some of the best musical acts working at the time.
Over the course of the show's ten-season run, they managed to book all manners of cool musical guests. In the first season alone, they landed Blackstreet, Brandy, Coolio, Usher, and multiple TLC appearances. Later, they'd snag Robyn on the back of her early hit "Show Me Love," as well as Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Outkast. Sugar Ray and Shaq each showed up at one point.
As a six-year old, I definitely wasn't cognizant of how rad it was that Aaliyah was capping off an episode of television that most kids probably came to for fart jokes. But raised in a home where we mostly listened to contemporary Christian radio and U2, All That was most probably my earliest exposure to experiencing music on my own terms. And that's probably true for a lot of people my age. If you weren't allowed to stay up late enough to catch Dinosaur Jr. on Letterman, All That would've been one of your only occasions to catch live music on television—which makes it kind of a trip to revisit over a decade after it finally went off the air.
To celebrate All That's strange musical legacy, it might be best to survey some of its best moments. Below is a list of 13 of the show's best performances, each of which exposed me to an artist I'd come to love long before I knew what good music even was.
1. Aaliyah - "One in a Million" (Season 3, Episode 16)
She'd later lend a track and a video to the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, but Aaliyah's multiple appearances on All That were an earlier brush with children's entertainment. After appearing in the first season to play "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number," she returned a couple of years later to play the title track of her 1996 album One in a Million. Her vocals—and trio of musclebound backup dancers, a rarity on the All That stage—are something to behold, but this clip is most notable because it makes a solid case for a multi-colored lifevest as a legitimate fashion accessory. Or maybe it's just a statement on how much this song just… floats.
2. Avril Lavigne - "Complicated" (Season 8, Episode 6)
Rock music was pretty rare on All That, but Avril Lavigne ended up being one of the show's most frequent guests—making an appearance in each of the last three seasons. Her first was to play her breakout hit "Complicated"—which spent most of 2002 on the Billboard charts and peaked at #2 earlier that summer. It's easy to forget that Lavigne was 18 when her debut Let Go, which made her more of a peer to her hosts than she was when she played, say, Letterman a couple weeks prior. The "Sk8er Boi" performance from the same session is more fun, but this one's got more pathos than most tweens can handle. Watch. Weep.
3. Craig Mack - Flava in Ya Ear (Season 1, Episode 5)
Though he'd effectively burn out on the music industry before All That went off the air, Craig Mack's performance of "Flava in Ya Ear" was one of the more energetic outings in the first season. Blame the fact that the song was still lingering in the Hot 100 when the episode aired in January of 1995, but the children populating the audience seem to know just about every word—and dutifully drown out Mack when he asks for help on the chorus. It's proof that more live music TV shows should fill their crowds with kids, it's hard to get a more enthusiastic audience.
4. Destiny's Child - "No, No, No" (Season 4, Episode 14)
Considering their Kids Choice Awards wins and contributions to cartoons, it was always clear that Destiny's Child had a soft spot in their hearts for their younger fans, but that was never more apparent than in their appearance on All That on Valentine's Day, 1998. The four-piece wind their way through some tight choreography as Wyclef Jean's verse is piped in over the loudspeakers, then they endearingly coach the kids through the call-and-response at the track's end. Rather than the polished pop spectacle that many TV performances can turn into, there's a little awkwardness and humanity in it.
5. K-Ci and JoJo - "All My Life" (Season 4, Episode 18)
The two Jodeci alums turned up late in the fourth season for some swooning vocals and a heartwarming tale of once-in-a-lifetime love. They mostly stand still at the front of the stage, but their particular brand of harmonic acrobatics are always enough to make them standouts.
6. The Lox - "If You Think I'm Jiggy" (Season 4, Episode 20)
For Season 4, Episode 20 (nice), All That's bookers did something special and strange and got Sheek Louch, Styles P, and Jadakiss to roll through and do their hit that interpolates "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" There's a whole lot of endearing self-censoring happening here—jokes about blowjobs aren't appropriate for children, apparently!—which makes this one of the more astounding mental feats the show ever pulled off. There's also requisite shoutouts to Nickelodeon and All That, integrated within the lyrics themselves, for which the crowd goes wild. They always knew how to play to their audience.
7. MC Lyte - "Cold Rock a Party" (Season 3, Episode 20)
The stupid kids can't clap on beat, but even that can't ruin one of the 90s' greatest collaborations. This one gets extra points for the way the tracksuited dancers part Red Sea-like when Missy Elliott tiptoes onstage. That's what you do when you're in the presence of something sacred.
8. Missy Elliott - "The Rain" (Season 4, Episode 12)
After making a pair of appearances as a featured artist, Missy came back to All That in Season 4 to do her debut solo single—which she did with a whole fleet of backup dancers in overalls. By this point, she's clearly a crowd favorite, the assembled kids launch into a chant of her name that nearly drowns out the instrumental outro as she loopily dances across the stage. Sometimes, the kids are alright.
9. Nas - "Street Dreams (Remix)" (Season 3, Episode 10)
Likely the first time this song has been dedicated to preteens, this breezy performance from a young Nas is one of the show's most surreal. As part of a victory lap in the wake of It Was Written—at the peak of his commercial success—he shows up on children's television to lead a crowd of kids in an emotionally complicated story of aspiration, jail, death, and god. One of his verses is nearly overtaken by the crowd chanting "Go Nas," but those listening closely were treated to a meditation on the shocking heaviness of life. As cool as the bookings on Yo Gabba Gabba were, they never really covered this kind of ground.
10. Outkast - "Rosa Parks" (Season 5, Episode 11)
All That always traded in a colorful slapdash surrealism in its best sketches—which meant that they never really had a more perfect musical guest than Andre 3000 (clad in a funny straw hat and giant red overalls) and Big Boi trading syllable-packed #bars and abstract onomatopoeia. Plus there's a dance breakdown and a harmonica solo and kids love that shit.
11. Run-DMC - "Christmas in Hollis" (Season 2, Episode 10)
Canonically, Run-DMC are the nephews of two of the All That cast's beloved kids-dressed-as-old-people characters—so this holiday special runthrough of "Christmas in Hollis" is a family affair. Confusing lore aside, this one's fun from the start when Jam Master Jay—in Santa hat and red track suit—makes children scream, "Ho Ho Ho," prompting one of the show's most rapturous receptions for any musical guest. It turns out no single musician is as popular as Santa Claus.
12. Robyn - "Show Me Love" (Season 4, Episode 3)
Before her rebirth as cool-as-hell dance-pop superstar, Robyn was a sorta-awkward teenage dance-pop superstar. The Swedish musician showed up in the stacked fourth season of All That for one of the sunnier and subdued performances the show ever saw—a burst of joy accompanied by moderate shuffling. She'd eventually get a whole lot more into the dancing thing, but back then just the glee was enough.
13. TLC - "What About Your Friends" (Season 1, Episode 1)
The show's first musical performance was also one of its best. The legendary R&B group also contributed All That's theme song, so they scored the duties of first-ever guest to perform to a crowd of kids who'd be stopped at the door at most other gigs. All wearing overalls—which would become something of a leitmotif of these performances, ah the 90s—the trio gives a boisterous run-through of one of their better known early 90s dispatches. They sway in unison, so does the crowd, everyone claps winningly off-beat setting a tradition for the ten seasons that'd follow. The music would occasionally be weird and a little off, but it'd always be heartfelt, which is what makes it worth revisiting a decade and a half later anyway.
Colin Joyce is, ugh, a 90s kid and is on Twitter, as such.