Jason Paige believes that Pokemon and libertarianism have a lot in common. Consider the vibrancy of the franchise's many regions, and how each of them have nurtured a phylum of genetically distinct creatures. There are no subtypes or subservient species, and each have a chance of manifesting their own dreams. "We're all unique Pokemon," he explains. "They evolve into bigger and better Pokemon through the help of their friends. It's a message that I'm finding in more places in the world now."
So last June, Paige released "Gotta Cash 'Em All," a more radical, Randian interpretation of "Gotta Catch 'Em All"—the iconic Pokemon theme song that he recorded over two decades ago. This time though, the topic was bitcoin, and the decentralization of global capital. There's no better distillation of Paige's strange place in the Pokemon universe. You cannot tell the story of this franchise without him, and yet Paige still isn't sure how, exactly, he fits into the legacy at his back.
For now, I suppose, the answer is cryptocurrency.
"To mine them is our real test, to use them is our cause."
Paige's voice hasn't aged a day, which makes the listening experience all the more uncanny. This was the man who introduced a generation to the art of the comic-melodramatic anime credits roll; he blowtorched those lyrics on the inside of our skulls. And here we both are, more than 20 years later. I'm still playing Pokemon, and Paige is still iterating on his strange, adjacent place in the Pokemon canon. We taught him, and now he's teaching us.
"It's more than currency, I know it's our destiny."
Jason Paige has had a career. He's been in a Hollywood Bowl production of Rent. He's appeared as a background choir singer in A Walk To Remember. He's recorded countless commercial jingles, and has performed in video games well outside the core Pokemon constituency. (Here he is, hitting the high-notes in Elite Beat Agents.)
If he never responded to the "Gotta Catch 'Em All" casting call, Paige would happily enjoy the normal, unscrupulous existence of so many moderately successful actors and singers before him. He knows this, because he's already lived that life. Throughout the '90s and 2000s, the undisputed apex era for Pokemania, Paige says he was pretty much anonymous. Pikachu's reorientation of American culture never spilled into his inbox; Professor Oak never came knocking at his door. Paige didn't, and still doesn't, know a ton about Pokemon. ("If it's a 1,000 page book, I'm on page 100," he says.) In fact, Paige's only fragment of Pokemon knowledge before recording the theme song was "Denn? Senshi Porygon," the infamous episode of the anime that caused some seizures in epileptic children. Besides that, he was in the dark, and made everything up on the fly. The whole session took about five hours.
Paige knew he had a hit. Pokemon slowly diffused through children's syndication, but contract workers learn early to divorce themselves from every gig. The Pokemon theme wouldn't have been the same without Jason Paige, but Jason Paige was under no delusion that he himself was about to be thrusted into stardom on Ash's back.
"You recognize that it's on TV three times a day, but I've had plenty of things on TV. I've recognized my voice everywhere," says Paige. "It wasn't about me being an artist. Pokemon got attention, not Jason Paige. It didn't define me at all. I'd share [that I sung it] with friends, and they'd be like, 'Oh my god, that's incredible!' But that's it.'"
Pokemon is currently the highest-grossing media franchise in the world. In total, Nintendo has racked in nearly $60 billion in profit from everything under the umbrella-the shows, the cards, the yellow fuzzball microphones you strapped to Nintendo 64 controllers to play Hey You, Pikachu. Paige's voice became an integral ingredient of the Pokemon brand. and "Gotta Catch 'Em All" started to appear in mediums far outside the original Saturday Morning Cartoon purview.
The song beamed out of tiny Pokemon-themed watches and rumbled from the prehistoric sound cards of Pokemon pinball machines, but Paige was never paid any of those royalties. So by 2000 he had hired a lawyer to recoup what he felt he was owed from all of those different revenue streams. Eventually Paige settled out of court, for a sum the New York Post estimated to be in the mid five figures.
Billboard cites an interview that Paige conducted with YouTuber TamashiiHiroka where the singer was at his most reflective about how he never cashed in on "Gotta Catch 'Em All." "If I had taken that horrible, horrible, record-breaking horrible contract, based on the amount of success that Pokemon had, I would have made more money off of that bad contract than I did in the settlement," he says. "It taught me in the future to make sure that I don't work for people that don't have my best interests at heart."
Despite those misgivings, Paige tells me that he holds no grudges toward Pokemon as an institution. After all, the community has welcomed him back with open arms.
The Pokessaince of Jason Paige began in 2016, shortly after the release of Pokemon Go. The rampant success of Niantic's mobile game innervated the latent fandom in the twentysomethings who left their Water-type decks back in elementary school. Shortly afterwards, "Gotta Catch 'Em All" made its way into the Billboard charts on the back of Spotify. Call it a midlife crisis in Lavender Town; the same niggling sense of mortality that causes us to line up for Fairly Oddparents autographs. Eventually, we want to thank the people who gave us our childhood. "These people had disposable income now, they started playing the song again. The media started reaching out saying, 'Who is this guy who sang it?'" he remembers. "That was a big wave."
Who knows why it took so long for fans to formally rediscover Paige. Maybe the 20 year gap was a necessary buffer; enough time for the legacy of "Gotta Catch 'Em All" to resonate again. Maybe the lingering scars from the lawsuit needed to fully heal over, or maybe the first generation of Pokemon fans were just finally curious enough to uncover the identity of the man who told us, at 6:30 a.m. sharp every morning, that we were his best friend. Whatever the case, Paige is firmly on the Pokemon nostalgia circuit now. His Bitcoin parody is the tip of the iceberg; he's re-recorded "Gotta Catch 'Em All" in Japanese, and mashed it up with the Detective Pikachu theme. On his website you can purchase a Pikachu-shaped flash drive loaded with 30 of Paige's songs, including a karaoke edit of the theme, and a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine."
The convention circuit treats him especially well. Paige makes routine appearances at Pokemon Go meetups, and he travels as far as Dubai and Kuala Lumpur for gaming symposiums. Perhaps most notoriously, Paige is a regular on game composer and now president of Intellivision Entertainment Tommy Tallarico's Video Games Live concert series.
Here he is, at the first ever live performance of "Gotta Catch 'Em All" at the Los Angeles Comic Con. "Are you guys ready for the OG?" shouts Paige, a Poke Ball medallion around his neck, and a chibi Ash printed on his T-shirt. Jason Paige, balding, gawky, all knees and elbows, briefly morphs into a superstar; the very best, that no one ever was. The crowd matches every word. After decades of being made an ancillary part of the Pokemon multiverse, a conspiracy victim worthy of a dastardly Team Rocket plot, this is what a reckoning ought to look like. Kanto Region's prodigal son has finally returned home.
"It is extremely humbling. As a performer I'm always in pursuit of transformational experiences, and transforming people. That's not very common in recorded performance," says Paige. "It's almost as if this feeling was in them, and they didn't know that there was a human being at the other end of it. I can walk around a convention and nobody knows who I am, until they see the sign that reads, 'Pokemon Original Singer.' They look at that and they're like, 'Oh my god, that's right! There's a person that sings it! That's you?' It's like a surprise. The best friend that you've never met before. There he is, right in front of you. It's a very unique experience."
Jason Paige will never fully relate to Pokemon. At 51, he's too old for that. He can probably name a twentieth of the original 150. "Gotta Catch 'Em All" is not a part of his creative spirit, but on stage, it's one of the few times he can feel the weight of the legacy that's been thrust upon him. How lucky we are that he is willing to appease us, to remind us one more time of our one true quest and cause.
"The past 20 years has just inflated Pokemon," he says. "There's a greater responsibility to just nail it, and there's a greater satisfaction knowing that I'm doing that."