The Never-Ending Decade: a 1980s Obsession

Illustration by Joe Cruz

From movies and TV to music and fashion, the era of carefree excess and irresistible kitsch has come roaring back (again). Why can’t we let the 1980s go?

Love or hate football, the Super Bowl is the closest thing this country still has to common ground. It survives like a vestigial appendage of mass culture as it existed before we splintered into ever narrower demographics. So it must mean something that the ads during this past February’s broadcast came steeped in 1980s nostalgia, and not only because the Team of the ’80s, the San Francisco 49ers, were back in it. Two of the more memorable ads featured former ’80s teen stars: Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club; Pretty in Pink), who appeared in a home-shopping parody pitching avocados, and Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice; Heathers), who, for reasons that escaped this viewer, was seen promoting an Internet company by lying in the snow with a laptop beneath a sign that said welcome to winona (her real-life Minnesota hometown and eponym). MC Hammer showed sci-fi movies such as E.T. (1982), Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), and Ghostbusters itself, re-creates the suburban ’80s as knowingly and lovingly as Mad Men did the urban ’60s. It will return for its fourth season at some point in 2020. That may or may not be before the premiere of ABC’s sequel to Thirtysomething, the yuppie-angst drama that ran from 1987 to 1991 and made suspenders-wearing executives seem soulful.

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It’s a baffling phenomenon: We just can’t get enough of a decade stereotypically slagged for its excess, its supposed bad taste, and its addictions to cocaine and spandex. But no era, however benighted, will ever really disappear from today’s retro-centric culture. To a great extent we owe this preservationist impulse to the ’80s themselves, a decade when “the backward gaze became permanent,” according to Kurt Andersen, the author (Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire; a 500-Year History) and co-founder of Spy magazine (where I worked from 1987 to 1990). The ’80s urge to mine the past was due to a confluence of trends: revivalist tendencies in high-end architecture and design; the increasing availability of old movies, TV, and music on VHS, cable, and CDs; and an accelerating taste for finding value in the junkiest artifacts of yesteryear. Googie car washes! Bettie Page pinups! Las Vegas!

The resulting aesthetic—call it postmodernism, retro-kitsch, the Pee-wee’s Playhouse mood board, whatever— is still with us. Just take a look at, well, those Super Bowl ads, or Stranger Things’ period-appropriate Tron-by-way-of-Stephen-King opening graphics. That show, in particular, delivered a big dose of endorphin-inducing ’80s references, sending the nostalgia-industrial complex into overdrive when it premiered in 2016. This coincided with the re-release of a slew of touchstone ’80s products, some of which the Netflix series played a direct role in (like the Nike x Stranger Things collection of 1985-style sneakers), and some of which seemed to bubble up from the zeitgeist, like Nintendo’s highly successful resurrection of its NES system, complete with Donkey Kong and other vintage games. If you have a hankering for genuine ’80s tech, though, it might cost you: A 1983 Macintosh belonging to an early Apple employee was recently put up for auction with bidding set to start at $25,000.

The '80s themselves have been the subject of revival and affectionate send-up since at least 1997, when the New Yorker declared with mock horror, “the ’80s are back,” citing the musical Rent, the film Basquiat, and a big Keith Haring retrospective at the Whitney. The author sounding that alarm was none other than Andersen, so he has been grappling with the decade’s odd allure for some time now. He says he’s not sure the ’80s ever really ended before they began again, citing not just the Reagan-era’s cultural milieu but its political and economic trends as well. “I do feel we’ve been in this stasis, or continuum, for forty years now, that we’re in a struggle to escape.”

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Good luck with that! President Trump, of course, is himself a creature of the ’80s at their flashiest, having finished Trump Tower in 1983, published The Art of the Deal in 1987, and not gone bankrupt until the ’90s. We’ve mentioned the new ’80s renaissance, or re-renaissance, in film and television. We must also mention ’80s music, especially hip-hop, which rumbled out of the Bronx at the dawn of the decade and remains pop’s dominant style. Less venerable but somehow still here are the yin and yang of synth pop, Duran Duran and New Order, both subjects of lavish documentaries last year on Showtime; even the “gated reverb” drum sound that made so much ’80s pop unlistenable to post-’80s ears is now sneaking back into the Top 40. Eighties crime has spawned recent documentaries too (The Preppy Murder on AMC and McMillion$ on HBO), as well as a docudrama (Netflix’s When They See Us, about the Central Park Five case).

One aspect of the ’80s that does not tend to be remembered fondly is the fashion—the big shoulders and big hair, the power suits and power suspenders, the pouf skirts and leg warmers and headbands and hot-pink cheetah prints, the whole work hard, play hard, dress hard aesthetic. But ’80s-inspired looks have shown up on recent runways looking fresh and on-trend, including at Saint Laurent’s Fall 2020 ready-to-wear collection, which featured angular tailoring, shoulder pads, and shirts tied with bow-like scarves, as well as electric New Wave colors, yards of latex, and early-Madonna bras and bodices. A Vogue.com review cited “all of this fetish gl(e)am contrasting with the strictly buttoned-up,” which is about as good a summary of the breadth and contradictions of ’80s style as anyone has yet come up with.

“I remember how horrible the ’80s seemed living through it—the style just seemed so bad. So it’s a bit of a journey to arrive at a cultural moment where it really looks fresh and chic and interesting,” says Batsheva Hay, a designer whose own dresses, for her Batsheva label, riff on a narrower slice of ’80s fashion: the romantic, highly feminine, gently retro designs of Laura Ashley, popularized by Princess Diana. Regarding the resurrection of the decade’s more outré looks, Hay suggests that time heals all fashion don’ts: “It’s been long enough ago that the ’80s seem bizarre in such an interesting and exciting way, rather than gross. It’s unfamiliar now.” A native of Queens, where she says the decade’s trends lingered well past its chronological finish, Hay adds, “No one looks ’80s anymore unless they’re intentionally trying to look ’80s. It’s not an accident anymore.”

Who will speak up unabashedly for the ’80s? Joel Stein, for one. The humorist and author was one of the talking heads on the seminal VH1 series I Love the ’80s, which debuted in 2002 (and spawned, it must be noted, the much less popular I Love the ’70s and I Love the ’90s). “Most people think the ’80s were glossy and silly,” Stein says, “but there was a joy too, and as far as America’s generally positive attitude about itself then, people have nostalgia for that.” 

Joy? Stein, who graduated from high school in 1989, readily admits to a fond bias for the decade of his adolescence. He compares our current fractured moment to the ’70s—another wearying, polarizing decade—when movies such as American Graffiti and Grease and the TV shows Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley trafficked in nostalgia for the happier and more innocent 1950s.

Ostensibly happier and more innocent: Nostalgia, by definition, sands the edges off history. Largely missing from ’80s nostalgia, for instance, is the resurgence of Cold War anxieties—remember no nukes and The Day After?— and the AIDS epidemic.

By one measure, however, the ’80s were inarguably a more innocent time: It was the last decade before people got their hands on the Internet. “A big reason the ’80s look good today is we still had privacy then,” says Lisa Birnbach, one of the decade’s most prominent social satirists as editor and coauthor of 1980’s The Official Preppy Handbook. (She now hosts the podcast 5 Things with Lisa Birnbach.) She warmly recalls the ’80s pastime of recording clever outgoing answering-machine messages as a form of proto–social media, but harmless. “Life was simpler then,” she says, tongue only partly in cheek.

If the ’80s were hardly simpler, they were certainly less dizzying and kaleidoscopic. Not only was Internet access limited to a handful of computer geeks and military personnel, but there were only four broadcast television networks and, even at the decade’s end, fewer than 70 cable networks, most with minuscule viewerships. The final episode of M*A*S*H, which CBS aired on February 28, 1983, drew a then-record audience of 106 million people—nearly half the country. The sheer number of viewers has since been surpassed by several Super Bowl broadcasts, but not as a percentage of the population.

Maybe that’s what people miss about the ’80s, or think they miss—a sense of shared experience (as opposed to overshared intimacies and opinions). Oh well, the next Super Bowl is only nine months away. In the meantime, ’80s fans can also look forward to the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America (1988) and the first new Psychedelic Furs album in 29 years. Huey Lewis and the News have a new record too.