“If you remember the ’80s with anything resembling fondness,
— Dr. Francis L. Scurvy
Every few minutes, some wisenheimer trendhawk with voids to fill pontificates on the question “Are the ’80s back?,” oblivious to the rash of similar articles written a few years earlier, which were themselves oblivious to the ones published a few years before that. Truth is, with the exception of a glorious half-decade or so in the early ’90s, THE ’80s HAVE NEVER LEFT. That nostalgia mill kicked to furious life around 1995, pumping out a veritable bounty of decade-related ephemera to cloud the malleable young minds of a generation too young to know better.
I must admit I fell prey to it, too. Most of my hard-fought cabbage went to funding sonic examinations of the Way We Were, primarily the multi-volume various-artist barrel-scrapes that transported Herr Listener (i.e., me) for one blissful afternoon away from the studio apartment he could barely afford on a pauper writer’s salary to the teat of irresponsible, irrepressible youth, when he had a rent-free bedroom under his parents’ roof and a head soaked in testosterone. Ahhh, yes: Standing on your momma’s porch…you told me that it’d last forever…hey, d’ja pay your rent? Got enough bank for Cheetos and Pepsis through payday? Those were the best days of my…mid-life crisis at 23.
But ponder the sentiment, fellow survivors. Were they the best days of our lives? I can only speak for me, and I say hell the fuck no. The more I contemplated that flimsy decade, the more I came to realize how bland and dull (more adjectives to come!) the ’80s were, how tawdry, how banal, how trivial. If you celebrate the ’80s, then you long for a time of hollow mediocrity in a country wheezing on the rusted fumes of a collapsing old boy’s network, those corrupt geezers poisoned by a senile tyranny informed by archaic adherence to paranoid Cold War ideology. Yeah, there were oodles of super-cool neat-o shoulder pads and blinding colors splashed everywhere, but what lay beneath the surface? Not a goddamn thing. Empty suburbia. Mindless pursuits. Endless layers of synthetic materialism. It was a good, long sociological nap, and we drooled fluorescent neon gobs of bloat all over our Pac-Man pillows. What’s that you say? Reagan’s sticking it to the poor again for the amusement of the bourgeoisie? That’s nice; have you heard the new Mr. Mister?
I can’t fault the kids for perpetuating this ongoing charade. They’ve been slapped with this aggressive revisionist horseshit so long it may as well be peaches and cream. They can recite by rote all the signposts in the hoary narrative we’ve fed them. And, oh, how we’ve spewed. The ’80s were so much tubular bitchen trickly fun! A ceaseless hullabaloo of hedonism and style! Boy, did you young’uns miss out on some killer silly shit! Jellies shoes! Hair metal! Vuarnet sunglasses over an OP shirt over shrink-to-fit button-fly 501s over official Frankie Goes to Hollywood ankle socks stuffed into checkerboard slip-on Vans! Woooo! No. No. No. No. No. All of this iconic claptrap was stretched over a ten-year period of excruciatingly vapid tedium. But it’s typical of what we do: handpick a few images, then insist they represent the entire decade.
Here’s a fun exercise: Build a time machine, travel back to the bestest wowee decade ever, poll a random teenager by asking, “Isn’t this awesome?” then hope to John DeLorean he ain’t packing a bicycle chain. Luckily, of course, you don’t have to go to all that trouble. Remember the years 2000-2008? Shitty, right? ’80s, with a cartoon twist, a similar wardrobe and similar bands. (Remember that ever-so-brief sliver in the mid-mills when we finally acknowledged there was more to ’80s music than a couple of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Soft Cell singles? The seven minutes we appreciated Gang of Four again?)
Now, some of y’all are gonna pipe up about the slow ascent of what we called “college rock” then and an overwhelming abundance of genre names now. And while that’s true to a point, it still remained very much an underground movement. If you were a sensitive school-aged squirt and openly admitted to liking, say, R.E.M. before about, say, 1987, you were a pussy-ass faggot queer who got dragged behind the school for a right nice stomp. Depeche Mode or The Cure? Justifiable homicide. Even looking “weird” (snerk) could result in considerable infrastructure damage. For all the “kooky” era fashions we highlight today, we weren’t really all that tolerant of anything outside the accepted norm. There was a definite class structure, violently maintained. Despite the burblings that would blossom in the ’90s (a decade we pillory, for some strange reason), there was no question as to who was in charge: the children of Alex P. Keaton, the progeny of Arnold and Sly.
Look no further than The Breakfast Club for a solid demonstration of the ’80s in action: Ally Sheedy’s wallflower is an unacceptable companion for Emilio Estevez’s wrestling stud until Molly Ringwald’s spoiled princess transforms her Pygmalion-style into one of Them. Ringwald uses her powers of redheaded privilege to civilize Judd Nelson’s hunky thug (taming the Bender). Anthony Michael Hall’s sexless nerd doesn’t score with anyone, but that’s OK: he gets the satisfaction of writing everyone’s Saturday School assignment for them. On Monday, he’ll return to campus the same hounded hallway geek. The Beautiful People pick up a pair of new passengers while maintaining the status quo.
That, my friends, was the ’80s. Assimilation and control, but with a decent soundtrack.