Flashy, shiny, commercial, and money-driven, the 1980’s in America is now viewed through a powerful nostalgic lens by generations who either lived in, were born in, or now look wistfully back at this decade as a representation of Post-World War II America at its height. The Baby Boomers–having started with an idealistic counterculture mindset–grew up, cut their hair, got a job, and were rising in power and success; new technologies (such as cable TV, VCRs, and personal computers) began to make inroads in the commercial market and find their way into the homes of millions of people across the country, and with a booming economy the middle-class seemingly never had it so good.
The kids born in this decade–now labeled Millennials(1)–would experience a culture in their primary and teenage years that would suddenly vanish one beautiful, horrible Tuesday morning in September just after the turn of the century.
Perhaps this is why the 80’s and 90’s are now such cherished, defended decades in American culture in the early 21st century: it was the last time the USA had such great prosperity and an embarrassment of financial and cultural riches. It was the last big bang before the long, slow bust that would cripple this country in a number of ways for the first two decades of the new millennium–and for those who were there, alive, and had experienced it, it’s easy to understand why it’s now considered the last great era this country had.
Success Is Excess
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times in the US: while the first few years of the decade were marred by a hangover recession of the 1970s and inflation hit a high point in 1980, by the middle of the decade inflation fell to a record low; manufacturing industries and blue-collar industries were on the decline while white collar and middle-class jobs exploded; the Cold War was at its height with a resurgence of fears of nuclear war, but by the end of the decade the USSR was dismantled and the Cold War officially ended.
Culturally, America was living in incredible times: with the death of disco, New Wave and a resurgence of rock music was on the rise while pop music came in the form of Madonna and Michael Jackson; the rise of MTV made music a visual art; and thanks to a then-booming economy and stronger-than-ever youth market, record labels couldn’t produce albums in every large genre fast enough to fill the demand.
Technology-wise, it was the dawn of a new age and one that foreshadowed what would eventually become a dominant cultural force: not only did home gaming consoles rapidly develop and become popular but personal computers became affordable and easy-to-use point-and-click interfaces produced by Microsoft and Apple resulted in a heated competition between the companies (which Microsoft ostensibly won–at least until the 2000s when Apple edged them out of the mobile and personal device market).
And socially, the American attitude continued to persevere, marrying individual expression with consumer identity in one way or another. Did you like hard rock and smoking pot? Then you were a hard-partying metalhead. Dress nicely and had conservative values? Preppy or yuppie would suffice. Preferred studying, computers, and a reserved life? NERD! At least, that’s how movies and TV shows generalized and stereotyped characters. Perhaps more than ever–or even for the first time–TV and movie depictions of “types” in American society became an easy go-to to pinpoint an individual’s identity. Not surprisingly, this is also the decade where concepts of postmodernism first gained real traction in academia and popular culture: was our media reflecting us or defining us? This sort of question became increasingly hazy as younger generations began to take their cues from the cultural output that they were engaging: MTV marketed to this demographic heavily, and soon enough you truly had entire pockets of youth culture being defined as “mallrats,” “metalheads,” “goths/New Romantics,” and every other niche that could be defined through image, music, and codified style.
Films began to reflect, reinforce, and similarly market to these niche audiences and demographics–so much that even something as vague as the “everyman” became one of the most popular types of heroes in action films (which, not coincidentally, were heavily marketed to the 25-and-up blue collar-to-middle class male demographic): John McClane, Axel Foley, and Riggs and Murtaugh are all prime examples, but even gigantic, above-average action heroes in the 80s were portrayed as down-to-Earth, hard-working guys. But maybe you were one of them smart nerd guys: well, that’s where your smart heroes came in–The Ghostbusters, or the characters in Real Genius or Buckaroo Banzai were there as supplicant for this group. Not to get too detailed in this breakdown (that’s for a future essay in this series), but the Hollywood output of the 80s was done by shrewd marketers who were looking to hit every quadrant–and barring that, to appeal to as many segments of a potential audience as possible.
And herein lies the heart of 80s pop culture and something that now stands as representative of the spirit of America’s 1980s as a whole: the rise of “The Blockbuster:” gigantic films that truly did appeal to everybody, young and old, male and female, all races, economic backgrounds, and interests included.
The cultural output of the 80s was brilliant in creating product that would appeal to dominant segments of American society. You like music? You should listen to Thriller or any Michael Jackson from that decade; I bet you’ll like it. Everyone does. Or for something a little different, try out some Talking Heads records. Pop music’s more your thing? Here’s Graceland and Syncronicity and No Jacket Required and True Blue. Hey, maybe you like rock music? You’re in luck: U2 is putting out their best albums right now. Or check out alternative music: R.E.M. is also putting out some of their best albums.
Are TV shows your thing? If you like sitcoms, check out Cheers, or ALF, or Perfect Strangers. Like nostalgia? How about one of the best shows ever about that very feeling: The Wonder Years. Too young for your demographic? Try The Golden Girls on for size. Too old for you? How about Full House? Like action? Here’s The A-Team, MacGuyer, and Miami Vice. Or if you like one-hour dramas, L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues and Moonlighting are riding pretty high.
How about movies? Well, take your pick: there are literally thousands being produced in this decade in every single conceivable genre and a lot of them are excellent–even the kind of crappy ones are pretty good. Speaking of which: adjusted for inflation, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial made over a billion dollars. Also, Spielberg’s making some of the best action-adventure movies of all time right now, and if you get into the decade early enough you can catch two of the three original Star Wars movies in theaters.
Even kids–especially kids–had their own programming now being heavily marketed towards them: besides the dominance of original Saturday morning cartoons, Nickelodeon became the first cable channel that strictly aired original children’s programming, and after-school kid-centered programming began to establish itself with the syndicated programming block The Disney Afternoon. Accompanying all of this, of course, was the lucrative and plentiful merchandise of action figures, sets, and various ephemeral products with which the consumer-minded child could fill their birthday and Christmas lists.
And the kids got those presents because money was seemingly shooting out of everyone’s ears and conspicuous consumption was the only way to go(2). Yes, the 1980s in America was a decade that started off slow and ended strong: a booming economy, a thriving culture, and an increasingly positive, united society cruised into the 1990s ready to tackle the world. Though the decade had its downsides, as all decades do–the AIDS Crisis, the crack epidemic in inner cities, and the last scary flare-up of the Cold War among them–by and large in hindsight it was a great decade.
Looking Back: Escape From The 21st Century
With all of this in mind, I’m going to be embarking on a series of articles for this site that will take a look at some of the trends, styles, and cultural impact of significant TV shows and movies produced in the 1980s and what they tell us about American culture, society, and the overall zeitgeist of that decade.
I wouldn’t say the 1980s is my favorite decade: that’s reserved for the 1990s, the decade of my adolescence, where I think American culture hit a pinnacle before receding into the general muck and mire of the 21st century. But the 80s is a decade that, as an adult, I wish I could live in: I would have found a lot of success back then, instead of today where I foolishly entered the professional fields of publishing and journalism at just the moment when that boat capsized.
But I would also want to live as an adult in that decade because as an adult I don’t particularly like contemporary times: I find it gross in some way–too overexposed, with no dignity or any sense of propriety. While the 80s was a gauche decade, it was also a relatively socially conservative time, as opposed to now, where the internet has effectively shattered any cohesion of American culture and has dragged our discourse and general culture to the lowest common denominator.
I feel like we’ve lost something about reality when we entered the digital age: nothing is tactile anymore, and I feel like it’s changed our general perception of reality and social interactions in general. We treat strangers online with viciousness, and I think this general sense of anonymity has transferred to real life, distorting many people’s ability to engage in the real world with any sort of care or respect. Instead, strangers don’t smile or say hello if you make casual eye contact–they look away. People don’t say thank you for holding a door open, and they’ll quicker look at you as a suspect instead of just as another person. Maybe it has some connection with now living in an age where it’s not only too much information, but too much information that portrays the world as a scary, awful, dangerous place filled with perverts and malevolent lunatics.
Well, I can’t hop into a time machine and escape this time, but I can veer away from the cruel brave new world we live in by virtually escaping into the artifacts of the past to remind me that there was another time and place in America where everyone wasn’t at each other’s throats. Join us, won’t you?
I personally find lumping people of my age into the “Millenial” category an ill fit: from my own perspective, I have very little in common with the so-called “Millennials” as they’re defined today. Having been born in 1982, spent my adolescence in the 90’s, and in college by the time 9/11 occurred, I prefer the label Gen Y, a designation that accurately categorizes the specific historical-cultural period my generation lived through and what my generation was referred to until the early 2000s. It makes sense to me since I’m too young to be considered Gen X (whose cultural output I enjoyed while a teenager in the 1990s) but also too old to have much in common with a generation that by-and-large haven’t experienced the same cultural events and experiences that I have. I personally delineate recent generational procession as such: Gen X>Gen Y>Millennials>Gen Z. Of course, the major difference between members of Gen Y and Millennials is age when 9/11 occurred: from my viewpoint, Millennials seem to refer to people that were 14 and younger during that event and had spent their childhood largely in the 1990’s; those above that age were born in the early-to-mid 1980s and spent the majority of their adolescence in the 1990’s and were largely adolescent to adult at that event are Gen Y. It’s an important difference since the cultural, economic, and general experiences between Gen Y and Millennials (as radical as the differences between Gen X and Gen Y, who spent their teenage years in entirely separate decades) are worlds apart and just as extreme as the differences of American life before and after 9/11 have been.
I have many happy memories spending entire weekends going to the local mall–Midstreams Mall–with my parents, where they shopped and we ate at the food court and played in the arcade and went to afternoon matinees, or else driving from store to store buying clothes and having lunch out. I lived in a big house in a planned community surrounded by other big houses; not a brag, but a statement of fact so you understand my perspective of the 80s, of which I was all of 8 years old when the decade came to a close. Mind you, my childhood was not the typical 80s experience, but it’s the only experience I have on-hand to relate to you, and from where I stood then, America was a go-go world filled with money and loads of stuff at my fingertips. From what I can gather, a lot of people had similar consumer-driven experiences back then, so this is the angle from which I cast my vision of the 1980s.