“Ready Player One” is on its way out, Bruno Mars just won a Grammy for a throwback album, and “Stranger Things” remains one of Netflix’s hottest shows: 80s throwbacks are still all the rage, but why? Were the 80s that great of a decade?
Nostalgia moves in cycles, but not clearly defined cycles. At the time of writing this, I am 20 years old. So naturally, I’m nostalgic for things that were popular when I was a child – images that bring me back to a time when I didn’t know anything about global conflict, politics, or targeted marketing. When I think nostalgia, I think late 90s and early-mid 2000s pop culture like Pokémon, the Star Wars prequels, and Britney Spears. When I get to be in my early 30s and if I were to produce any kind of “throwback media” it would likely be tinged with the pop culture sensibilities that I remember as a child, fondly cherry-picking at what I remember positively. Unless I were creating something biting and more realistic, chances are there would be no mention of 9/11, the Iraq War, or the housing crisis.
This idea of cycles admittedly becomes a little fuzzy when considering age ranges. People that are now nostalgic for 80s pop culture could have been children, teenagers, or 20-somethings in the 80s, all of which would have put them at a ripe age to have been soaking in their surroundings, while likely ignoring or only having a basic understanding of more serious things. Because of this, nostalgia cycles are debated to move in 20 years, 30 years, and 40 years.
In the last few decades, nostalgia has been difficult to track. The 70s were marred with nostalgic media harkening back to the extremely white-washed vision of the nuclear family happy days of the 50s. Fashion of the 80s was an evolution of 60s beatnik fashion. The 90s grunge movement served as an almost dirtier version of the 70s’ counter-culture. But today, as Kurt Andersen from Vanity Fair argues, things have fallen into a design rut: “Now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past.” This rut shows its face in many facets of design, from our architecture, to our clothes, to our media. Our ready access to the past means that nostalgia is more difficult to track and even more omnipresent, as anyone could steep themselves in the media of another decade, transporting themselves back to the past.
Because of this, media is a different animal. If you’ve turned on the TV, opened the internet, or flipped through the radio any time lately you know that the 80s are here yet again and for whatever reason they just won’t leave. I’m not saying that this is entirely a bad thing. I enjoy the neon-tinged, synth-heavy nostalgic mirage that we’ve conjured the 80s up to be, but it’s just that: a mirage, an apparition, or less esoteric: good marketing
Nostalgia is a prop, a wooden leg; a shorthand for pieces of media to get a hook into consumers and kickstart marketing with an “I remember that!” before they even have to explain why you should consume something. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has the capacity to allow companies to get away with the laziest tactics possible.
For every Stranger Things there’s a Fuller House. As soon as something starts working, companies begin to take every opportunity that they can to make it work again, and again, and again, ad nauseum. So for better or for worse, here we are: Roseanne’s back on TV, denim jackets are back in style, and even the worst 80s properties are seeing brand new reboots.
This is the key: not everything from the 80s was good, and the same applies to any decade. For people that were young in those days it’s easy to just ignore all of the awful pieces of pop culture that came out and foist the good stuff onto an only semi-deserving pedestal. Was “Back to the Future” good? Absolutely! “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”? “Ghostbusters”? “The Breakfast Club”? These are all fantastic movies, but what about the duds? Have you seen “Howard the Duck”? Because I have and it is abysmal. It’s not even bad enough to be funny; I’m supposed to believe that Lea Thompson is attracted to a three foot tall humanoid duck. There’s an endless catalog of movies from the 80s that were duds, but the same is true for any decade. So why do we hold the 80s in such high esteem?
The 80s were a difficult decade politically, but if you were an American child then it would have been easy to ignore the AIDS crisis, the continuing crises of the Cold War, and the global economic instability. It was a difficult time, but this is only occasionally brought into pieces of media that steep themselves in 80s pop culture. The most recent case of this although not set in the 80s, was Greta Gerwig’s Oscar nominated coming of age film “Ladybird.” Set in the early 2000s when Gerwig would have been in her early 20s, the movie doesn’t directly tackle any subject that is overtly political. However, with subtle nods to the instability and insecurity that lower-middle class Americans felt in the years just following 9/11, Gerwig successfully captures a cultural moment that is deeper than just flashing lights and a-ha’s “Take On Me.”
When asked about it by WTOP, Gerwig had this to say:
“Sometimes in movies it feels like your personal life happens in one area, then history happens somewhere else, but the reality is it all happens together. I wanted to show this new, changing landscape that these kids were going into and these parents had to deal with.
Not all creators approach the past with such a nuanced appeal to the complicated nature of history. It’s not that the 80s is revered as a decade of political stability and economic tranquility, it’s that creators have a tendency to pull 80s aesthetics into their works without including the “upside down” of that cultural zeitgeist: the history.
There’s no correct way to capture nostalgia in a piece of work, but more often than not nostalgic pieces of media stop at a surface level of expression. On one hand, I believe that this has to do with what age the creator was when they experienced pop culture that affected them in such a way. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that this has to do with marketing and a desire to capture nostalgic feelings rather than to provide commentary. Capturing an audience’s attention with a flashy appeal to their childhoods is often more advantageous in the short term than making an audience reconsider the feelings they felt as children altogether. And from a marketing standpoint, it is far easier to advertise the former than it is the latter.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Childhood nostalgia has taken the 80s and turned it from just another decade in American history to an idyllic age of flashing neon, futuristic looking cars, and big hair. Is it dangerous to cherry-pick from a time in American history that was just as tumultuous as our political and global landscape is now? As someone that didn’t live through the 80s, it’s hardly my place to say. But you know what I can say? For better or for worse, I don’t think 80s nostalgia is going anywhere anytime soon.