It’s 2016. Why Are We Still Obsessed With the ’80s?

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

All week on Vulture, we're examining '80s pop culture, and how it lives on today.

“Get Out Your Shoulder Pads: The ’80s Are Here.”

“The ’70s Are So ’90s. The 80s Are the Thing Now.”

“Don’t You Forget About Me! The Formerly Irredeemable ’80s Return.”

Those are three headlines from three different New York Times trend pieces written at three different points over the past two decades. The first one, in which Michiko Kakutani argued that nostalgia for the 1980s had fully infiltrated American culture, was published in April of 2001. The second took note of the revival of the dawn-of-MTV decade, particularly within the world of music, just a year later, in 2002. And that third confirmation that the '80s are alive and well, particularly fashion-wise? That appeared in the Times just six months ago, in April, 2016.

I note all of this not to suggest that New York Times trend pieces, like history, often repeat themselves, but to underline a truth that anyone who consumes TV, music, or movies already sees as self-evident: that the '80s has not, and seemingly will not, go away. Our cultural fixation on the Duran Duran decade has now officially lasted longer than the decade itself. (But not, for the record, longer than Duran Duran’s career, which is still going relatively strong.)

A fondness for the era of synth-pop first emerged like clockwork, right on America’s usual nostalgia schedule: roughly 20 years after the '80s ended. Like the 1950s fascination that swept through the 1970s (see: American Graffiti, Happy Days, Grease), the obsession with the '60s that coursed through the '80s (The Big Chill, The Wonder Years, Dirty Dancing, the rise of classic rock), and the presence of the 1970s in the pop culture of the 1990s (Dazed and Confused, That '70s Show, Boogie Nights), the '80s wave began to rebuild in the 2000s, precisely on time.

Indie and art-house movies (Donnie Darko, The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland) as well as mainstream blockbusters (Transformers, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Watchmen) hearkened back to the era. TV shows like Freaks and Geeks, showing up a tad early to the party in 1999, the inevitable That '80s Show, and Everybody Hates Chris flashed back to what, in the new millennium, now qualified as the wonder years. A production of Xanadu ran briefly on Broadway, followed a few years later by hair-band celebration Rock of Ages, which planted its Spandex in Times Square and stayed there for years. The Killers and Interpol echoed the sound of New Wave, Missy Elliott sampled Run DMC, and music by artists like Andre 3000 and Beyoncé was sonically infused with a streak of Prince’s purple badness. A pop-punk remake of “The Boys of Summer” was even a hit in 2003; to make that fact even more '80s, it was recorded by a band called The Ataris.

But by 2010, it felt like we had hit peak Pac-Man. The number of '80s revivalist movies or reboots released that year — Hot Tub Time Machine, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Karate Kid, Tron: Legacy, Clash of the Titans, The A-Team — provided the evidence of oversaturation. An article in the Guardian in early 2010 asked whether our trip back to the '80s had finally run its course. It seemed like the answer might be yes, but it wasn’t.

Certainly a fair amount of '90s nostalgia has taken hold during the 2010s, as Fresh Off the Boat, Fuller House, the promise of Clueless coming to Broadway, renewed interest in the O.J. Simpson case, and the triumphant return of the choker can attest, not to mention practically every BuzzFeed listicle ever written. But the '80s aren’t going anywhere. Its spindly, E.T.-like fingers still seem to be touching almost every form of popular entertainment.

Look at TV, where The Americans, Red Oaks, Halt and Catch Fire, The Goldbergs, Deutschland 83, Stranger Things, and the strongest episode of Black Mirror season three, the 1987-set “San Junipero,” all take us back to the time of the Back to the Future trilogy. (That doesn’t even include modern shows like Mr. Robot, which often references the era, or current and in-development TV reboots like MacGyver, Lethal Weapon, Magnum, P.I., Dynasty, and The Lost Boys.) Look at all the films, both recent (Mad Max: Fury Road, Pixels, Ghostbusters, Sing Street) and forthcoming (The Dark Tower, the Blade Runner sequel, a second Friday the 13th reboot, the It adaptation, and, so help me God, another Smurfs movie) that revisit the movies, music, and video games that first went mainstream back then. Look at pop music, where Taylor Swift made an album called 1989 filled with tracks that sounded pretty darn '80s-radio-friendly; where Walk the Moon rips an Edge guitar riff straight off The Joshua Tree, plops it into “Shut Up and Dance,” and scores a huge hit; where  Kendrick Lamar asks “Annie, are you okay?” à la Michael Jackson in the middle of “King Kunta”; and where the most successful appropriator of '80s funk and pop, Bruno Mars, has just cranked out another insta-smash, “24K Magic,” that sounds like a hybrid of Prince and the Dazz Band. (Billboard recently called that trackStranger Things in single form.” So put your pinky rings up to the moon for Barb, y’all.)

Why are the '80s so inescapable, still, after all this time? There are some practical reasons as well as some theories that may explain it.

Let’s start with the practical. What we see on our screens and hear through our earbuds is dictated in large part by what inspired the creators and individuals who support their visions, many of whom are in their 30s, 40s, and early 50s and may have a particular affinity for this time period. “Perhaps it's because showrunners and creators and executives — and audience members! — are at a place where their own personal history has merged with ‘nostalgia,”’ said Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the showrunners for The Americans, in an email. “For us it's more specific than that: There is no moment in which the Cold War was hotter for spies than the Reagan years. The story of these characters belongs right there in the '80s, on the brink of global catastrophe.”

The second half of that response gets at another issue raised by that most recent New York Times piece: The '80s, once remembered mostly as an “irredeemable” mullet joke, are now taken more seriously, both as a time when some legitimate art was being made and as a setting that provides a rich foundation for storytelling, as is the case on a prestige spy thriller like The Americans. The time-traveling powers of the digital era — which, thanks to YouTube and other internet rabbit holes, have given pop-culture nostalgia even more room to run rampant — disrupted the every-20-years cycle that used to be the standard. Perhaps modern nostalgia now happens in two waves. In the late '90s and '00s, we had '80s Revival 1.0, which generally celebrated the decade as one big awesome '80s prom of over-moussed hair and Flock of Seagulls flashbacks. The Wedding Singer, That '80s Show, "The One With All the Thanksgivings" episode of FriendsRock of Ages, 13 Going on 30, and every installment of I Love the '80s are all examples of this.

Now we have '80s Revival 2.0, which recognizes more fully the impact and historical significance of an era once viewed mostly through a fluorescent neon lens. Granted, there's still a certain amount of reminiscing while LOLing that goes on, especially on shows like The Goldbergs, which thrives on digging up artifacts from your childhood rec room. But there's a more frequent tendency to delve into the '80s not just for Def Leppard kicks, but as a means to connect the then to the now. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps may have been a sequel to an '80s favorite, but it also was one that connected the dots between the "greed is good" mentality and the financial crisis that erupted in 2008. Stranger Things may be thoroughly satisfying as an immersion in '80s sci-fi. But every time we talk about it — or another Star Wars movie, or the possibility of another Indiana Jones sequel, or how much we still love Marty McFly — there’s a collective sense that the organic magic found in '80s blockbusters was something special that Hollywood is still trying to recapture. Shows like The Americans or Halt and Catch Fire certainly have their carefully chosen, adrenaline shots of nostalgia. (Intellivision! Super Mario Bros.!)  But they are much more interested in reexamining the era for its political paranoia and the first steps taken toward a technological revolution that transformed the way we live. That's bigger, deeper stuff than, "Boy, we sure looked stupid in legwarmers, didn't we?"

Weisberg and Fields are both old enough to fully remember the '80s, but what about people like Ross and Matt Duffer, the twin-brother masterminds behind Stranger Things who are in their early 30s and were born after a lot of the things their Netflix series references? In an interview with the sibling filmmakers this summer, both told me they were heavily influenced by '80s culture even though they missed the chance to absorb it firsthand. “So many of our greatest moviegoing experiences were actually experienced in our house, on VHS,” said Matt Duffer. “These were the films that were on our shelves, that we would watch … These were the movies we grew up on. It became a part of us.” In an interview with The Independent in 2012, Bruno Mars, who is 31 and only a baby in the '80s, expressed a similar sentiment about his musical inspirations: “Look at Michael Jackson and Prince and Elvis. Those guys exude confidence and those are the guys that I grew up watching.”

There's one final theory that accounts for this, and it’s one I like to call the Gen-Xers' Revenge. Those of us who were born in the time period that ranges from, roughly, the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s, came of age primarily in the '80s. We are sandwiched between two much larger generations, the baby boomers and the millennials, and as a consequence, have been characterized as “America’s neglected middle child,” as the Pew Research Center once put it. But while we’ve been busy being demographically overlooked and zooming toward middle age, a lot of us have been introducing our children (or younger siblings, nieces, and nephews) to the same prized pop-cultural possessions that populated our childhoods: E.T. and Star Wars, Pac-Man and Rubik's Cube, The Goonies and Ghostbusters, Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper, The Princess Bride and Prince. Again, digital advancements have made it possible for us to show our kids anything we loved back in the third grade in an instant, with a quick click or mere finger swipe. That’s something our parents, who could needle drop on a Chuck Berry record or set the VHS timer to record an old movie they loved in the '50s, could only do for us to a much more limited extent. When these Gen X–influenced (or, if you prefer, brainwashed) kids, grow up and start making TV shows and movies or writing songs, what do you think some of their formative touchstones will be? When one generation influences a second (and a third) generation in this way, there's a pop cultural ripple effect that keeps on rippling. 

In other words, Generation X may be neglected. But the pop culture we grew up on? You couldn't ignore it if you tried.

And why would you? The '80s still matter because, either directly or indirectly, we feel culturally connected to the decade. Sure, the time period offers an escape, either to fond memories of one's youth or to the last full decade before the internet staged a coup on our attention spans. But the seeds of where we are now really were planted back then, amidst the Glo Worms and jelly shoes. The superhero movie as both blockbuster and something of value: that started with 1978's Superman but really locked into place thanks to Tim Burton's Batman in 1989. Hip-hop broke into the mainstream in the '80s and, because of that, is now America's primary pop-music language. Prestige and truly risk-taking television began to blossom in the years that gave us Moonlighting and Miami Vice, paving the way for the extraordinary programs we watch now. The '80s has become both nostalgia rabbit hole and cultural mirror. We'll likely be jumping down it and gazing backward into it for a long, long time.