At a bar the weekend before Halloween, I wasn’t alone in my love of ‘80s nostalgia. Thinking myself original, I dressed as Back to the Future’s Marty McFly--red puffy vest, blue collared shirt, calculator watch--only to find I was one of three Martys at the bar.
The surge in 1980s nostalgia is everywhere, especially in film and television. Stranger Things pays homage to classic ‘80s horror, It highlights ‘80s fears like the burgeoning AIDs epidemic and the red scare, and Guardians of the Galaxy romanticizes cassette tapes and the music they carried.
The question that surrounds this flood of throwback films and TV shows is: why are we all of the sudden so fascinated with this decade of synth music and middle class prosperity? Why is the 1980s setting such an effective storytelling device?
I can trace my personal fascination with the decade to a vibrant music video I saw while going down a YouTube rabbit hole. The video featured a roller skater wearing a multicolor one-piece. I vividly remember thinking this is as cool as it gets. For someone like myself born in the mid-nineties, the ‘80s holds the perfect allure of being a decade that occurred too long ago to have been actually lived in--and consequently tainted by personal experience--yet also recent enough that it can be easily related to.
After seeing this video, I became acutely aware of all things ‘80s. I grew to love the look of vintage Nike swooshes, puffy vests, big hair. I idealized the decade’s compact BMWs, its boxy computer technology, its absurd fascination with aerobics.
I watched the decade’s classic movies, listened to its music, read its books. Eventually, I wrote my own short fiction set in this incomparable decade. I think the things that excited me most about this little story, which I composed for a college writing class, embody my whole fascination with the decade.
The story is about two high school kids bumming around in the suburbs circa summer of ‘82. They hang out in parking lots hoping to run into friends, they joggle payphone coin return levers looking for change, they forget to call home to tell their parents where they are.
Setting my story in the ‘80s allowed me to imagine a different way of life that was only possible because most people lacked cell phones, social media, and all other forms of instant communication or distraction. While the aesthetics of this decade are appealing, the true draw to this decade is the difference in day-to-day life: its set of norms that feel vastly and excitingly foreign to me.
Without the wealth of knowledge that the internet provides us today, I imagine life was less plotted. It was harder to predict what to expect out of a day. Friends’ activities weren’t constantly updated to social media. You couldn’t research (stalk) your Tinder date’s entire online presence. You could actually get lost. Like you could go for a drive, get turned around, and without Google Maps have no idea where you were.
And, if a friend never showed up to meet you at the movie theater--that was it, game over, who knows what happened to them? This being essentially what Kramer does in every episode of Seinfeld, which, yes, is a show from the 1990s, but you get the idea.
For me this 1980s culture, which by today’s standards seems incredibly limited in terms of communication, navigation, and information technologies, makes for a rich setting. The ‘80s acts as a storytelling device that enhances a narrative by both limiting and freeing characters. The very fact that a group of high school kids can’t send a group text can provide a story with a whole array of conflicts and interactions that are now outdated.
The ‘80s were a time where technology didn’t shape your life the way that it does today. We enjoy stories about kids who travel together in a pack of bicycles, who communicate via walkie talkie, who play video games at an arcade. Maybe we like the ‘80s because we like this not-so-distant way of living.
Or maybe we just like the hair.