Given that there's been a lot going on in the world lately, this news may have escaped your attention: Finally, belatedly, '80s nostalgia has arrived.
If you had been watching more closely, the subtle but unmistakable signs were everywhere. Vintage 100% nylon parachute pants are for sale on the Internet, and designers' fall lines were full of acid-wash denim and '80s-style neon colors. Eighties cover bands, including The Breakfast Club and the DeLoreans, are doing eerily perfect replicas of Duran Duran's "Rio" and other era classics. A growing number of Web sites with names such as www.intheeighties.com and www.awesome80s.com are popping up to offer compendiums of song lyrics and glossaries of period lingo for those who need guidance about the proper usage of "gag me with a spoon" and "to the max." "The A-Team" is on cable, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently concluded a mini-retrospective on '80s postmodernism. And, of course, Dick Cheney has made a comeback.
But to make things official, that harbinger of pop trends, the Fox Network, recently debuted a new half-hour sitcom, "That '80s Show," by the creators of "That '70s Show." Set in 1984 San Diego--"just one hour outside of the big dream we call Los Angeles," according to the Fox Web site--it premiered Jan. 23 to impressive ratings in prime demographic categories. An estimated 11.4 million total viewers tuned in despite somewhat less-than-impressive reviews.
You may be asking, "Where's the Beef?" After all, we've been hearing rumors, predictions and pronouncements of an '80s revival for years--at least as far back as 1993, when a corporate trend-research firm called Sputnik pointed to hipster jokes about Members Only jackets and Michael Jackson as signs of an incipient fad. But compared to previous eras, '80s retro, as a mass-market trend, took off with the sluggish acceleration of the original four-cylinder Pontiac Fiero. Some took it as a sign that perhaps American society's obsession with nostalgia at last had become passe. Cycles of nostalgia, after all, have been rushing upon us faster and faster, with shorter and shorter lag times. In the 1950s, Americans went gaga over Davy Crockett, who'd been dead for more than a century. By the mid-1970s, we were getting nostalgic about the 1950s.
During the actual 1980s, we burned through '60s chic so quickly that, by mid-decade, you already could go to a dance club in Hollywood for '70s night and see polyester-clad swingers discoing down to "Fly, Robin, Fly" and "Love to Love You Baby," reviving a style that had barely made it into the remainder bins. At that rate, like the feckless lover depicted in Prince's "Little Red Corvette," '80s pop culture seemed chronically in danger of running out of gas. A 1998 Roper poll showed that about one-third of adults under the age of 30 thought of the '80s--their coming-of-age era--as "the good old days." That doesn't sound too shabby until you consider that nearly half as many people that age preferred the '50s, an era before they were even born.
Part of the problem with '80s retro, perhaps, is that previous waves of nostalgia have always centered upon a yearning for the seeming naivete of a simpler age. Fifties hot-rodders and prom queens were an appealing fantasy for children of the '70s, partly because they didn't have to wait in long lines for gasoline or grapple with the implications of feminism. It's a little tricky to work up that sort of warm feeling about the junk bond traders and corporate-takeover pirates of the '80s, when cynicism was a virtue and the big event was the Predators' Ball.
Beyond that, the '80s was an era obsessed with ironically re-interpreting the past, to the extent that Esquire magazine contemporaneously knocked it as the "Re Decade." It was so heavily retro that it's a challenge to find something original to recycle. When you try to imitate Madonna imitating Marilyn Monroe on MTV, the joke gets a little too incestuous. And much of '80s fashion would be difficult to replicate, because the JFK-era tuxedo jackets and vintage lace that L.A. hipsters found at Aardvark's Odd Ark on Melrose Avenue are likely to be too moth-eaten and tattered for a third go-round. It's little wonder that, thus far, the '80s have yet to inspire a lovingly meticulous cinematic homage of the caliber of "American Graffiti." We have to settle for "The Wedding Singer," which was more about Adam Sandler's vocal shtick than it was about Reagan-era zeitgeist. (Granted, that guy break dancing to a gloomy New Order song was an inspired bit of parody.)
Maybe it's time to give the '80s another chance. As we find ourselves in an age in which there's precious little going on that we dare laugh about, we have to admit that Bananarama is infinitely preferable to Osamarama. So let's flip up our shirt collars, lace up those candy-colored L.A. Gear sneakers and brush up on that moonwalking--or, as the age's poet laureate, Billy Idol, once put it, "It's a nice day to start agggaiiiiinn!" And once we scrape the jaded patina off a non-comprehensive sampling of the decade's artifacts, fads and icons, they do turn out to have a certain goofy charm.
Bad Hair Decade
Mullets, Mousse and Rat-Tails
In recent years the mullet (a.k.a. "hockey hair" or "business in the front, party in the back") has been lampooned as the classic tacky '80s male hairstyle, though, in fact, the "bi-level" cut, as it is known in barbering parlance, seems to have originated back in the '70s with English rock stars such as Slade and Rod Stewart. (The term "mullet" didn't come into usage until 1994, by way of the Beastie Boys' song "Mullet Head.") More distinctly '80s is a close-cropped back that's long on top, perhaps lacquered into a New Romantic pompadour or teased into a spiky bristle and bleached, a la Billy Idol. But the mullet's identification with the 1980s seems unshakable. Los Angeles comedian Diana Alouise, who cuts the hair of volunteers onstage and thus has incorporated the mullet into her stage act, sees her efforts as a way to "get America back to where it was . . . it's an '80s thing."
Another perverse male affectation of the age was a small braid at the back of the neck, known as the rat-tail, worn most famously by the members of New Kids on the Block. The messy, multicolored bird's-nest coiffure popularized by the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna achieved its aerodynamically improbable configurations with the help of a new product, styling mousse, first developed in Europe and introduced in the United States in early 1984 by L'Oreal. The foamy fixative became an overnight sensation, achieving $250 million in sales the first year. Trendy African Americans affected Jheri curls, a bouncy mass of ringlets named after Jheri Redding, a hair-product mogul. If you were willing to sleep in a plastic cap and apply copious amounts of hair oil, you could achieve the look worn by L.A. Clippers forward Michael Cage and Michael Jackson, whose chemically enhanced coiffure caught fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium in 1984.
Fashion Faux Pas
Members Only, Bugle Boy and L.A. Gear
At the dawn of the decade, an obscure company called Europe Craft Imports revolutionized the men's outerwear market with a tight-fitting shiny cotton jacket, adorned with a throat latch, snap epaulets and, most important, a small but conspicuous "Members Only" tag over the left breast pocket. True, there was a certain inherent paradox to a $65 mass-market product, available in two dozen hues, whose name spoke of exclusivity.
That didn't seem to faze the typical '80s Lothario, who appreciated a design that allowed the flipped-up collar of his Polo shirt to remain fashionably visible while retro-dancing to Motown classics at Crush Club Continental on North Cahuenga Boulevard or waiting in line outside L.A.'s other hot '80s singles scenes. (No wonder that a couple of decades later, singer Sheryl Crow would lyrically observe: "He seems to be stuck in the '80s/He wears his Members Only jacket/'cause he thinks it turns on all the ladies.") Scrunched-up (as opposed to rolled-up) sleeves were mandatory. Members Only jackets were in such demand that, by 1984, counterfeiters were selling $5 million worth of phony ones a year.
The origin of the leg warmers fad is a little less clear. One historical source suggests that the bunched-up tube of knitted cotton, a traditional bit of ballet garb, first emerged as an everyday accessory during the frigid East Coast winter of 1981-1982, when women started wearing them under their slacks. Others suspect it was the influence of "Jane Fonda's Workout," the 1982 video whose cover showed the actress-turned-fitness maven flexing her cotton-enshrouded gastrocnemius muscles. In any case, leg warmer sales rose more than 340% that year, according to Forbes magazine.
Leg warmers were the first inkling of fitness fashion, in which leotards and baggy sweatshirts--slipping off one shoulder, as worn by "Flashdance" actress Jennifer Beals--became acceptable street wear, creating the illusion that women were continually headed to, or coming back from, an aerobics studio. In L.A., where that wasn't necessarily an illusion, exercise fanatics had by 1985 taken to wearing two or three pairs of leg warmers at a time, in varying colors.
Perhaps the most inexplicable fashion trend of the late '80s was acid-wash denim, an Italian invention whose name was a bit misleading. Instead of soaking jeans in acid, clothing makers put them in giant washers, along with pumice stones soaked in bleach, for three to four hours at a time. The tumbling created random spots and streaks on the garments, giving them a sort of factory-reject look that teens and young adults found irresistibly chic. It was the start of the "distressed" look--strategically battered, tattered and ripped--pushed by clothing makers Z. Cavaricci and Guess (though Jordache's 1987 "No Exit" apparel line also had a Kevorkian-esque catchiness to it). By decade's end, as a legal spat erupted over patent rights to the acid-wash process, the craze finally began to, ahem, show some wear.
In 1983, Chatsworth-based clothing manufacturer Bugle Boy, inspired by Michael Jackson's hardware-laden wardrobe, dreamed up tight-fitting parachute pants, which were made of nylon and decorated with multiple zippers. The style caught on, supposedly because the slippery texture was ideal for break dancing. Demand mushroomed so fast that in 1983 and 1984, Bugle Boy and a single retailer, Merry Go Round, had the fad all to themselves. They sold 10 million pairs in a single year.
Then, just as Bugle Boy was scrambling to corner the market on Taiwanese nylon twill, the fashion winds shifted. Bugle Boy was stuck with thousands of pairs of the suddenly dorky pants, which it was forced to dump for as little as a quarter a pair. Today you can buy a pair on the Internet for $46.
And, of course, there's the quintessential '80s footwear, L.A. Gear sneakers. The Marina del Rey-based brand was founded in 1986 by Robert Greenberg, a multitalented impresario who once made $3 million in three months peddling E.T.-themed shoelaces. While Nike and Adidas shoes were functional, L.A. Gear shoes were all about fashion. One model came in gold lame, while others had punk-rock style chains. With celebrity spokespeople such as Paula Abdul, Belinda Carlisle and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, L.A. Gear quickly became the No. 3 sneaker brand in America behind Nike and Reebok.
In 1989, the company tried to put itself over the top with "Bad," a black buckle-laden shoe endorsed by Jackson. "Bad" turned out to be as popular among teenagers as the nasty principal in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." L.A. Gear tried to convince trendoids that the next wave in athletic shoes involved lots of clunky hardware, but it ended up losing millions.
Hell on Wheels
DeLoreans, Yugos and Pontiac Fieros
The '70s, which spawned such oddities as the egg-shaped AMC Pacer, is difficult to challenge as the weirdest automotive era ever. But the '80s had no shortage of doomed automotive experiments.
In 1980, former General Motors wunderkind-turned-independent car manufacturer John Z. DeLorean--backed by the British government and celebrity investors such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson--unveiled the DMC-12, a high-end sports car that became known simply as "The DeLorean." Produced at a factory in strife-torn Northern Ireland, the innovative vehicle featured a stainless-steel body (that was designed to stay rust-free forever), gull-wing doors and a glass-reinforced plastic undercarriage. The DeLorean's rear-mounted V-6 engine enabled it to go from zero to 60 mph in eight seconds, but at a pricey $26,000--the equivalent of $60,000 today--sales sputtered. Fewer than 9,000 of the cars were built before the company went out of business in 1982.
DeLorean, too, suffered a peculiarly 1980s fate. He was accused of selling $24 million worth of cocaine to raise funds for his struggling plant, but he eventually was acquitted after arguing that federal agents had entrapped him. The DeLorean car--which probably achieved its greatest acceptance as Michael J. Fox's time machine in the 1985 hit "Back to the Future" and its sequels--continues to have a cult following. A Chatsworth-based company, DeLorean One, bills itself as "the world's largest source for DeLorean parts, service and accessories."
The same year that DeLorean became defunct, GM launched the Pontiac Fiero, whose innovative design featured an all-plastic body and an engine in the middle of the chassis. One hundred thousand of the stylish two-seaters were sold during the first model year. Unfortunately, the car that was supposed to turn Pontiac into GM's "excitement division" didn't quite live up to its hype. In an effort to contain costs, GM put an underpowered four-cylinder engine in the Fiero--it looked like a sports car but performed like a subcompact. Its lack of power steering caused some drivers to complain that it was hard to handle. In addition, early Fieros suffered from other glitches, including cooling fans that had been wired backward, sucking heat back into the engine. Some of the flaws were later corrected, but the Fiero became a casualty of company political struggles and was discontinued in 1988.
No one ever suggested that the Yugo was innovative, except maybe in terms of price, but it was the only Serbian-made car ever sold in America. "What do you expect for $4,000?" a headline in the trade newspaper Automotive Industries once asked rhetorically. Slapped together by hand by $1-per-hour workers, the boxy vehicles were so shabby that shortly after their 1985 U.S. debut, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration judged the Yugo to have the worst crash performance of any car it had tested. The car's underwhelming performance inspired scores of jokes ("What do you call a Yugo at the top of a hill? A mirage." And "Why do Yugos come with heated rear windows? To keep your hands warm while you're pushing").
The manufacturer's U.S. subsidiary went bankrupt in 1991, and the factory where the cars were built was damaged by U.S. bombs during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. A few years ago, students at the Manhattan School of Visual Arts took 39 junked Yugos and converted them for innovative new uses, including a church confessional and a portable toilet.
The Box Boom
Kaypro, Pac-Man and the Helix Wheely 5000
Though personal computers made their debut in the late '70s, that didn't stop Time magazine from picking the PC instead of a human as person of the year (well, "machine of the year") in 1982. Once the computer's supposedly miraculous labor-saving qualities freed the human mind from drudgery, Time wondered, "will it race off in pursuit of important ideas or lazily spend its time on more video games?"
Today, such ruminations may seem hopelessly quaint in an age when subsequent technological advances enable us to almost effortlessly download Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's honeymoon video. Back then, the technological cutting edge was the Kaypro II, which displayed headache-inducing fluorescent green characters on a nine-inch screen. The Kaypro's microprocessor ran at a snail's-pace 2.5 megahertz and stored information on pancake-sized floppy disks instead of a hard drive. The CP/M operating system required users to type in cryptic commands ("PIP B:=A:DB*.*" for example) rather than click on an icon. "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto," indeed.
The portable personal stereo, better known as the boombox, actually first appeared on the consumer electronics market in the late '70s. But by 1980, when nearly 8 million of them were sold, they had become a deafening presence on city sidewalks across America. "My radio, believe me, I like it loud," LL Cool J rapped in 1985. "I'm the man with a box that can rock the crowd/Walkin' down the street, to the hard-core beat/While my JVC vibrates the concrete . . ."
Boomboxes grew in size, as larger speakers, tape decks, 10-band equalizers, flashing disco lights and even burglar alarms were added to their design. Helix's Wheely 5000, produced in 1989, was perhaps the largest boombox ever, at 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall. It weighed a clavicle-crushing 41 pounds when loaded with 10 D batteries. It could be wheeled behind an owner who wasn't quite macho enough to carry it.
As legend has it, pioneering video game designer Tohru Iwatani looked at the empty space in a pizza after he'd removed a slice and got the inspiration for a game that stood out from Asteroids, Space Invaders and others on the market. In 1980, Iwatani's employer, Namco, and its partner, Bally Midway Manufacturing Co., unveiled the first video game featuring an identifiable character--a yellow circle who crawled up and down the pathways of a maze eating dots of light and fruit before he himself was consumed by pursuing ghosts. The character initially was dubbed Puck-man, but after the uncomfortable proximity to an English-language expletive was noted, its name was changed to Pac-Man.
Pac-Man was an instant hit in arcades across America, and the manufacturers sold 100,000 games in the first year alone. Within two years, Pac-Man had spawned an animated show, merchandise such as Pac-Man air fresheners and whoopee cushions, and even a female companion, Ms. Pac-Man. By 1984 the fad was starting to fade, but Pac-Man was eventually revived in the '90s.
Wham!, Wang Chung and A Flock of Seagulls
While the biggest hits of '80s music still get considerable airplay two decades later--songs by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, U2 and others--the works of the Little River Band and Night Ranger have receded into the mist. But from the theme to "Chariots of Fire" to Depeche Mode's paeans to nihilistic angst to Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," there's one unifying characteristic in the diverse styles--that odd, unnatural pulsating quality. Think of it as the aural equivalent of creme brulee made with aspartame.
Electronic synthesizers date back to the mid-1950s, but not until the late 1970s did English pop musicians begin using the synthesizer, rather than the guitar or piano, as their main instrument. The electronic gadgetry could be programmed to mimic any conventional musical instrument--or to play faster and more intricately. In January 1982, "Don't You Want Me," by the all-electronic group Human League, was the first example of synthpop to top the U.S. charts.
Nevertheless, beneath the digital bombast often lurked a deep reservoir of genuine emotional pain. For some, that pain may have followed the indignity of appearing on "Solid Gold," a popular, albeit bizarre, syndicated TV series in which musical acts had to compete for attention with a ventriloquist's dummy and a bevy of voluptuous dancers in skimpy spandex. One performer who stood out, though, was singer Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons, whose metallic spacesuits and Plexiglas undergarments underscored her squeaky, affectedly mechanical New Wave music.
Amid the aural pyrotechnics of '80s rock, it was easy to miss the poeticism of lyrics such as "I smell like I sound" (Duran Duran, "Hungry Like the Wolf"), "Everybody Wang Chung tonight" (Wang Chung, "Everybody Have Fun Tonight") and "Time can never mend/The careless whispers of a good friend" (Wham!, "Careless Whispers").
Some of those fine '80s tunes found their way into advertising campaigns, creating remarkable juxtapositions of culture and commerce. Lionel Richie's "Stuck on You" put a distinctive beat to a commercial for dishwashing detergent. Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" became not only the musical mantra for Alamo rental cars, but also for the policies of the first President Bush. And the U.S. Dairy Board used Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes" to sell milk.
"It's not the way you have your hair," sang--somewhat disingenuously--that early '80s sensation, A Flock of Seagulls. The band's trademark was hairdresser-turned-musician Mike Score's Chinese-crested coiffure. The band was one of the first successful haircut bands, whose appearance was as crucial as its sound. (Photos from the band's recent revival tour, disappointingly, show Score in a baseball cap and goatee, as if he had been trying to evoke the '90s Seattle grunge scene instead.)
Towering hair also played a key role in the late-1980s halcyon days of heavy metal, when bands such as Poison, Megadeth and Anthrax dominated the album-sales charts. The latter group, whose works include 1985's "Spreading the Disease" and 1987's "Among the Living," recently acknowledged on its official Web site that its name now seems "not so cool" in the wake of recent bioterrorism attacks. Fortunately, Anthrax coped by joining with Judas Priest to stage the "Operation: Enduring Metal" tour. Remember, if we can't enjoy our favorite '80s rock songs about mass destruction and carnage, then the terrorists really will have won.
Great Moments of the 1980s
Ayatollah Khomeini is America's most wanted evildoer, though in retrospect he seems no more threatening than Barney the lovable purple dinosaur. So that they can keep "Who Shot J.R.?" a secret, the producers of "Dallas" shoot footage of each cast member committing the act, and delay their decision until shortly before the November 1980 episode in which the killer is revealed.
Comedian Andy Kaufman instigates a brawl on "Fridays," ABC's pallid clone of "Saturday Night Live," by throwing a glass of water on future "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards. Janet Cooke wins journalism's highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for a fictional account of a school-age heroin user. Children's TV activists criticize "The Smurfs" as sexist because "the show has only one Smurfette."
Out of a toy manufacturer's concern that E.T. was "ugly," the first generation of licensed dolls doesn't much resemble the homely alien. Cowboy boots become inexplicably popular in Los Angeles. l First liposuction performed in North America. The lite-rock group Toto wins five Grammy Awards, guaranteeing that the strains of "Rosanna" will be heard in elevators for decades to come.
Pity the fool who missed the explosive debut of NBC's "The A-Team," starring the irascible Mr. T. ABC airs a made-for-TV movie, "Intimate Agony," about herpes. Prince releases lascivious "1999" album. l Sylvester Stallone directs John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" sequel "Staying Alive." Alas, disappointing box office forestalls any hopes of a Tony Manero trilogy.
"My fellow Americans. I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes," says President Ronald Reagan, during the sound-check for his weekly radio address. Apple Computer airs an Orwellian-styled "1984" ad in which a woman liberates en-slaved masses by tossing a hammer into a screen depiction of Bill Gates--er, Big Brother.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev gives up on concealing the birthmark on his head, which had been airbrushed from official photos of the leader. Some interpret this as a sign of increasing Soviet openness. Stallone as Rambo averages one killing every two minutes and six seconds of film. (A breakdown, by mode of demise: 15 gunshots, 14 arrows, 3 explosions, 3 burns, 2 strangulations, 2 helicopter attacks.)
Junk bond king Michael S. Milken, flush with success, reportedly invests in a more upscale toupee. Hands Across America organizers coax millions of people into a human chain across the U.S., from New York to Long Beach. The line gets sparse around Arkansas, but they raise $34 million for the homeless. Spy magazine dubs New York developer Donald Trump the "short-fingered vulgarian."
Iran-Contra scandal figure Lt. Col. Oliver North's secretary, Fawn Hall, denies an accusation that she smuggled sensitive documents out of the White House by stuffing them in her bra. Rumors spread that Michael Jackson sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber to keep from aging. Movie version of Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero" casts Robert Downey Jr. as a drug addict.
Sinead O'Connor's stubby coiffure ends the styling-mousse craze. Diminutive presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis dons a helmet and rides in an M-1 tank for television cameras in an attempt to upstage popular Hasbro action figure GI Joe. An updated version of the arcade game allows Pac-Man to actually jump over the ghosts. Way cool.
Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident answers the age-old question, "What shall ye do with a drunken sailor?" With the demise of communism, Germans tear down the Berlin Wall. One section is preserved and decorated with political art, including a mural depicting East German leader Erich Honecker and Soviet honcho Leonid Brezhnev engaged in a seemingly passionate lip-lock.
Patrick J. Kiger's last story for the magazine was a profile of Pasadena-born conservationist J. Michael Fay.