The Decade of Decadence was a time of excess, for sure, but its brash attitudes, bold colors and cultural icons resonate because of the artistic forces it unleashed.Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise on the set of "Top Gun," which turns 35 next week.Paramount Pictures / via Getty ImagesMay 7, 2021, 9:57 PM UTCBy Bryan Reesman, journalist and cultural critic
Nostalgia often comes in 20-year cycles. In the ’80s, the ’60s were big. In the ’90s, the ’70s. In the aughts, the ’80s returned, and by the ’10s when the ‘90s revival started … the ’80s were still going strong.
The ’80s was a modern Renaissance of creativity paired with technological innovation that ricocheted across all aspects of media.
The ’80s revival has continued in bursts for two decades now — twice as long as the original era. While silly slang like “gag me with a spoon” and “totally tubular” hasn’t survived in our cultural lexicon, many other aspects of the vibrant 1980s endure. In some ways, it feels like it never ended.
Want proof? Season four of the CW’s “Dynasty,” a reboot of the famous ’80s prime-time soap opera, starts Friday. The Netflix-acquired hit show “Cobra Kai,” a direct sequel to the 1984 hit movie “The Karate Kid,” has wrapped production on its fourth season. ABC’s ’80s-based cult hit “The Goldbergs” has been running for eight seasons, and beloved Netflix sensation “Stranger Things,” set in Midwestern America in the ’80s, will return for its fourth season in 2022.
And that’s just the tip of the ’80s pop culture iceberg.
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May 13 is Top Gun Day, which will kick off a one-week theatrical re-release to mark the film’s 35th birthday. The long-awaited sequel to the famous Tom Cruise flick will sweep into theaters in November. Six movies in, the blockbuster “Transformers” franchise, spawned from an ‘80s animated series, has several sequels and spin-offs in the works. The “Back to the Future” musical hits London’s West End in August, presumably with Broadway aspirations. The Eddie Murphy sequel “Coming 2 America” was a hit for Amazon Prime, and the fifth installment of “Indiana Jones” is now being cast.
It’s the same story in music and fashion. Goth is quietly making a comeback, ’80s clothing like studded apparel and leg warmers have returned and modern pop artists The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars are all drawing influences from the decade.
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Why are we so hung up on this particular bygone era? The Decade of Decadence was a time of excess, for sure, particularly in its hair-band-dominated latter half, but its brash attitudes, bold color schemes and cultural touchstones still resonate today because of the artistic forces it unleashed and the social change it cemented.
It can be argued that the ’80s was a modern Renaissance of creativity paired with technological innovation that ricocheted across all aspects of media. Writ large, blockbuster films and franchises came of age, CGI special effects began revolutionizing the experience of going to the movies and digital production expanded the horizons of pop music (for better and worse). Spurred on by the fast and furious rise of MTV, meanwhile, music videos featuring chameleon-like mega-artists such as Prince and Madonna changed the nature of pop stardom, while heavy metal, hip-hop and dance-pop exploded. On the homefront, the scope of personal media consumption swelled like never before as personal computers, VCRs, video games and Walkmans became ubiquitous in American households.
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These changes all powered or were powered by the increasing diversity of talents and expression unleashed by the civil rights and women’s rights movements and the Stonewall riots a generation earlier. While battling mainstream homophobia, gay culture made great strides, particularly in music and fashion.
“For me, there’s always a big argument that gay culture has led the charge with popular culture,” said Keanan Duffty, award-winning fashion designer and Slinky Vagabond singer. “Gay culture went beyond the behind-the-scenes area into front and center” in the ’80s, he said, paving the way for mainstream shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” He noted that “25 years ago that wouldn’t have been possible, but it’s been made possible by what happened 30 years ago.”
Twenty-year-old singer and social media influencer Violet Sky (aka GlitterWave80s) agreed that the era’s burgeoning diversity was part of what attracted her to fashion her image and persona of “20 and living like it’s ’89.” “The ’80s was the first time where so many people of all different backgrounds and statuses got to really make a difference, especially in music, and it set the stage for generations to come,” she said.
At the same time, technological change had yet to revolutionize communication and personal interaction. “The ’80s was the last decade of true simplicity before computers and the internet took over our lives, and we miss and wonder what constant face-to-face communication would be like,” Sky noted. “I think people of this generation are longing for a time where the world wasn’t so technologically advanced in a way, especially after the pandemic has isolated us even more.”
Indeed, there was something innocent and naïve about the ’80s. America had come out of the ’70s dominated by the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, the energy crisis, the Iran hostage crisis and massive inflation. When the ’80s rolled in, Americans craved positive and life-affirming culture, and blockbusters like the first “Star Wars” trilogy (1977-1983) happily obliged by blasting open the doors for escapist Hollywood entertainment.
The ’80s were far from perfect: We had Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics, the Iran-Contra Affair, the AIDS crisis, rampant cocaine use and the omnipresent Cold War. It was also the decade of the “Greed … is good” mantra espoused by “Wall Street” character Gordon Gekko and practiced by people like “junk bond king” Michael Milken and Donald Trump. The creative artistic and technology explosion of the first half of the decade became highly commodified and exploited in the latter half.
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But it often felt like a fun party that everyone could join in on. “The funny thing is even my friends [for whom] rock isn’t their favorite genre, you play them any ’80s rock song and they love it, they know exactly what it is,” said 24-year-old singer Diamante, whose new album “American Dream,” a combination of 2000s pop-rock and ’80s rock, arrives Friday. “It’s iconic and never goes out of style. Everyone loves the hits from the ’80s, no matter what kind of music you listen to now.”
That makes sense given that in some ways we’re still living in the 1980s. For many, greed remains good, and we continue to idolize brash, larger-than-life personalities. But the 1980s also allowed Americans to embrace a wider variety of ideas and look to the future with anticipation and hope. As we emerge from the pandemic, that promise continues — though we could use more of the decade’s pioneering spirit and less of its corporate agenda.