80s nostalgia was recently in the news again with the Radio Shack “Goodbye 80s” ad, which made fun of the decade with the assistance of icons of the era, ranging from Hulk Hogan and Mary Lou Retton to John Ratzenberger and Dee Snider.
I noticed that Kid ‘N’ Play made appearances in the ad. I associated them more with the 90s due to the “House Party” movies, and seeing them inspired me to return to a piece I’ve been sitting on for a while.
When I was younger, my 80s fandom was a little shallow. I tended to think only in terms of the bigger pop-culture of the decade, not paying attention to the lesser-known material. As such, for a while, I associated the pop culture of the early 90s with the 80s. As I entered my 20s, though, I started writing for a website called the 80s Movies Rewind, and I came to decide that the 80s ended in 1989. A lot of people on that site felt that the early 90s were an extension of the 80s, and when I heartily disagreed with them, it led to a lot of anger and bile. I didn’t have a good time in the 90s because of all my personal turmoil, which is why I got into 80s pop culture.
The more I’ve thought about it as I’ve grown older, though, the more I’ve come to notice that the reason why people associate the early 90s with the 80s is because, in the late 80s, a lot of the performers whose work would define the 90s started doing their material. Herewith, I’d like to present a few examples of what I mean: 2 musical genres, one movie and 2 TV shows. Let’s start with music. An obvious example would be Nirvana.
I never cared for their music, feeling that the darkness the late Kurt Cobain had in his life was also in his music. I, on the other hand, preferred more hopeful, upbeat material. Their breakthrough album was 1991’s “Nevermind”, which has been claimed by both fans and detractors of the group to be a revolutionary game-changer. The game change actually happened in 1989, though, when Nirvana released their debut album “Bleach” on Sub Pop Records.
The big artists on the rock scene at the time were pop-rockers like Motley Crue and Poison.
I know many brand them as “hair metal”, but I don’t use that terminology for 2 reasons. First, it reduces the bands to visual aesthetics. Second, I define heavy metal by lyrical content, not by sound. Motley Crue, Poison and their ilk rarely sang about heavy matters like politics or the mood of the everyday American public. Their music was about sex, drugs and partying. Nirvana, on the other hand, dealt in personal relationships and the ennui of a recession-choked world. The former is best expressed in the song “About A Girl”.
Pop rock lyrics were loaded with references to treating women as interchangeable sex dolls. “About A Girl” examined an actual relationship, as opposed to the Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’am attitude pop-rockers had. That was atypical of the rock scene in 1989, and a sign that change had happened before it officially broke through.
Making our way over to the world of rap music, the late 80s saw individuals like Ice-T and groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A bringing a seriousness to the rap music scene. That seriousness was occasionally hinted at in songs like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five and “It’s Like That” by Run-DMC, but rap music was still primarily about having fun and partying for much of its’ early years. Even Run-DMC, who dubbed rappers like the Furious Five, the Sugarhill Gang and others as old-school, didn’t sound as tuned in to America as the news rappers did.
Their disdain for the policies of the Reagan era would serve as an indication of how serious rap was about to become. Public Enemy did have a goofy hype man in the persona of Flavor Flav, but all in all, they were a serious group, and never was that more evident than in the 1989 song “Fight The Power”.
Many first heard in 1990, when it was released on their album “Fear Of A Black Planet”, but 1989 was when the song first came out. It was the defining theme of Spike Lee’s 1989 classic “Do The Right Thing”, first heard in a riveting dance sequence accompanying the credits, and then as a leitmotif for Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn).
A listen to the lyrics indicates a seriousness of purpose, as the song launched scathing attacks on how blacks were being treated in the 80s. The part everybody remembers from the song is this lyric:
Chuck D: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me. I say straight out racist that sucker was, simple and plain…”
Flavor Flav: “Motherfuck him and John Wayne!”
The anger in those lines would later become rather flanderized, but for the late 80s, it was a revolutionary sound. This was a message that was being blasted across America’s airwaves that they couldn’t ignore. Maybe Public Enemy were cartoonish at times, but this was one time when they were dead serious.
Moving on to film: I own a book written a few years ago entitled “You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried”, which was a look back at the teen movies John Hughes was involved in. There was an exception, though. There was an entire chapter devoted to 1989’s “Say Anything”, which didn’t have anything to do with John Hughes. It was all Cameron Crowe, and a look at “Say Anything” shows that it was the anti-John Hughes movie.
For me, it’s all defined by the ending. At the end of “Say Anything”, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and Diane Court (Ione Skye) are flying to England for Diane to begin college there. We don’t see them land…We just see them in the plane as it takes off and the screen fades to black. This is what I would classify as an open ending. It’s not happy or sad…It’s an ending that leads you to draw your own conclusions. Most of Hughes’ movies had definitive endings when they were over. Either the girl got the guy (“Sixteen Candles”) or the guy didn’t get the girl (the Hughes-written-and-produced “Pretty In Pink”).
Their stories had been told, and there was no more for them to do. As “Say Anything” had an open ending, it changed the game. Teen movies of the 90s wouldn’t always have such happy endings, although many of them still did. The change for them began with “Say Anything”.
Jumping into television, when one thinks of 80s sitcoms, programs like “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” come to mind. (Author’s note, 05/14/20: This article was written before the revelations about Bill Cosby that led to his incarceration and before Roseanne changed her political beliefs)
Nowadays, many look at those shows at unrealistic and silly, and I would say that’s due to 2 sitcoms that debuted in the late 80s, “Married…With Children” and “Roseanne”. Both of them had a very 90s attitude, an attitude that wasn’t like anything that was on the air in the 80s.
What do I mean by a 90s attitude? Both of these shows had fathers (Ed O’Neill’s Al Bundy and John Goodman’s Dan Connor, respectively) who were portrayed as men with a lack of intelligence and understanding of the world (an attitude that would encompass sitcoms entirely by the 90s). Compare that to Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” or Michael Gross as Steve Keaton on “Family Ties”, and you’ll see a tremendous difference in how fathers were treated. These shows had female protagonists (Katey Sagal’s Peg Bundy and Roseanne as Roseanne Connor, respectively), who knew the angles and played them better than their husbands, thus looking like the only intelligent people in the house. Finally, although this sounds a bit redundant, dysfunction is the most 90s element of these shows, and to audiences who for decades had grown up watching loving families, to see wives verbally attacking husbands, husbands verbally attacking wives, and kids jumping to the mom’s side and belittling the dad almost as a reflex, it was something of a shock. Unfortunately, it’s par for the course nowadays.
In closing, that’s what the 90s was to me: Dysfunction. In the 90s, I lost my dad to a heart attack, I lost my mind after years of being bullied and I spent time in a mental hospital, I went to 3 different high schools in 4 years, I was diagnosed with Aspergers’ Syndrome in the late 90s…It was not my decade, and I got into 80s culture as a way of coping with my problems. It’s helped out quite well, and I’m in a far better place now than I was in the 90s. I definitely have to thank 80s culture for that…I doubt I would have the peace of mind I have now if I didn’t get into 80s culture when I did. You may look at a movie like “Beverly Hills Cop” and cringe…I look at it and smile.
I’m glad to be an 80s fan…I’ll be one forever, even as 90s nostalgia becomes bigger. It’s the 80s for me all the way through.