Essay: Ode to the 80s

Date posted: 3 Apr 2013Author: STC

O' sing to me of the 1980s! Of aerobic fitness and laissez-faire capitalism, of a time where our spirits were as high as our shorts! Sing to me of women's blow-waves and firm breasts, of men's moussed crew cuts and steroid-addled biceps.

Sing to me of the Sony Walkman, the Panasonic Boombox and the brutal VHS-Betamax wars (lest we forget); of an era where technology still had enough moving parts that we could still intuitively understand how things worked. Sing to me of shoulder pads so thick, they could cauterise a major wound! Of cars that transformed into robots; of little ponies that were mine; of kids born in cabbage patches; of he-men and she-ras; and girls based on various berry-themed desserts. Sing to me of bears that cared! Sing to me of benevolent multiculturalism, a world Expo in Brisbane, an Olympic Games in Seoul, a nuclear disaster in Chernobyl and a famine in Ethiopia. Sing of the Cold War, Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev! (And Hawke, I guess!) Sing to me all of this, while wearing a spandex unitard around your firm butt, or a single white glove on your hand wrapped around the mic, because, you know - the 80s! Sing to me of Falkor! Sing to me of an era I remember like it was yester-fucking-day!

Okay, you can stop singing now. If you understood any of those references, then congratulations. You are old. You will also find the following fact alarming. Right now, in the year 2013, we are so far removed from the 1980s that the year 1966 - nineteen-sixty-six - is closer to 1989 than we are now. It's been 23 years since the 1980s puffed out like a crushed fag, and in the intervening years, babies have been born, and those babies have gone through puberty, finished tertiary degrees and become functioning adults who are probably having sex with each other right now. (Disgusting, I know.) How is this possible? It's like we unknowingly boarded a time machine in 1989 that zoomed us towards the present-day, leaving behind a trail of snap bands, neon tights and interesting earrings. How can the 1980s have been so long ago, when that entire period is still so vivid in our minds? Bright colours tend to do that, I suppose. So does cocaine.

Personally, I don't recall the cocaine. Cocaine is not an age-appropriate substance for an eight-year-old. Like other people born in the late 70s and early 80s, I instead remember the 1980s as the golden era of my childhood, where I rocked neon sunglasses and a neon bumbag from Pizza Hut, and spent my weekends playing with plastic (probably toxic) treats from McDonalds that you melted down in the oven and made into keyrings. This was when McDonalds was largely considered a multi-purpose, wholesome pit-stop for kids - a combined restaurant, playground and birthday venue - rather than the hellmouth of Australia's obesity epidemic as we know it now. For birthdays, they'd give us tours of the McKitchens where the McMagic happened, which always culminated with them leading us into the industrial sized freezer, where they'd lock us inside for a full minute. That minute was just long enough for the grim realisation to settle in that we were the meat, and we'd scream and scream and scream. Some claustrophobic kid would inevitably start crying and clawing at his temples, wide-eyed and shrieking that we were going to die. Then it was all over and they'd let us out, explaining it was a joke, before leading us to the kombi-shaped dining area, laughing. Then we'd eat cheeseburgers and ice-cream cake. Can you imagine this happening now? It would be considered neglect. Someone would probably calls DOCS. Or maybe it does still happen? Either way, I miss it all terribly.

Our childhoods coincided with an era where film-makers took two seemingly incongruous artforms - cinema and kids' entertainment - and presented the combined wonder to us on a golden platter. We were spoilt: E.T.; The Flight of the Navigator; Gremlins; Return to Oz; Labyrinth; Willow; The Goonies. If you have not seen all of these cinematic classics, then frankly I feel sad for you and am sorry for your loss. If you do remember these films though, revisit them as an adult and you won't be disappointed - they've aged remarkably well, like a fine port. (No, I never expected to find myself comparing the film Gremlinsto a fine port either, but life is surprising like that.) Plot lines still hold up, the actors are charmingly goofy and healthy-looking, and the special effects seem … well, real. Creature effects were arguably at their greatest in the 80s. Puppetry, miniature modelling and Jim Henson's employees had leapt several steps ahead of Ray Harryhausen, and the resulting images didn't require the leap of faith that early CGI demanded. Let's just call it: the 1980s was the apex of children's films.

Adults, meanwhile, bore witness to the advent of modern-day hero films and blockbusters - which is to say, they got adult movies that made them feel like kids. Robocop; Poltergeist; The Terminator; Aliens. Teenagers in the 1980s got it sweet too, mainly because they had John frickin' Hughes, who made The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Weird Science, Sixteen Candlesand Pretty in Pink. Admittedly, I didn't discover any of these films until I was an adult myself - except Weird Science, because … you know, boobs. (Everyone - even young gay boys like me - could appreciate the image of a glamorous woman emerging out of a smoke machine.) An age gap means I mightn't have the hardcore rabid enthusiasm for Ferris Bueller's Day Offthat Gen X friends do, but I still appreciate the references, still have affectionate feelings towards Matthew Broderick's face. Still, my older friends shower me with the same sort of sad-eyed pity I bestow on people born in the 1990s. You have missed out, their eyes seem to say. And perhaps I have.

"Missing out" on the 1980s isn't necessarily a bad thing though. Behind the extravagant, acrylic beauty of the 1980s were scary, nightmarish realities. As the Cold War threatened national security, the onset of HIV/AIDS - an epidemic that spread through the Western world like a terrible, blossoming, unstemmable horror - threatened everyone's sense of personal safety. My siblings and I might have cried from fear every time the Grim Reaper television commercial came on (it turned us off tenpin bowling for years), but entire communities of adult queer men - not to mention haemophiliacs, sex workers, intravenous drug users and people who depended on blood transfusions - properly wept as they were almost methodically exterminated by a mysterious, unexplained syndrome, for which there was no cure, explanation or hope. Missing out on being an adult in the 1980s meant you were spared the experience of having to nurse friends as they died, or endure what Stephen Dunne described in the Sydney Morning Heraldas "that awful time", where people regularly had to make "polite efforts to avoid funeral scheduling conflicts".

It's probably not healthy to reminisce too much on that time, really. The entire decade was a strange combination of wide-eyed innocence and desperate heartache. For a lot of us, the 1980s might be synonymous with childhood and adolescence, but that means it delivered both the delights childhood and adolescence has to offer, as well as the awkwardness and awfulness growing up entails. Straight girls and gay boys might enjoy thinking back on all our teen idols from that period and swoon, but then we also have to confront the fact that we've lost nearly all of them to their own terrible fates: River Phoenix (death); Christian Slater (jail); Ralph Macchio (bad career advice); Cary Elwes (fat); Michael Biehn (now resembles rapist); Corey Feldman (obscurity) and Corey Haim (drugs/prison/death).

Together, we would emerge from that weird decade, eyes blinking into the sun, with both a heavy heart and a heavily stamped Expo 88 passport. Our hairstyles slowly flattened out, as if decompressing from relief. We went back to both hair products and fibres that were less artificial and less flammable. Maybe it's for the best that people don't remember all the bad stuff. Yuppies. Thatcher. Steve Guttenberg. Some things are better left in the past. Except the clothes. And the movies. You can totally bring that stuff back. Just don't forget the songs.

Benjamin Law

This essay first ran in the program for School Dance.

School Dance, 10 January - 3 February, 2013.