The Strange Story of the Forever 1980s

The highly anticipated second season of the Netflix series Stranger Things arrived in October 2017 to usher in the 1980s once again.

In July 2016, streaming media service Netflix quietly unleashed an eight-episode period drama to little initial fanfare. The drama, a show titled Stranger Things, focuses on a group of ordinary kids living in the ordinary American Midwest (the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana) who experience some decidedly extraordinary events. The period is the early 1980s.

During the course of the first season of Stranger Things, the main cast of kids, including Dustin, Mike, Lucas, the mysterious girl known as “Eleven,” and teenagers Jonathan Byers and Nancy Wheeler, investigate the disappearance of local kid Will Byers, who vanishes one night following a “Dungeons and Dragons” showdown with his pals. The quest to find Will steadily unveils a host of supernatural events that involve, among other things, an interdimensional monster, a shady government agency, and a creepy alternative universe dubbed “the Upside Down.” Oh, and lots of callbacks and Easter eggs to 1980s culture, from a synth-based soundtrack, to references to films like The Empire Strikes Back and E.T., to VHS tapes, to John Carpenter. Not to mention kids on bikes.

The effort by series creators/producers Sean and Matt Duffer paid off: Stranger Things became a word-of-mouth sensation and one of Netflix’s most successful shows ever. The show’s unabashed “love letter to the 80s” aesthetic was a massive part of its appeal. On October 27, 2017, the much-anticipated second season of Stranger Things only further piled on the 80s domination of contemporary culture, forwarded by an ad campaign that placed the show’s characters smack in the middle of classic 80s horror films. If Stranger Things demonstrated nothing else, it provided yet further evidence that the 1980s, a decade that ended twenty-eight years ago, will live forever. 

Pop culture has been saturated with the spirit of the 1980s for at least the last twenty years, if not more. The list of recent remakes, sequels, reboots, and “re-imaginings” of 80s films — Ghostbusters, Robocop, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Tron, Star Wars, Miami ViceAliens, Fright Night, Mad MaxBlade Runner, even Flight of the Friggin’ Navigator! — is extensive and always growing. Moreover, everything from 80s-style synth music to sneaker and shoulder pads fashion are still going strong in the 21st century.

The kids of Stranger Things go full-blown 80s with Ghostbusters garb.

We’re not even in the midst of the first 80s pop culture revival. As The Guardian’s Simon Reynolds’ notes, the early 2000s (The “noughties”) saw a glut of 80s-inspired pop music, with artists aping Reagan-era post-punk, nu-wave, and all-manner of synth sounds. But the 80s nostalgia of the noughties wasn’t limited to music. Broadway shows like Xanadu and Rock of Ages celebrated pomp and hair-spray bombast, while critically acclaimed TV hits like Freaks and Geeks wallowed in the glorious, self-pitying nostalgia of early 80s teen life. Hell, even VH1’s parody-begging music doc show Behind the Music first aired in 1997, with a special emphasis on trying to recast hair metal hedonists like Poison, Ratt, Mötley Crüe, and Def Leppard into the misunderstood progeny of the great Renaissance masters.

As plenty of writers have already pointed out, nostalgia for the 80s has now existed longer than the actual 80s themselves. Vulture’s Jen Chaney, for example, attributes the power of 80s nostalgia to a delayed recognition of the honest-to-goodness art that the decade’s mega-teased Aquanet locks tended to obscure. “The ‘80s, once remembered mostly as an ‘irredeemable’ mullet joke, are now taken more seriously,” she writes, “[n]ow we have ‘80s Revival 2.0, which recognizes more fully the impact and historical significance of an era once viewed mostly through a fluorescent neon lens.” That may be so, but who is actually recognizing the importance of 80s culture? The secret, I think, lies with a tiny micro-generation, to which your’s truly belongs: the xennials. In fact, xennials and older millennials like Stranger Things masterminds the Duffer brothers are creating much of contemporary popular culture.

Xennials are also known as the “Oregon Trail Generation” after a floppy-disk computer game that 30-somethings played in their school libraries for the sheer joy of dooming their friends to a serpent-fanged demise. Born between 1977 and 1983 — the dates encompassing the original Star Wars trilogy — we xennials are lodged like a light saber in a wampa ice cave between the erstwhile flannelphile mopiness of Generation X and the selfie smugness of the millennials. Xennials are the last generation to grow up before the the internet. We remember playing Atari systems and 8-bit Nintendo video games and renting VHS tapes from actual physical video stores, and we learned cursive and how to work on typewriters. But by the time we hit our adolescence in the mid-1990s, dial-up internet had arrived, and when we were finishing college, social media had already begun to dismember what remained of actual human connection.

Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich writes that, “the ’80s were an analog world dreaming of digital. Now, digital, we dream ourselves backwards.” That describes the xennial generation as well. The divide that separates our interconnected global media culture from the pre-internet world and its attendant freedom defines the xennial experience. So what freedom are we trying to dream ourselves back to? Why dream back to the 80s? Are rhetorical questions useful is long-form essays?!

“The ’80s were an analog world dreaming of digital.” Image: Atari video games.

For one thing, xennials were the last generation to experience what internet scribblers now call “free range parenting.” Lots of us grew up in the suburbs and small towns, and we rode our bikes everywhere without parental meddling — at least until curfew. It’s no coincidence that kids on bikes is the secret sauce that makes the 80s nostalgia of Stranger Things so delectable. Nothing better embodies the “freedom” of a bygone era than a group of bike-riding kids exploring the back roads of North America’s suburban jungles. Kids have explored their neighborhoods on bikes for decades, of course, but the image of juvenile bike riders will forever be tagged to the 1980s.

Think about some of the most iconic kid-centered films of the 80s. In Steven Spielberg’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a group of bike-riding suburban kids help return a friendly little alien back to its home planet. The movie’s iconic image — one of the most iconic images in all of cinema — is the silhouette of Elliott biking through the sky, the full moon as his backdrop, aided by the powers of his diminutive alien companion. The sentiment behind this image is clear: bike-riding is freedom, the freedom to escape from parents and other authority figures.

Then there’s the Spielberg-produced, Richard Donner-directed 1985 adventure film The Goonies. Faced with the threat of greedy developers turning their neighborhood into a putting green paradise for country-club parasites, a group of kids from Astoria, Oregon’s “Goondocks” set out on their bikes to find a long-lost pirate’s treasure. Despite breaking curfew to search for the loot, the pirate booty is what allows the Goonies to pay off the developers and save their parents’ homes from the bulldozers. Talk about kid freedom, and the 80s (and the early 90s) were the last time kids could bike ride alone free of parental neurosis.

The millennial generation largely can’t appreciate unsupervised peddle power. Raised in the shadow of an internet-fueled society that spewed out endless reports of pedophiles, psychopaths, and mass-murderers, many millennials grew up under the wings of overprotective “helicopter parents” for whom bike-mounted freedom amounted to a certain death sentence at the sticky hands of some white-van driving, candy-brandishing lowlife. Sure, parents in the 80s freaked out over the “Satanic Panic,” but Satan’s minions didn’t have the internet to spread the Dark One’s propaganda at the speed of cyberspace.

Bikes, writes NPR’s Glen Welden, are central to xennial-fueled 80s nostalgia because they represent “the first taste of freedom, and the dangers that come with it.” Kids on bikes have “a limited form of autonomy — they can roam freely, but not terribly far… [bikes] are nearly silent, perfect for stealthy midnight excursions beyond one’s own quiet cul-de-sac.” The constant visual of suburban kids on bikes encountering weirdness in the most benign of environments provides the action thread that knits together Stranger Things’ crazy-quilt of 80s cultural flotsam that xennials (and even some jealous millennials) crave.

The iconic moon-and-bike scene from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

Yet there’s more to 80s nostalgia than just bikes. The 1980s were also the last decade during which technology was just present enough to suggest the promise of a glorious digital future, but not so omnipresent and alienating as to point towards our current “alone in the crowd” 21st-century society. In fact, the corporate and technological shifts of the 1980s combined with deep changes in family structures to create the seemingly infinite echo of 80s cultural memes with which we live today.

Writing in Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now, David Sirota notes how “the 1980s came during a uniquely explosive confluence of mind-blowing multimedia revolution and sociopolitical transformation.”* First, there was the new home-based media. By mid-decade, most North Americans owned a VCR, one or more TVs with cable, and about half as many owned a video game system from Atari or Nintendo. The transformation of suburban homes into personalized multimedia chambers ran smack into the new realities of family life. Rampant wage-stagnation — an inevitable byproduct of trickle-down Reaganomics — made middle-class incomes harder to sustain and drew more women into the workforce to join men in an expanding drudgery of longer hours for less pay. And those were just the households that escaped the growing trend of single-parent families. The predictable result, as Sirota notes, was less parental supervision and kids who retreated into the isolating glow of the television, the VCR, the video game, and the Apple II — progenitors all of our now ubiquitous culture of screen zombiedom.

But it wasn’t enough to make multimedia a home-based experience; the 80s made multimedia a life-based experience. As Sirota notes, “by 1983, just fifty conglomerates controlled the vast majority of the newspaper, broadcast, magazine, movie, and publishing firms.” This consolidation brought media more than ever before into everyday living. “Such a consolidated megaphone was no longer merely able to provide diffuse and diverse noise,” Sirota writes, “it was perfectly constructed to reinforce narrow cultural memes.”*

Once the age of vertical media cultural integration began, there was no turning back. Film and television products like E.T. and Mr. T didn’t stay on film and television: they were also on breakfast cereal boxes, happy meals, lunch boxes, and Trapper Keepers. 80s kids owned Mr. T action figures and E.T. video games, while Saturday-morning cartoons cannibalized existing media products only to regurgitate them in cheaply produced animated splendor. Mr. T existed in both live-action and hand-drawn forms. Ditto for Return of the Jedi’s cuddly Ewoks and 1984’s smash supernatural comedy, Ghostbusters, which became The Real Ghostbusters. Even the Super Mario Bros., iconic 80s video game characters, mutated to the cartoon screen.

Pop-culture products like E.T. wriggled into the fabric of kids’ everyday lives through accelerated cross-product merchandising.

Changes in family structures mixed with cross-media vertical integration to create the phenomenon of 80s kids who were more independent — and more isolated — than ever before. They had the freedom to take off on their bikes or retreat to their bedrooms to play Pac-Man, but either way, media culture was right there with them. As Sirota writes, “you no longer received disparate bits of information about the world; the 1980s was the first time the tools existed to provide you with an entire way of thinking.”* Xennials and older millennials experienced the analog 80s but reached adulthood in a new digital dystopia that, ironically, allowed erstwhile 80s kids like the Nostalgia Critic and The Angry Video-Game Nerd to reimagine their childhoods by combining cynical commentary with YouTube uploads of 80s cartoons, TV shows, movies, commercials, and music videos. In other words, they use the digital technology of the future to bring back the analog past.

Perhaps no subculture epitomizes how the 80s gave us “an entire way of thinking” better than the internet-based musical genre known as “synthwave.” Also called “retrowave” or “outrun” (after the 80s racing arcade game), synthwave is a genre of mostly instrumental electronic music that originated in the early 2010s among producers like Miami Nights 1984, Kavinsky, Futurecop!Lost Years, and other artists. Influenced by the synthesized sounds of 80s film scores by composers like VangelisHarold Faltermeyer, and John Carpenter, synthwave artists recreate 80s analog synthesizer sounds using modern digital technology. The result is a music that’s both an homage to — and a expansion of — the cultural aesthetic of 80s sci-fi, teenage, horror, comic book, and video game media.

Listening to the sounds of synthwave acts like The Midnight, Dana Jean Phoenix, Kristine, Zayaz, Morgan Willis, J.J. Mist, Crockett, Gunship, Kalax, Timecop1983, Michael Oakley, and Don Dellpiero is a form of interactive aural nostalgia, an immersive experience that uses retro synth bass lines and soaring melodies to unabashedly evoke every possible trope and aesthetic element of 80s culture. The synthwave scene is almost entirely independent and underground, but it’s gotten more popular in recent years thanks to word-of-mouth (or keystroke) and exposure from YouTube channels like NewRetroWave, which play exclusively synthwave artists. NewRetroWave founder Ten S. recently told that, “the sounds alone create a wonderful feeling of nostalgia. It motivates and captivates vast age groups from teens all the way to listeners who are 50 and older.” There’s even an upcoming documentary, The Rise of the Synths, that charts the origins and development of synthwave through interviews with some of the scene’s most prominent artists.

The synthwave scene is a prime example of how nostalgia can create an entirely new subculture. However, retro synth artists don’t merely recreate 80s music. Instead, they harness that decade’s multiple cultural prisms and use them to refract new sub-cultural beams. Synthwave is the truest embodiment of how nostalgia doesn’t so much look backward as it does look sideways using the past as a referential template for the present and the future. The creators of synthwave are mostly xennials and older millennials who experienced the cross-media vertical integration of the 1980s and developed “an entire way of thinking” based on their memories from that bygone era. As synthwave luminary Timecop1983 states, “people feel good about the 80s, mostly people around 30 or 35 years old. I think retrowave or synthwave takes them back to their youth, to times when everything was good and everything was positive.”

The visual aesthetic of synthwave uses 80s cultural references glossed with a digital-era sheen.

So is feeling good about the 80s enough to keep them alive forever, especially since the era was, from a historical sense, not all “good and positive?” The answer is “probably.” After all, nostalgia has little to do with history in any scholarly sense. Instead, nostalgia is like a filter that covers our collective conscious and unconscious memories. Literary scholar Svetlana Boym calls nostalgia, the “Angel of History” which exists in the space between the real and the imagined. “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy,” she writes. The sentiment of nostalgia combines “home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life.” It’s not a yearning for the past, it’s “a yearning for a different time — the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams.”* If the past is what actually happened, then nostalgia is what we feel happened. In this sense, Boym writes, nostalgia is an attempt “to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology.”*

No time period has been turned into private and collective mythology more thoroughly than the 1980s — and with good reason. The 80s stands as a crucial breaking point in the short, but tumultuous, post-war period. It was a decade that touted the promise of a world united by technology through the force of conglomerated media cultures, the tendrils of which reached into the most private of spaces — neighborhoods, homes, living rooms, bedrooms. As a result, a generation of isolated youth nonetheless felt connected through the shared consumption of movies, television, video games, comics, and music. It’s hardly surprising that xennials and older millennials use the internet to mythologize the feeling of being the last generation to exist before cyberspace forever connected the world. The seemingly endless cavalcade of 80s nostalgia is a dynamic cultural monument to an era that was, is, and never was — all at the same time.

* See David Sirota, Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now–Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything (New York: Ballantine, 2011), xvi, xvii.

* See Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), xiii, xv.

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  1. Nice article. I don’t think the ET game is a good example though – reviled as the game that brought down Atari, it was one of the tail-end games of the home console/computer boom. Empire Strikes Back was massive for the Atari console market, with TV saturation (here in the UK, anyway).
    I think the impact of home computing can’t be overstated. In the late 70s, electronic entertainment was virtually nowhere, but by the mid 80s you could have a home computer, and not only play games, but even write them. A lot of the big software names like Peter Molyneux started with these things in their bedrooms. I used my Commodore 64 for writing games and composing music in the 80s, and the impact was massive.

    • Thanks for reading and for the comment. I used the E.T. game as an example of the kind of hard cross-product marketing that started in the early 80s. As you probably know, Atari pushed hard to have that thing ready for the holiday shopping season, which gave the game developers less time to work at it and likely contributed to it’s overall awfulness. It’s the perfect early example of putting the game marketing horse before everything else in order to bank on he film tie-in. Thanks for the comment.

  2. What a pleasure to read this. I was born in the 50’s having absolutely no technology in this era but oh the FREEDOM we as children were so fortunate to have! Summers were out the door at 9 am after breakfast to run the entire neighborhood, ride our bikes anywhere, jump rope, jacks, pickup sticks game on porches, imagining a shoebox was a Barbie dolls bed, mom’s lace hanky her blanket, fold a tissue small for her pillow, a bowl was her swimming pool then at noon head home for lunch, back out till supper at 5 pm then gone until street lights came on to catch fire flies in glass jars inside for a bath then bed ALL unsupervised without hysteria of mad/crazy people preying on us. We were the last generation to know freedom. We also had no tv until I was 7 or 8! You don’t miss what you never had. Our lives were filled with adventure, playing, friends and simple imaginative explorations. A climbing tree became our home. I’d drag a broom to sweep dirt below it, hang an old blanket on limb I climbed to be a wall and spend all day in it.
    Wed go from gardens to homes to eat tomatoes, climb trees for peaches, plums, black cherries and apples. One old man was the neighborhood terror but wed sneak into his yard on a date to pick up plums knowing he’d come out hollering but that was the thrill.
    Mothers didn’t work, they cooked, took care of their families, sewed etc. What 99% of people didn’t do was not look at you while conversing but staring at their cell phones texting idiotic nonsense when you had an actual human in front of you to connect with. The younger generations do not know how or are so conditioned to NOT interact in conversations or in fact life if a social media system is not connected to it.
    I have the best of all worlds. I know what using imagination is as a child, freedom, experienced TV as it was introduced into homes, THE FABULOUS ERAS of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Wow! I went from 5 yrs old to 35 in those 3 decades. I experienced the country’s grief when JFK died being sent home from school that day, witnessed segregation in my elementary school, watched the NASA program unfold, Vietnam, explosive music from Elvis, Fats Domino, Groups that started in. 60’s and still are in demand today! Beatle’s music, Motown, Rolling Stones, Elton John, Eagles, Rod Stewart and so so many more.
    I watched war protests, burning of our flag, young men run to Canada to avoid draft leaving families in sorrow for years or being arrested, country torn apart with opinions on war, thousands of coffins coming home to USA, Americans spitting on these soldiers coming home who saw horrors we don’t want to know and most of them from lower income families drafted, no choice unlike rich privileged few with (bone spurs)! The war ended when I was 19. Onward to finish the next half of 70’s then Bam, here are the wonderful 80’s. You just had to be in your late 20’s as I was to fully appreciate that decade!
    Along came the 90’s with computers etc and society disconnected. I watched the new music come about but after a decade I was surprised to find all the younger generations reaching out for the 8I’d now knowing the songs and their lyrics. What a shock but the again maybe not because they know they missed out on something special, MY GENERATION!

    • Sandy, did you see Vietnam vets get spit on by anti-war protesters? I have yet to come across a verified, documented case.

      • Ok, let’s just say news sources, etc. like some say today..Fake News! That should wash it all under the rug. Pleeeassee.
        Bark up another tree, cause this ole doh bites.

        • Sandy,

          Why are you knowingly including “Fake News” in your sentimental description of growing up as a member of the Baby Boom generation?

          In his work The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, sociologist Jerry Lembcke (who was also a Vietnam vet) revealed that there is no evidence (such as news stories or police reports) to corroborate the story of returning service personal being spat-upon. He also notes that survey evidence from 1971 showed that an overwhelming number of returning vets perceived their homecoming as friendly (Lembke, 1998: 74-5). Nevertheless, this story has endured because it “provides an alibi for why the most powerful and righteous nation on earth (as America perceives itself to be) lost the war to an underdeveloped Asian nation. The myth says, in effect, that we were not beaten by the Vietnamese but were defeated on the home front by fifth columnists” (Lembke, 1998: 184).

          Do you not see how the dissemination of this stab-in-the-back fable can be dangerous?

          Anyway, now that I’ve poked the bear, feel free to chomp away.

          • Hmmm, smug comments as yours are anticipated.
            Tell me, did you serve in any combat? Now now now, before you say (there are many documented testimonials or thesis papers on this matter) just answer that one question.
            Sentimentality is not to be mimicked. We all have fond memories of Christmases, Grandparents, Parents even our once loved pets. Sentiment is what gives the human race humanity.
            Grrr, just nibbled a miniscule morsel.
            Now, adieu, take a sabbatical and vamoose. You are dismissed. That’s all private!

  3. Sandy,

    I really don’t see how I’m showing excessive pride in myself or my achievements. Furthermore, how would serving in combat validate the position I have taken? This myth has persisted in part because those who didn’t serve in Vietnam often don’t dare contradict this “story” when it is told.

    I have no other qualms regarding your sentimentally, but clearly fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.

    Nec aspera terrent

    • Ditto private.
      You assume your position wouldn’t change but you never served in Vietnam nor overheard irate low opinions of the Vietnam soldiers.
      and “you will yourself to believe what you WILL believe).
      I don’t think the Army’s 27th Inventory would appreciate their motto uttered by a civilian man who didn’t serve nor sacrifice for his country. I doubt sincerely if you have ever had any difficulties that justify you to state (Frightened by No Difficulties) as do our Servicemen.
      Now shoo, you are that annoying gnat that just lingers.

      • Sandy,

        You persist insinuating that knowledge of the subject can only be achieved by having served in Vietnam, but you have yet to present any corroboration of your position. Consequently I can’t help but infer that your position is groundless and your mendacious statements must only be interpreted as the ramblings of a wistful old man.

        You are right that I have not served in the United States Army, but in this marvelous modern age, one does not have to be an American to view and comment on this marvelous website.

        • As I stated, you are boring me with your repetitive arguments. This topic is at a stalemate hence cease and desist.
          May your force be with you.

          • Standy,

            I can appreciate how difficult it must be for you to admit that your statement was without foundation and that you have been arguing in bad faith. Becoming old and irrelevant can be tough! I don’t condemn you, however, for you poor showing. There’s something to be said for the obstinate tenacity you have exhibited.

            Anyway, may your road lead you to warm sands.

          • Pomposity

            Ah. you can stoop to lower levels private EKW. (Becoming Old and Irrelevant Can Be Tough). Wallowing amidst the commoners can be enlightening. Lets take it back two generations where a common saying was, “You don’t know shit from shine-o-la”.
            Where is my bug spray?

  4. Sandy,

    You are absolutely correct! You have exhibited nothing but arrogant and pompous behaviour towards me. I am so glad you are coming to terms about this.

    Well chin-chin. Do carry on with your old-timey musings.

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