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 Vice, Aliens, Fright Night, Mad Max, Blade 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.
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?!
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.
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.
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 Vangelis, Harold 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 Bandcamp.com 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.”
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.