Let’s be honest, for a while there, we were trying to forget the 80s. We hid—perhaps even burned—the school pictures that showed our feathered bangs, perms, mullets, and rat-tails. We made peace with the natural shape of our shoulders, got some pomade for that frizz, and paid dearly (in both cash and discomfort) to make the switch from coke-bottle glasses to contacts.
Then, just to make ourselves feel better, we occasionally trotted out the photos of dad’s caterpillar mustache and way-too-short-shorts, and had ourselves a good laugh.
Well, it looks like Dad’s getting the last laugh.
The 80’s are back with a vengeance. Blood Orange, Childish Gambino, and other artists are channeling the spirit of Prince. Synth is in, and mix-tapes are actually mix-tapes again.
“Bar-cades” are helping Gen Xers gamers connect with their inner children via old-school classics like Mario, Zelda, and Pacman.
And as far as movie remakes, Hollywood is acting like a kid raiding the cookie jar. (Drop Dead Fred revisited, anyone?)
And even those of us with the most Hammer-pants-induced shame can’t help grooving to the Stranger Things soundtrack and repurchasing the bodysuits we swore we never liked in the first place.
How did this happen? And why does it feel so…great?
Counterintuitive as it might seem to marry pop culture and fashion with conservatism, it is indeed a conservative impulse that causes us to look back at what has passed, long for it, and try to salvage or resurrect the things we once cherished.
And by conservativism, we’re not talking elephants and the NR, but the fundamental human impulse to value where we’ve come from. The contrasting human impulse (progressivism) is to cast off the past, look forward, and reach for the future.
When what is currently cool gets tired (or let’s get real: less profitable), progressive-minded trendsetters reach forward for the radical, the new, the never-before-seen! And the rest of us shuffle along with them. Then when that gets old, the conservative trendsetters start looking back and saying: But wait a minute, remember record players? They were awesome, and now they’re at thrift stores! So the herd shuffles back the other way.
And there’s no shame in shifting trends. Both impulses are necessary and beneficial—especially because they moderate one another, and provide counterbalances for each other’s blind spots. The past is full of junk that we should all be overjoyed to leave behind, and the future will bring lots of new junk that will make us long to retreat to the good old days. For better or worse, these opposing impulses take turns driving the push-me-pull-you of pop culture.
But don’t forget to factor in a good dose of rosy-retrospection bias (aka rose-colored glasses). This tendency to remember the good more clearly than the bad is probably why all these neo-80s projects are so fantastic. Conservative cultural movements get to cherry-pick all the best parts of the past.
Musicians will choose the best of 80s synth pop for their inspiration, and let “Sussudio” and “Heal the World” just kind of fade from memory. Visual artists will once again get to play with gleaming metallic lettering, airbrushed images, over-the-top animation, and color schemes that consist of purple, magenta, and smoldering sunset-orange. But they also have access to all the contemporary tools of design, so they can make everything better than ever.
To see these principle in action, just take a look at the Netflix series Stranger Things, the success of which can almost entirely be attributed to the skillful conservation of the best of the 80s. First, check out the musical score, which is as magically nostalgic as the music from The NeverEnding Story. (Yes, that’s being remade, too.) Plus, it has a perfectly on-point 80s aesthetic, which is exemplified by that creepy/gorgeous, red-lettering intro. Add in some fantastic child actors that remind us of our favorite Coreys, and mix in some classic, Goonies-style storytelling. Then you have the perfect homage to a decade.
Now you can relive all the best parts of an 80s childhood: using walkie-talkies, riding bikes until the streetlights came on, and trick-or-treating in the neighborhood (instead of at the local mall). And just forget all about Alf, Hot Pockets, and scrunchies. Everyone wins.
So what does this retro craze mean? Well, to begin with, it means that some of our previously guilty pleasures aren’t so guilty anymore. It might also mean that you don’t need to torch those embarrassing pictures from the 90s—the ones where you’re sneering at the camera with long greasy hair, oversized flannel shirts, and baggy jeans. Chances are, we’ll be grooving hard to grunge soon enough.
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