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Moonwalk Down Memory Lane

'That '80s Show' Makes It Official--the 'Re Decade' Is Back. So Let's Crank the Boombox, Point the DeLorean Back to the Future and Party Like It's 1999.

March 03, 2002|Patrick J. Kiger

Given that there's been a lot going on in the world lately, this news may have escaped your attention: Finally, belatedly, '80s nostalgia has arrived.

If you had been watching more closely, the subtle but unmistakable signs were everywhere. Vintage 100% nylon parachute pants are for sale on the Internet, and designers' fall lines were full of acid-wash denim and '80s-style neon colors. Eighties cover bands, including The Breakfast Club and the DeLoreans, are doing eerily perfect replicas of Duran Duran's "Rio" and other era classics. A growing number of Web sites with names such as and are popping up to offer compendiums of song lyrics and glossaries of period lingo for those who need guidance about the proper usage of "gag me with a spoon" and "to the max." "The A-Team" is on cable, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently concluded a mini-retrospective on '80s postmodernism. And, of course, Dick Cheney has made a comeback.

But to make things official, that harbinger of pop trends, the Fox Network, recently debuted a new half-hour sitcom, "That '80s Show," by the creators of "That '70s Show." Set in 1984 San Diego--"just one hour outside of the big dream we call Los Angeles," according to the Fox Web site--it premiered Jan. 23 to impressive ratings in prime demographic categories. An estimated 11.4 million total viewers tuned in despite somewhat less-than-impressive reviews.

You may be asking, "Where's the Beef?" After all, we've been hearing rumors, predictions and pronouncements of an '80s revival for years--at least as far back as 1993, when a corporate trend-research firm called Sputnik pointed to hipster jokes about Members Only jackets and Michael Jackson as signs of an incipient fad. But compared to previous eras, '80s retro, as a mass-market trend, took off with the sluggish acceleration of the original four-cylinder Pontiac Fiero. Some took it as a sign that perhaps American society's obsession with nostalgia at last had become passe. Cycles of nostalgia, after all, have been rushing upon us faster and faster, with shorter and shorter lag times. In the 1950s, Americans went gaga over Davy Crockett, who'd been dead for more than a century. By the mid-1970s, we were getting nostalgic about the 1950s.

During the actual 1980s, we burned through '60s chic so quickly that, by mid-decade, you already could go to a dance club in Hollywood for '70s night and see polyester-clad swingers discoing down to "Fly, Robin, Fly" and "Love to Love You Baby," reviving a style that had barely made it into the remainder bins. At that rate, like the feckless lover depicted in Prince's "Little Red Corvette," '80s pop culture seemed chronically in danger of running out of gas. A 1998 Roper poll showed that about one-third of adults under the age of 30 thought of the '80s--their coming-of-age era--as "the good old days." That doesn't sound too shabby until you consider that nearly half as many people that age preferred the '50s, an era before they were even born.

Part of the problem with '80s retro, perhaps, is that previous waves of nostalgia have always centered upon a yearning for the seeming naivete of a simpler age. Fifties hot-rodders and prom queens were an appealing fantasy for children of the '70s, partly because they didn't have to wait in long lines for gasoline or grapple with the implications of feminism. It's a little tricky to work up that sort of warm feeling about the junk bond traders and corporate-takeover pirates of the '80s, when cynicism was a virtue and the big event was the Predators' Ball.

Beyond that, the '80s was an era obsessed with ironically re-interpreting the past, to the extent that Esquire magazine contemporaneously knocked it as the "Re Decade." It was so heavily retro that it's a challenge to find something original to recycle. When you try to imitate Madonna imitating Marilyn Monroe on MTV, the joke gets a little too incestuous. And much of '80s fashion would be difficult to replicate, because the JFK-era tuxedo jackets and vintage lace that L.A. hipsters found at Aardvark's Odd Ark on Melrose Avenue are likely to be too moth-eaten and tattered for a third go-round. It's little wonder that, thus far, the '80s have yet to inspire a lovingly meticulous cinematic homage of the caliber of "American Graffiti." We have to settle for "The Wedding Singer," which was more about Adam Sandler's vocal shtick than it was about Reagan-era zeitgeist. (Granted, that guy break dancing to a gloomy New Order song was an inspired bit of parody.)

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