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Don't You Forget About 'em

September 06, 2009|Adam Tschorn

Trying to deny that you remember the 1980s? Here's a very select list of some pop culture touchstones of the decade -- just to jog your memory.


Premiering in 1984, the series about obstetrician Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) and his attorney wife Claire (Phylicia Rashad) living in New York with their adorable kids became one of the most popular shows of the decade, and added the phrase "Cosby sweater" -- shorthand for the chunky, brightly patterned style of sweaters favored by Cosby -- to our collective vocabulary.


Xavier Roberts' cherubic soft sculpture dolls -- with the signature on the backside and a birth certificate (from Babyland General Hospital) in hand, sold millions, made the cover of Newsweek and became one of the must-have toys of the decade.


The Jamaican four-man bobsled team that emerged as the darling novelty act of the 1988 Winter Olympic games in Calgary, Canada, never made it to the finish line (they crashed their sled). But they did inspire the 1993 Walt Disney movie "Cool Runnings," which starred John Candy as the team coach.


Long before she was a sinewy serial adopter, Madge was the Material Girl from Michigan, who single-handedly defined the '80s aesthetic for impressionable tweens across the country. Her look was layers of excess: skirts over capris, fishnets, bustiers and leather jackets, multiple strands of layered necklaces and bracelets, mascara and big, teased hair and Boy Toy belts. >>>


If the decade's cuisine left a bad taste in your mouth, perhaps it was a result of a new sandwich introduced by McDonald's in 1985. The McDLT (for McDonald's Lettuce and Tomato) was, in essence, a quarter-pound hamburger served in a cumbersome double-wide polystyrene clamshell package that resembled a kitchen sink. The lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, pickles and condiments were supposed to stay cool on one side of the box, while the burger patty and bottom half of the bun stayed warm on the other, requiring the consumer to slap the two sides together before eating.


These lightweight jackets were so closely identified with the '80s, it might actually be possible to travel back in time by zipping one of them up. They always seemed to be a shade of gray nylon just this side of slate, with passants (narrow strips of fabric) at the shoulder, a narrow collar with a strap and ring contraption and ribbed knit waist and cuffs. Right there on the left breast, a logo declared your fealty to the world, on a rectangular black label with silver embroidery spelling it out in capital letters: "MEMBERS ONLY."


It's hard to overestimate the effect MTV had on the decade and the generation that tuned in after the launch of the cable network in 1981. Without it there would be no Madonna, no Cyndi Lauper, no thrashing preening hair metal bands, no Filipino prisoners re-enacting "Thriller" dance routines, no "VJs," no Downtown Julie Brown. Simply put, it changed the music industry as profoundly in that decade as Apple's iPod would two decades later.


The decade was huge for all kinds of video games, but nothing swept the nation like Pac-Man fever, triggered by the 1980 introduction of the yellow, dot-munching happy face and the pursuing ghosts we came to fear as Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde. >>>


It was the sudoku puzzle of its day, only a gazillion times harder. Hungarian architecture professor Erno Rubik invented the colorful torture device in 1974, but America was at the height of cube craziness in the mid-'80s. The simplicity, color scheme and checkerboard pattern of his original creation made it the perfect time-waster.


The excesses of the '80s meant big everything, from hair (see accompanying story on Page P5) to shoulder pads. Combine that with the idea of power dressing in the workplace and by the time the decade ended, ladies and linebackers shared a similar silhouette. Exhibit A: Joan Collins and Linda Evans and their coat hanger clavicles on "Dynasty."


Although he released only two of his albums during the period, the youngest member of the Jackson 5 moonwalked all over the '80s. His 1982 album "Thriller" took advantage of the fledgling MTV and set the bar for all music videos to come. It is ranked as the bestselling album of all time.


One of the most annoying '80s catchphrases began life as a line in an ad for the Wendy's fast food chain, which showed a diminutive old lady (played by the late Clara Peller) at a (fictitious) rival burger joint squinting at her hamburger bun. Throughout the campaign, she would repeat the same phrase: "Where's the beef?" Walter Mondale cemented it in the pop culture pantheon when he appropriated it to admonish rival Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic primary.


Introduced to America in 1984 at a Los Angeles auto show, the Yugoslavian-made subcompact car turned heads with its pocket-friendly sticker price of about $4,000. Soon enough it earned a reputation for its poor quality and was derided as a kind of disposable car. Although it was still manufactured as late as November 2008, it would forever be remembered as an instant punch line from the '80s.

-- Adam Tschorn

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