Of late, there has been a massive surge of 80’s-tinged pop culture.
Just about anywhere you look on the entertainment landscape there’s some form of media that owes a debt to the output of artists from almost 30 to 40 years ago. The influences are unmistakable and can be seen, for example, in the Netflix smash hit Stranger Things, which comes right out of the gate with an ominous synth-heavy, neon-soaked title crawl sequence that uses a typeface that could have been lifted from a classic Stephen King novel.
Speaking of The King of Horror, the 2017’s cinematic adaptation of It differentiated itself from the novel to bring the children’s stories into the eighties instead of the fifties. The coulrophobic film certainly benefits from the inclusion of the anachronistic Finn Wolfhard, a shaggy-haired child actor (also from Stranger Things) who would most assuredly fit right in to any film that came out of the 80’s.
Another novelist, Ernest Cline, came crashing out of the gates in 2011 to deliver Ready Player One, a novel so rife with 80’s references that it serves as a kind of time capsule for the fictionalized denizens of the future. Ironically, all of the references are included within a futuristic virtual reality MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) created by a software genius who grew up in the 80’s and sought to virtually reconnect with this time in his life. A Steven Spielberg-helmed film adaptation of the book is on course to wow cinema goers in March 2018.
If it’s more cerebral, nuanced sci-fi you’re after, Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the original 1982 film, remains firmly rooted in the cyberpunk aesthetic that became prominent in the 80’s. This subgenre of science fiction took center stage thanks in large part to the earlier works of Philip K. Dick and Neuromancer scribe William Gibson, among others. Classic anime features like Akira and Ghost in the Shell also boldly embraced this aesthetic, which could further be seen on display in pioneering video games like Shadowrun and System Shock.
And if you’re in the market for a BMX-meets-Mad Max, the deliriously good B-movie Turbo Kid is still available to stream on Netflix as of this writing. This sweet, but gore-drenched film is a sort of homage to the kind of bombastic fare one might’ve stumbled upon while perusing the local video store in the 80’s where all manner of soon-to-be-cult VHS tapes were competing for your rental money with insanely illustrated covers. The creators of that film spoofed kung-fu flicks from the 80’s to hilarious results. And I’d be remiss to not mention the epic Kung Fury short film, which, like Turbo Kid, is a veritable love letter to bombastic 80’s cheese and is also currently available on Netflix (read more about B-movies here and be sure to check out this podcast on the subject here).
We’ve also seen an uptick in Dungeons and Dragons or D&D, the original pen and paper role-playing game (RPG) that hit its stride in the 80’s, even culminating in a beloved Saturday morning cartoon show that ran from 1983 to 1985.
The pervasive influence of D&D certainly set the stage for the development of various computer and console RPG’s of the late 70’s and 80’s like Zork, Ultima, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Warrior, some of which see sequels even to this day.
Speaking of video games, some modern indie releases like Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge have visuals and side-scrolling platform heavy gameplay which recall the heyday of pixelated 8 and 16-bit gaming.
These purposely pixelated gaming experiences are further punctuated by their gloriously retro chiptune soundtracks. Let’s not forget the fervor over Nintendo’s release of the 8-bit NES and 16-bit SNES Classic systems (good luck finding one).
Venturing outside of grandma’s basement (to use an old gamer trope), retro-themed “barcades” have been popping up all over the country. These establishments offer bar patrons classic arcade and pinball machines to play while sipping adult beverages. The throwback to arcades of yore goes a long way to reconnecting players to the original notion of multiplayer, which might’ve meant lining up quarters on the screens of competitive fighting games like Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat to earn a chance to unseat the current champion. Back in the day multiplayer sometimes meant joining in on 2-6 player games like Gauntlet, Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Golden Axe, and X-men, arcade cabinets you’ll likely see at current adult arcades, alongside classics like Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, and Mrs. Pac-man. Sometimes these establishments include split-screen “couch co-op” experiences wherein patrons can plop down on a comfy old couch with a few friends and blast away to console classics like GoldenEye, Mariokart 64, or Halo.
In certain circles, we can hear the 80’s sound being emulated and perfected by various artists under the Synthwave umbrella (or Retrowave, Outrun, or Futuresynth as it’s sometimes called). This musical movement was arguably kickstarted, or at least given a prominent boost by the film Drive which featured artists like College and Kavinsky, but other breakout artists of the genre include Gunship and The Midnight (two of my favorites), Timecop 1983, Com Truise, Power Glove, Perturbator, Mitch Murder, Robert Parker, and many more. Synthwave is unironically named as it seeks to capture the largely synth-heavy sounds that were so prominent in the 80’s and varies as far as how much emphasis is placed on hard-edged, poppy or dreamy vibes, and whether vocals are incorporated or the instrumentals remain the primary focus.
I’ve compiled a Spotify list of 80’s-influenced music that you can enjoy here.
Even Geico recently got into the re-emerging spirit of the 80’s by creating a fully animated commercial starring He-man and friends as they seek to take down a wily Skeletor who gets them thinking about switching to Geico just so he can stage a keen jetpack-assisted getaway while cackling “Catch ya on the flip, suckahs!”
Speaking of He-man, if you haven’t already seen it, this cringe-inducing recreation of Dirty Dancing, but with mortal enemies, He-man and Skeletor taking the place of Baby and Johnny feels so wrong, but is pretty dang funny nonetheless: Dancers of the Universe.
So anyway, what’s going on with all this 80’s Madness?
Why are we seeing all these throwbacks to the era? What’s the psychological drive to reproduce the themes and aesthetics of this period of time? Well, keep in mind that, at least from a creative standpoint, it’s quite difficult to come up with ANY sort of completely original ideas. That being the case, pretty much everyone stands on the shoulders of giants! When you think about it, is there ever really a completely original idea that has not been derived from ideas and concepts that came before? Such a notion is the quintessential essence of learning and experience!
We tend to take what we know about the world and continually test it against new input, building upon or modifying our knowledge base wherever appropriate. The problem is that earlier experiences are sometimes extremely pervasive and difficult to extinguish because initially, they are so completely novel and, thus, memorable, especially considering how we tend to be so moldable and impressionable when we’re younger. The bottom line is that we tend to draw heavily upon our earlier formative experiences – they act as a sort of baseline reference point upon which subsequent experiences are built.
Creatives might reason that if some concept fundamentally worked when they were younger and resonated with themselves and their similarly-aged peers, why not make lightning strike again using some of the same basic core elements?
As far as storytelling goes, there are a finite number of themes that can be told, as apparent in the recurring myths we’ve constructed over time (check out Joseph Cambell’s classic work The Hero With a Thousand Faces for more on that). Famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung would also have a lot to say about the pervasive influence of our “collective unconscious” as well. Many themes have been recycled over the years and will likely continue to be rehashed because we are drawn towards narratives to help frame our experiences and to inspire heroism or teach social mores.
[blockquote text=”We tend to take what we know about the world and continually test it against new input, building upon or modifying our knowledge base wherever appropriate.” text_color=”” width=”” line_height=”undefined” background_color=”” border_color=”” show_quote_icon=”yes” quote_icon_color=”#f7c520″]
I briefly wrote about the pull of nostalgia as it pertains to sequelitis in my blockbuster article, hinting at the desire for reconnection – to reunite with old “friends,” so to speak, with the promise of embarking on new adventures that evoke the same, formerly experienced pleasurable feelings. To further understand the resurgence of 80’s culture, nostalgia is certainly at play here, driving folks in their 30’s and 40’s who are now the decision-makers, content producers, and consumers, to create and support projects that are familiar and comfortable to them and perhaps also driven by a desire to re-connect with a simpler time that was full of hope. We are seeing, in effect, a cultural sequel to the 80’s!
Sociopolitically, the 1980’s “Reagan Era” was a time of abundance and ascendancy, at least for wealthier segments of society. Whether such excess was personally felt or not, the notion of national prosperity and triumph was absolutely part of the zeitgeist.
Considering the current era of intense bipartisanship marked by radical schisms and ideological bickering, connecting with that bygone wave of rampant enthusiasm and optimism seems particularly seductive.
Let’s face it, when we look back with our rose-tinted glasses, the complexities of an era most assuredly get glossed over, perhaps due in part to the myopic perspective that children tend to possess. Now, burdened and hemmed in by the necessities of “adulting,” we might long for a time when expectations were less and possibilities seemed endless. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such yearning, so long as we don’t remain despondent and stuck. This is highly unlikely as culture naturally adjusts in tandem with the shifting sands of time. So I suppose the next questions is: When will we see 90’s themes and aesthetics come to the fore?
Only time will tell, but if this video is any indication, it’s right around the corner…