The 1980s are back. I’m very sorry about that.
“From his gold-plated penthouse to his trickle-down tax cuts and his Reaganesque slogans, President-elect Trump is bringing back the ’80s prosperity gospel,” Robert Frank recently wrote for the New York Times. “His approach to wealth harks back to the days of “Dynasty,” DeLoreans and deficits, when the rich were admired and a former actor-turned-president restored America’s optimism and global muscle.”
It’s tough to defend the ’80s. You bring up the decade and people automatically think big hair, Hulk Hogan’s big muscles, drugs, greed, AIDS, and all sorts of other things that, in retrospect, were bad then and probably had some impact that we’re feeling to this day. There’s plenty to make fun of: a bad hairstyle today could get compared to whatever Flock of Seagulls had on their heads, and the 1980s film Heaven’s Gate still serves as the ultimate cautionary tale for how far directors can go with their vision by spending $44 million and barely clearing $3.5 back at the box office. You could make the case for it as one of the worst decades in American and maybe even world history, but then again, you could probably do that with any set of ten years. People act like the 1920s and 1960s were wonderfully high-water periods, but then you look past the real-life F. Scott Fitzgerald characters of the Jazz Age and the hippies and their psych-rock in the peace-and-love era, and you realize that really any ten-year stretch of history works out terribly for large groups of people.
The pop culture of the 1980s comes in for a particularly large share of dismissal now — whether because it represented the last gasp of a number of trends or the fitful beginnings of new ones, it’s hard to say. But the thing is, when you really look back at the books, movies, television shows, and other pop culture artifacts from the time, you see a body of work that is really honest and representative of its time. Sometimes you have to scrape away the gloss and shine, but it’s there. The ’80s were a time filled with great art, both from the underground and the pop mainstream.
I spent the last few years immersing myself in those books and music and especially movies from the era. John Hughes movies, the work of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, hardcore punk bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Negative Approach, and books like Less than Zero, were all very important to me as a teen in the 1990s and remain that way to this day. Yet learning to appreciate other pop culture touchstones from the era did take some time.
For instance, I’ve always loved the 1985 John Landis movie Spies Like Us. It came out when I was four years old, and I saw it for the first time on television a few years later and just figured it was a comedy. It was only much later that I could grasp that a seemingly lighthearted outing for Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase could also be an attempt to laugh at the very scary specter of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Sure, it’s no Dr. Strangelove — but seen at a bit of a remove, it takes on a context that makes it more than just a buddy comedy.
The films of John Hughes, a body of work I’ve now spent a lot of time immersing myself in, in particular deserves another look, especially the way the films positioned themselves against works like the Judith Guest novel and Robert Redford adaptation of Ordinary People, to Judy Blume’s Wifey and the stories of John Cheever, all fictions that brought out the dark side of life in suburban America. Even Risky Business, which Hughes had nothing to do with and came out a year before the first installment in his “teen trilogy” of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, utilized the same Chicagoland suburbs that Hughes would make famous, offering a playfully shadowy tale, with side orders of sex and crime: You don’t know what’s going on behind your neighbor’s door. Their son could be running a brothel with Rebecca De Mornay for all you know.
Hughes approached that darkness directly through the sunshine: I love nearly every movie Hughes wrote, produced, and/or directed, but there is something very striking, especially in the teen films, about how blissfully oblivious the adults seem to everything going on in the world around them, and how many of them will do whatever it takes to hold onto that little bit of power they might hold as some school official or cruel older sibling who eventually gets turned into a giant turd, like Bill Paxton in Weird Science. There’s a lot of fakeness in the suburbs; people are kept out because of their skin color, religion, or financial situation. The suburbs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And while Hughes might not have been trying to hit that point home, it’s sort of difficult to see many of his younger characters staying there. The students who met in Saturday detention all hopefully found a way to get out: Andie from Pretty in Pink definitely ended up in New York City, and Ferris Bueller is probably president by now (just not in the real world, sadly).
I hear people say that things from the ’80s didn’t age well; they see it as a time of mass-produced and ultimately disposable pop culture. They’re not totally wrong. But the 1980s also saw the publication of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the “dirty realism” fiction of writers like Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, and Richard Ford, and writers like David Foster Wallace putting out their first books. I look at those writers and their works and can’t help but notice what a profound impact they’ve had on modern fiction. And while it’s difficult for me to find one novel or short story collection from the decade I love the most, it’s been hard for me to not draw comparisons to our current national and world situation and not think specifically of two writers, Margaret Atwood and William Gibson. How Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and most of Gibson’s work — maybe most specifically 1984’s Neuromancer — seem to have foretold a great deal about where we are. Both hint at how much worse things can get in our world.
Yet when people ask me if there’s one thing I can take from the 1980s and apply to our current times, no novel or film beat out one specific song — and the video that was made for it — as the piece on 1980s culture that connects that time with the time we’re living in today: “Land of Confusion” by Genesis.
Yes, Phil Collins and Co. at the height of their pop powers, and a song and album that I’m sure noted Collins fan Patrick Bateman from American Psycho would have deep thoughts about; that, to me, is possibly the most relevant thing I can pull from the ’80s. That terrifying video with caricature puppets (created by the satiric British television program Spitting Image) still gives me nightmares. Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Madonna with her singing stomach, all played by demonic-looking puppets in some accidental doomsday scenario, make for one of the scariest things to ever air on MTV. I often think about how terrifying the video is, but I also think about Collins singing about being haunted by a million screams and how “there’s not much love to go around,” and I think about how if he thought things were bleak in 1986, I wonder what he thinks of 2016. The future, it turned out, was a whole lot more frightening than he could have imagined.
Jason Diamond is the author of Searching for John Hughes.