Why Are We Still So Obsessed With The '80s?

Our nostalgia for the '80s remains etched in our collective consciousness, some 40 years after they began. MTV Contributor Richard He asks why.

Legend has it the 1980s didn’t truly kick off until the birth of MTV. It was on that fateful day – at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday August 1, 1981 – the MTV cable channel whirred to life. “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” intoned a voice over Warholised footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The MTV theme played for the first time, and the Buggles’ already-iconic “Video Killed the Radio Star” marked the start of a new era. MTV had staked their claim in popular culture.

According to I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, an oral history of the station’s golden age: “Hardly anyone thought it would succeed… In 1981, there was no need for music videos. MTV was an outlet for something that barely existed.” It wasn’t fated to succeed; there was no narrative. No playbook. They made it up as they went along.

In 2021, on the 40th anniversary of MTV’s birth, ‘80s nostalgia has been going strong for longer than the 1980s did themselves. From the first cycle of ‘80s nostalgia in the early 2000s, with electroclash and dance-punk, to Future Nostalgia’s revisionist disco-pop in the present day, the ‘80s have offered a seemingly endless mine of aesthetic inspiration.

Is there a single crystallising moment that embodies ‘80s pop music? Hell no! The beauty of the decade was how it let so many disparate movements and ambitious artists collide. Punk rockers embraced their pop sensibilities without selling out: The Cure, New Order, U2. Boy band darlings matured into critically acclaimed auteurs: George Michael, Bobby Brown. In Australia, working-class pub rock bands graduated to international stages: INXS, Midnight Oil, The Church.

At the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, Madonna performed “Like a Virgin” while writhing around in a wedding dress – setting the bar for every VMAs to come. Some called it pure provocation, others justified it as brave, sex-positive feminism. Glam metal bands did the reverse: Def Leppard and Poison made pop records that were fun because they were so bone-headed.

It was a decade where the boomer icons of the ‘60s and ‘70s were still kicking around in pop culture, forced to adapt to survive as commercial prospects – for better and worse. Aretha Franklin duetted with George Michael, Paul McCartney with Michael Jackson. Tina Turner and Cher, then in their 40s, made comebacks that improbably managed to redefine themselves as artists, sex symbols, and queer icons for life.

But for every Graceland or “The Boys of Summer”, there was a “Kokomo” or “We Built This City”. At Live Aid, Queen – who were past their commercial prime – soared, while the Led Zeppelin reunion tanked. The hits we’d rather forget can be just as fascinating as the successes.

As for the underground acts who weren’t on-trend; who had no interest in curating an image – they had just as much to prove. The big-pop bubble of the ‘80s had to burst eventually. And when it did, culminating in the silliness of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and Milli Vanilli’s lip-syncing in 1990, the counterculture of hardcore punk, heavy metal and house music rose up to provide a genuine alternative for a new generation of kids and teenagers.

At this point I would like to make a confession: I wasn’t even here in the ‘80s. Maybe this is all a lie, a convenient projection. When I think of Whitney Houston or Pat Benatar, I actually think of 2011: the first year I played synths in Stand and Deliver, Australia’s biggest ‘80s tribute band. I was the first member born in the ‘90s. We wore wigs and colourful costumes, but the shows we played were nothing like the pub-rock acts that actually toured the circuits during the 1980s.

Maybe it’s silly to try and condense an entire decade into one narrative… but 40 years later, this is how we choose to remember it. YouTube and Spotify have succeeded traditional music video and radio stations, letting us curate memories for ourselves. The anachronisms that result – playlists with vastly different hits from 1980 next to ’89 – can be silly, or they can be revelatory.

Part of why the '80s have stuck around because the fashion and aesthetic is so recognisable. But the true spirit of the decade – if there is one at all – isn’t just about having big hair or saxophone solos.

It’s about the willingness to be flamboyant – and potentially embarrassing. It’s about taking risks, embracing mistakes – like the happy accidents that came with playing analogue drum machines and synthesisers. It’s about experiencing the technological innovation of the decade; not just through pristine remasters on Spotify, but as it really was – second hand vinyl records and shitty VHS rips too. Hindsight isn’t always 20/20, and that’s a beautiful thing.

So has our nostalgia for ‘80s nostalgia come around, yet? Ask us in another 40 years.

Richard S. He is a pop producer, screenwriter, and award-winning journalist. He tweets at @rsh_elle.

Watch Back & Beyond on MTV (Foxtel: 122, Fetch: 104 and Sky: 015) and MTV Hits (Foxtel: 801, Fetch: 237 and Sky: 022) every Saturday in August.

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