Living in a material world

Why the 80s and 90s have made a comeback

Source: Pixabay
What year is it? We don our denim skirts, dungarees and skirts, pull on ‘Mom jeans’ and wide-leggedpants, bucket hats and fanny packs. We sport ‘Hilfiger’, ‘Fila’, and the off-white sneaker. We dance in showers of purple rain, sing of Africa, Eileen and making dreams. ‘The ‘80s Are Here’ screams theNew York Times, but there are ‘‘90s Trends You Need To Try’. It’s 2018, but as Vulture explains, ‘we feel culturally connected to these decades.’ Why? Revivals run on cycles of twenty years. The ‘70s were fascinated by the ‘50s. Think Grease, ‘The Rock ‘n Roll Revival’, and chart-topping Chuck Berry. The ‘60s revived in the ‘80s, with songs like ‘Summer of ‘69’, classic rock, and Dirty Dancing. And we had That ‘70s Show, disco beats, and Boogie Nights in the ‘90s. Twenty years were close enough to be accessed. Relics survived: the records and photos and outdated wardrobes. You could look to your parents. The average mother gave birth in her twenties, so would be the same age as yourself, a person you could be, but never knew. My mum describes wearing her own mother’s clothes – her button-up shirts and knife-pleated skirts. Those decades revived as they were found. You could be given the past, and it fit.
We’ve adhered to that twenty-year rule. The Eighties relaunched in the Noughties: That ‘80s Show and I Love the ‘80s aired in the early 2000s. And by 2010, nostalgia was shifting. ‘For more than a year’, read a 2010 issue of Vogue, ‘people have been saying we’re going back to the ‘90s.’ And true to form, the ‘90s revival’ was, and remains, the ‘Obsession of The Day’. Though as we moved through the Noughties, we are less confined to a past we can access. Generations will always be drawn to the time they were born. We have seen and heard it before. But our revivals are refusing to leave. ‘[T]he ‘80s revival is already old news’, read the same article in Vogue. ‘Time to move on’. But we haven’t, and we’ve noticed. The journalist Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania, Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (2011) – told Inverse.com: ‘the duration of ‘80s nostalgia feels unprecedented, historically speaking. The ‘80s revival has gone on longer than the actual ‘80s did.’
Technology has given access to the past on anunprecedented scale. According to Spotify, in 2016 the streaming of ‘80s songs tripled over three years. And the second-highest demographic of listeners were aged 18 to 24 – us. We have greater access to clothes, with greater choice and convenience. Depop, the mobile flea-market, was founded in 2011 and has ten million users. The first Netflix episode of Stranger Things, set in 1983, was watched by 16 million in the first three days. The past is more easily seen, with images and print now taken online. And with social media, trends can spread like wild-fire. Instagram’s trend page #80s contains 8 million videos and posts. But whether it’s thirty years or twenty, we revive decades eluding our memory. And though I was born in the Nineties, in late ’99, those last few months passed me by. A revival needs that amnesia. The film director Fenton Bailey has defined ‘nostalgia’ as a ‘sufficient amount of time [that] has passed’, so you forget the reality […] and romanticise it’. The past is rid of adversity, and attracts a false sense of purity. Free to interpret, we create what we need. We fashion a decade from present desires, and current beliefs. So the times are not just revived, we reinvented. We create a past that was ‘happy’, ‘simple’ and ‘safe’.
The award-winning Black Mirror episode ‘San Junipero’ (2016) – now a revival-think-piece-cliché – shows how we replace the past with sugared idealism. Set in a future replacement of heaven, the episode follows a love affair between two women – Kelly and Yorkie – in a 1980’s virtual reality. They are integrated as naturally as the carefully cultivated ‘80s soundtrack. As is Kelly’s race. In the Eighties of ‘San Junipero’, being black or gay is not just accepted, but celebrated. The episode acknowledges that this is a ‘Land of Make Believe’ (1982), a song featured alongside ‘Fake’ (1987) and ‘Wishing Well’ (1987). Only seven years before Rhythm Nation, black artists were barred from MTV. Race riots swept through Britain in 1981, and Miami would burn in 1980 – and ‘89. In 1988, the British government introduced Section 28, banning the discussion of homosexuality by local authorities and schools. Local libraries were forbidden to stock material with gay or lesbian themes. The Chief Constable of Manchester told the country in 1986: ‘I see evidence of people swirling around in the cesspool of their own making.’ Heaven was
not a place on earth.
But we identify with the Eighties as the era that tried. Opposition to Section 28 amounted to war. Lesbian protestors scaled the gallery of the House of Lords. Activists stormed the BBC, handcuffed themselves to the broadcasting cameras, and disrupted The Six O’Clock News. ‘By getting on the news’, one protestor said, ‘we would be the news.’ We look to resurrect that spirit. We produce films like Milk (2008) and Pride (2014) – documenting the effort and achievement of activists. The books of the time that were once under ban are now taught and discussed in our schools. So we don’t just replace the mistakes, we romanticise to help ourselves heal. ‘San Junipero’, the name, stems from Juniper, the plant – a soother of sickness and pain. We revive the past, perhaps, to heal prevalent wounds. Eighties fashion soothes us, creating a sense of freedom. Isabel Marant explained that the ‘joy of the ‘80s was the freedom to dabble in many’, the ‘reckless abandon’. Variety was encouraged by a number of fashion magazines like The Face, I-D, and Blitz. This ‘triumvirate of style bibles’, according to Metro, ‘defined what was fashionable at the time.’ Ian R Webb was fashion director of Blitz from 1982 to 1987. ‘A huge variety of looks collided and coexisted’, he told Metro in 2013. ‘A lot of things featured came from charity shops or we knocked them up on a sewing machine. [….] The magazine gave us a stage […] to present […] an alternative way of looking at fashion.’
It is an alternative we’re embracing today. Vintage blogger Jasmin Rodriguez told the Huffington Post: ‘With so many companies […] creating mass-produced clothing, it is hard to keep your originality[….] Buying vintage supports individuality.’ And Richard Wainwright, co-founder of a vintage pop-up in L.A., told the Post: ‘so many […] have embraced vintage as a way to develop a signature style.’ Research has shown that 16-18% of Americans use vintage shops in one given year, compared to 21% who shop in a major department store. Its share of the market is growing, and the companies have noticed.‘It’s such a great era to look back on’, the Global Design Director of Topshop told Grazia last year, ‘as it championed individualism […] and expression.’ The Nineties championed rebellion. ‘Grunge’ fashion emerged as ‘opposition to the materialistic excess and glamour of the decade’, and reached itspeak in the Nineties. It’s a style we’re reviving. In 2018, Vogue predicted, everyone will be having to ‘grunge it’. And we are. Trend Spotter characterised the look as heaving layering, Doc Martens, oversized silhouettes, and slouchy sweaters – most of which I wear daily. Our return to rebellious styles may be attempts to reclaim authenticity through fashion. The defining feature of ‘90s fashion was authenticity. Beauty was redefined as less constructed. Designs were grittier. It was an ‘antidote’, The New York Times explains, to ‘blown-up body parts airbrushed to car-paint’. In 2018, we still need that antidote. Jameela Jamil, in a Channel 4 podcast last August, said: ‘The face-tuning, the
photo-shopping, the fillers, […] it’s definitely gotten worse. […] Women are way more under attack than men’. Is it a coincidence that the revival of grittier fashion and grunge is especially marked among women? Clothes are worn for transparency. Women wear nets, and tops made of mesh. Outfits are strapless and backless. These may be attempts to reject distorted versions of appearance, and embrace the genuine ‘you.’
But the most obvious display of Eighties revival is music. We are drawn to the sound. As W Magazine wrote in 2016, ‘popular music is as synth-heavy as it’s ever been since that decade’. Synth first hit the main-stream in the mid to late Eighties, with an impact comparable to Mersey beat. And it’s back in the mainstream. In 2015, Slate attributed the success of ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ to how well The Weeknd simulated ‘the synth burble and serotonin flush of 1980s Michael Jackson.’ It’s not just The Weeknd. The biggest singles of the year – singles from Dua Lipa, Calvin Harris, Ariana, and Drake – all feature synth. In 2018, if you have Eighties sound, you’re a hit. But why? The sound, in fact, had never gone away. The kind of music we listen to now is the same as they listened to then. In the Eighties, synth was quickly absorbed into dance music, creating genres like ‘synth-pop’ and ‘dance-pop’. This produced some of the most recognisable songs of the decade, like ‘Tainted Love’ (1981) and ‘Into the Groove’ (1984). As the genres blurred, a music was created that sounds ‘electronic’ but also like ‘pop’ – a sound of up-tempo, synthesised beats you could get up and dance to. Which is, in effect, our own music. Artists from Rihanna to David Guetta, Britney Spears to Beyoncé, are all considered artists of the genre. And just listen to hits like ‘Solo’ and ‘One Kiss’. Nothing much has changed.
Neither has our worship for their stars. The last few years has seen a surge of interest in artists like David Bowie, George Michael and Michael Jackson. It can be seen in the industry. Record producer Max Martin – ‘the Swedish imperial chart conqueror’ – spoke to Slate about their influence in 2015. ‘These kids […] don’t have a Michael Jackson,’ he explained. ‘They don’t have a Prince. They don’t have a Whitney. Who else is there? Who else can really do it at this point?’ It is a lack we are very aware of. Many of these artists have died in our lifetimes: MJ in 2009, Whitney in 2012, and in 2016, Prince, George Michael, and Bowie. With each loss, we have felt the weight of a presence we never experienced. But we try to understand – buying records, and posters, and downloading singles. But to argue we lack the same talent is misguided. We may not have a Whitney, but we have a Beyoncé. We have the calibre of Drake, Rihanna, and Adele. So it’s not just a question of quality: we are drawn to these stars for their stories. Margo Jefferson published On Michael Jackson last May asking: ‘How to account for Michael Jackson’s rise and fall?’ And the tragedy of Whitney Houston’s life continues to fascinate with documentaries like Can I Be Me (2017) and Whitney, released last July. Their lives reflect questions that we are now able to discuss more openly, or even at all: questions of race, sexuality, addiction, and mental health. Whitney encompasses all of these: the recent film exposes claims of abuse. So their lives are important – the interest helps us understand our own times and ourselves.
Above all, though, we just like the songs. Slate’s music critic Carl Wilson has written the best analysis I’ve read. Eighties music, he writes, ‘connotes its fancied innocence. […] The music’s very shallowness becomes a kind of helpless depth.’ The shallow profundity is intrinsic. In 1989, an academic wrote a paper examining the top fifty songs of September 1987. It proves, he admits, what we already knew. We make songs fit our own lives. The analysis shows that, for the music of 1987, 94% of the songs had an unspecified ‘I’. 86% had unspecified ‘you’. 62% had unspecified genders. The songs are so vague we ‘appropriate the words.’ And, importantly, 94% are not grounded in time, and 80% are not given a place. They are, in other words, timeless. Which is why, on every other Wednesday, Cellar is packed for ‘Burning Down the House’. And it’s why I pass a builder who, laying a drive, joins in with his speaker, and looks me in the eye: ‘Don’t you want me, baby? Don’ you want me, oh!’ So, really, above all the cycles, the clothes, and the music, we feel a greater pull. It may be sentimental, inaccurate, or shallow, but deep down, no matter who we are, or where we may be, you remember don’t you. You wanna dance with somebody.

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