1980s cultural nostalgia kept strong by aging Generation Xers

May 25, 2018 GMT

Adam Sandler’s 1998 rom-com “The Wedding Singer” first capitalized on ’80s nostalgia, and we haven’t been able to quit the Reagan decade ever since.

Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” Amazon’s “Red Oaks.” The “Hot Tub Time Machine” franchise. Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One.” FX’s “The Americans.” YouTube Red’s “Cobra Kai,” spun from the 1984 hit “The Karate Kid.” The 1980s have proved to be particularly fertile for reboots, remakes and retrospectives.

The ’80s-set horror film “It” scored massive box office returns last year. We apparently can’t let go of the decade of leg warmers and shoulder pads long after Mr. Sandler retired his “Wedding Singer” mullet.

Decade nostalgia is hardly new. Audiences flocked to the ABC sitcoms “Happy Days” and “Laverne Shirley,” twin odes to the 1950s, during the 1970s. And a pre-“Star Wars” George Lucas scored with “American Graffiti,” a love letter to ’50s-era cruising.

Those cultural obsessions spiked and faded fast. Not the ’80s nostalgia.

Steve Spears, creator and host of the long-running “Stuck in the ’80s” podcast and blog, calls the decade a “modern-day Camelot.”

“Everything seemed so new and wonderful that decade ... personal computers, video games, music videos, cellphones, new ways of recording and performing music,” Mr. Spears said.

The era offers much more, though.

“It was the last decade that has a genuine ‘feel’ to it,” said Mr. Spears, who began his podcast in 2005 and has hosted more than 450 episodes. “You can define it, hold it in your hand and proclaim, ‘This is so ’80s.’”

Those gargantuan shoulder pads didn’t hurt.

We’ll soon see a “new” version of “Magnum, P.I.” and likely other ’80s staples before too long, proving that ’80s nostalgia isn’t going away anytime soon.

Mr. Spears pointed to another cultural reason why ’80s nostalgia endures.

“The decade’s fascination with absolute good versus absolute evil is one of its main attractions,” he said.

Consider the action heroes of the era: muscle-bound warriors who gave little attention to collateral damage or bruised feelings. Sylvester Stallone. Chuck Norris. Arnold Schwarzenegger. They were larger than life, and audiences craved their exploits.

Conservative podcaster, pundit and author Andrew Klavan drew a direct line from ’80s nostalgia to a certain commander in chief.

The “Reagan Revolution” fueled patriotism and capitalism, “the pure thrill of coming out of 20 years of disastrous leftward drift into the clean air of common sense again,” Mr. Klavan said.

A robust economy highlighted President Reagan’s optimism.

Another factor in the ’80s favor? A longing for a more analog age, when our friends and neighbors weren’t buried in their smartphones or tablets.

“No cellphones, no internet. It was the last time you could have real solitude and independence,” Mr. Klavan said.

Kathleen Feeley, a history professor at the University of Redlands in California, said part of the decade’s pull boils down to the folks pulling those Hollywood levers.

“The children of the ’80s are now middle-aged and in positions of media power,” Ms. Feeley said. “They are producing and approving media content for themselves, their children and even their children’s children, and turning to their own childhoods for inspiration and comfort.”

For example, in the ABC family sitcom “The Goldbergs,” a narrator intones before every episode that the following events occurred “in 1980-something.” The series is based on the real-life childhood of TV producer Adam F. Goldberg and features videos he made as an aspiring filmmaker in 1980-something.

Aging Gen Xers also offer a “desirable, lucrative demographic to be catered to by content producers of all ages and eras,” Ms. Feeley said.

We’ve seen fitful attempts at ’90s nostalgia, including Netflix series “Everything Sucks” and ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” Neither show can boast a look or feel as distinctive as the ’80s, though.

Mr. Spears said ’90s nostalgia is inevitable but won’t match our obsession with the previous decade.

“Who really wants to sit through an hourlong set by Smashmouth or dress up in grunge fashion?” he said. “Where’s the fun of the ’90s? Even the defining song of the decade which, I imagine, is Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is tempered by the lingering memory of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.”

Americans are constantly craving comfort food, be it the local drive-through or the nostalgia peddled by Hollywood. In uncertain times, that hunger only grows stronger, Mr. Spears said.

“All the division, hatred and disillusionment that clouds our country today that’s why people go back to the ’80s. They need a breath of fresh air,” he said.