The eighties aesthetic; its icons and spirit have been successfully exploited by the fashion and entertainment industry. What makes that decade so special for the consumer?
The eighties, or rather their nostalgic and marketable reinterpretation, are everywhere. In television (Stranger Things, Glow), cinemas (It, Ready Player One), bookstores (The Time of My Life), video games (Crossing Souls, Octopath Traveler), music (the use of synthesizers, the return of vinyl), clothing stores (T-shirts of iconic bands or brands of that era), mobile applications (photo filters that mimic the aesthetics of Polaroid and the texture of VHS tapes) and, if we go a little further, even in the White House. Doesn’t the Trump era look like a Hollywood reboot of the Reagan era?
The phenomenon popularized by the impact of the film Super 8 (J. J. Abrams, 2011) is spreading with no apparent expiration date. This collective idealization of past times is not a recent phenomenon. The Belle Époque (1871-1914) or the “happy twenties” of the last century were longed for in later decades. Nationalisms glorified the past of their nations. Greco-Roman art and culture were recovered during the Renaissance, Classicism, or Neoclassicism. However, why has the recovery of the eighties been so successful? Why not the seventies or the nineties?
There are different explanations for the current success of the aesthetics and cultural products of the 1980s.
Several explanations have been given. One of them is that the children of the 1980s are those who now occupy the spheres of power and have managed to transform the aesthetics and cultural products of their childhood into profitable merchandise. Another is that these same children are now middle-aged consumers prone to indulge in nostalgia as a response to an unsatisfactory present. A third explanation speaks of a form of fetishistic resistance, an attempt to reclaim, through consumer objects, an era perceived as simpler, more stable, and authentic.
This is where false nostalgia would come in: young people born after the 1990s who are fascinated by the aesthetics and objects of a world they perceive as “pre-technological”; a recent and therefore very recognizable era, but one in which neither the Internet nor cell phones existed. But the explanation that interests us most is the historical one.
When we think of the 1980s, we think primarily of the American way of life.
One possible answer to why the eighties are so attractive is because understood as a cultural product, they were “made” precisely for that: to be liked. When we evoke that decade, we think mainly of the United States. In the way of life and the ideology that its films, series, video clips, commercials… transmitted. A world composed mainly of middle-class families of Anglo-Saxon origin, prosperous, happy, and optimistic.
When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981, he launched the largest rearmament program since World War II. One of his flagship projects was the Strategic Defense Initiative, which included the construction of an anti-missile shield. This project was so ambitious that it was baptized by the press with the name of an icon of 1980s science fiction: Star Wars. The Republican president also promoted the so-called “Reagan doctrine”, a foreign policy strategy aimed at combating Soviet influence in Latin American, African and Asian countries. In this ideological war, cultural products played an important role.
A CIA agency developed cultural propaganda programs in the Cold War.
As Frances Stonor Saunders revealed in The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Debate, 2013), the U.S. secret services invested large resources in developing cultural propaganda programs in the Cold War. Between 1950 and 1969, an agency called the Congress for Cultural Freedom acted as a front for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Their tasks were to promote cultural activities that were in tune with the values of the capitalist democracies. After a decade of “appeasement”, the confrontation with the Soviet Union intensified in the 1980s. The U.S. government took up the discourse of the Soviet threat to justify increased military spending and encourage anti-communist propaganda.
The “happy” eighties
How did this change in political direction affect cultural products? Except in the case of films containing a clear patriotic message (Top Gun, Rambo, Chosen for Glory), to which the Department of Defense provided logistic material and indirectly, ideological support (the support was conditional on the defense of national interests), the U.S. government did not intervene directly in the products of the entertainment industry.
However, this conservatism permeated the audiovisual and narrative discourses of the fictions produced in the United States. The blockbuster concept was consolidated in this decade. Hollywood escapist cinema, aimed mainly at teenagers, practically monopolized the market and was exported with enormous success.
This was also due to technological advances. Thanks to the introduction of television in much of the world, the appearance of video players, and the popularization of video games, audiovisual products manufactured by U.S. companies entered the homes of half the world. A child of the 1980s in a capitalist country could live a simulacrum of the American way of life: eating cereal for breakfast, going to school in jeans while listening to American pop music on a Walkman, eating a cheeseburger in a fast food restaurant…
Tension in the real world
Consumption of these products created a global imaginary that would later be transformed into sentimental memory. Between 1983 and 1984, when the Stranger Things series is set, two very different epidemics, AIDS and crack, were ravaging American society. The Iran-Iraq war was in full swing. Reagan began nuclear testing. It was not a peaceful and happy world.
But the one that came to us from the U.S. and that we have incorporated into our emotional memory was. And, judging by the great success of its nostalgic evocation, we miss it very much.