A few days ago my teenage son left the house with his jeans pegged, his hair spiked with obscene amounts of gel, and the collar of his polo shirt flipped up. It was 80’s day in his high school history class, and extra credit was offered to any student willing to dress like they were an extra on the set of Pretty in Pink. As I watched him walk out the door, memories of my own teenage years flooded my brain, and it was in that moment that I thought to myself, “Wow, this makes me feel old. Really, really old.”
But I’m not, not really. (This is the part where you nod in agreement.) It was just a shock to find out that my adolescent years are now presented as an object history lesson to today’s high school students. I mean, the 80’s were not that long ago, right? RIGHT?
As part of my son’s “in-depth” research, he interviewed my husband and me about the Awesome 80’s. Or the Radical 80’s. They were also Gnarly, Tubular and Wicked, not to mention Bodacious. (The decade may have had its shortcomings, but failure to produce a unique vernacular wasn’t one of them. I’m not a linguistic expert, so this is only a guess, but I think it is rivaled only by the 1920’s in its prolific use of distinctive slang and idioms.) In any event, answering his questions created a tidal wave of memories in me. While the list below is far from exhaustive, here are ten things that came out of the memory vault while we were talking:
- There was a new John Hughes movie at the theater pretty much every other day. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating — but not much. When it came to capturing teen angst a la eighties, John Hughes nailed it. Go watch The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. Throw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off into the mix and you have the makings of an all day marathon. By the time you finish you’ll know everything there is to know about being a teenager in 1986. Everything. (Unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned, Mr. Hughes lost his cinematic edge with Home Alone in 1990, a movie I have detested since its release.)
- Everything was “bitchen.” As in, “Did you check out Paul’s new car? It’s bitchen hot.” This particular bit of slang has left common usage, along with other bits and phrases from the 80’s lexicon like airhead, gag me with a spoon, psych, grody to the max, and Where’s the beef?
- New York Seltzer. I can remember walking to Safeway everyday at lunch during my high school years to grab a bottle of my favorite carbonated beverage, preferably black cherry flavored. Ubiquitous in the 80’s, this drink disappeared after 1993, when the company that made it went bankrupt. Now and again, I hear rumors of its resurgence, but I’ve never been able to track it down.
- Cheers. Possibly the best sitcom in the world. Ever. To this day, I can’t hear the theme song without tearing up a bit. I don’t know why, but in some weird way it makes me homesick for my teenage years.
- Video Game Arcades. Imagine my son’s horror when he realized that in the 80’s not every teenager had immediate and personal access to an infinite variety of gaming options. Most of us went instead to our local arcade, where we dumped quarter after quarter into over-sized machines trying to gain a respectable level of proficiency on Pac-Mac or Frogger. But the real reason to go to an arcade (for me, at least) was to hang out with friends. Many an hour was spent in the glow of 8 bit graphics, ranting about the travesty that was New Coke, making plans to see Ghostbusters for the third time, and spying on cute guys.
- Going to the Mall. A legitimate social destination for every 80’s teen was The Mall. In my small town, The Mall was little more than a J.C. Penney, a bookstore, and a soda shop. (Yes, we actually had a soda shop — you could get Coke with a squirt of flavored syrup in it, as well as candy or ice cream.) Despite the lack of amenities that could found in larger urban malls, we went there anyway, it being The Thing To Do. And no afternoon at the mall was complete without an hour or two spent in…
- The Record Store: Although part of The Mall, The Record Store was also a destination in and of itself. It was also a Social Sorting experience — Van Halen or Madonna? Duran Duran or Michael Jackson? Aerosmith or Huey Lewis? Your peers knew an awful lot about you based only on the section of the store you hung out in. Actually becoming employed at The Record Store guaranteed you god-like stature across all levels of high school social strata. Sadly, The Record Store has faded into obscurity, along with, well, records.
- MTV. On August 1, 1981 at 12:01 a.m. MTV launched itself on the airways, playing the music video Video Killed the Radio Star.
- 80’s Fashion. When it came to style, the 1980’s had an option for everyone. You could go Preppy, Skater, Metal, Glam Rock, New Wave, Punk, wannabe Rapper — the possibilities for
embarrassing yourselfexpressing your personal style were endless. Your personal choice was usually dictated by the social grouping you most identified with (see, #7, The Record Store). And always, there was That One Girl who dressed up like Madonna every single day. For my part, I could often be found wearing Top-siders without socks, paired with a polo shirt or a button down Oxford with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. Getting dressed up meant a baggy sweater with a skirt, topped off with big earrings, bigger hair, and several long strings of plastic beads draped around my neck. Although many of the fashions were fun to wear, I do think most of them should stay in the 80’s: bulky shoulder pads for women, leg warmers, and parachute pants spring immediately to mind.
- Comic strips. Bloom County, the Far Side, and Calvin & Hobbes all began in the eighties. If you don’t find these strips funny, then I’m not sure we can be friends…okay, we can be friends, but full disclosure: I will be judging you a little bit.
I think it’s a common tendency to believe the era of our own coming of age years is superior to those of other generations. The truth is, we all have our own version of “the good old days” — and my version and yours may not match up. That’s okay. It isn’t a contest…
…but if it was, the eighties would, like, totally win.