Back to the Future

The 1980’s stunk. So why are they suddenly cool?

Let’s be honest: the 1980s blew worse than Nicaraguan coke off Sonny Crockett’s dashboard. Here’s what I remember: terrible music, terrible hair, terrible threats of nuclear annihilation, terrible exploding space shuttles, and terrible Chern-Sing Goh, who beat me to win both the spelling bee and first-chair trombone. Yet Hollywood is revisiting Top Gun and Dirty Dancing, the airwaves are rife with synthesized music, and the average 20-something has enough Wayfarers and polo shirts to remake John Hughes’s entire oeuvre. This month, having just wrapped an exhibition reflecting on the 1980s, the Walker Art Center is showcasing solipsistic photographer Cindy Sherman and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is presenting avant-garde performer Laurie Anderson—two of the era’s most emblematic artists. I fear that Ronald Reagan will soon be narrating my nightmares: “It’s morning in America, Tim. Time for school!” You could argue that it’s simply the ’80s’ turn on the revolving cultural catwalk. But the Walker in particular is peering deeper into the decade, which began as a backlash against the 1960s and wound up being seeded with all the weeds now choking America: the culture wars over abortion, guns, and gays, not to mention outsourcing, deregulation, and Wall Street shenanigans. To reckon with the issues of today is to reckon with the 1980s, even its self-indulgent art, mindless movies, and mountainous shoulder pads. (Even the fact that I sewed a pinstriped suit for my sock monkey, complete with pink power tie, and pretended he was a rich, ruthless attorney, the person I aspired to be.) The promise of the ’80s, after all, was that the angst and earnestness of the ’60s was unnecessary, so in tough times it’s no surprise that we yearn for that more carefree era. But this time around, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know why the ’80s were carefree: the party was just getting started. Now we’re dealing with the mess.