If this is the '90s, you know the '80s will be here soon

March 22, 1994|By Dennis Romero | Dennis Romero,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Just when you thought it was safe to save money, drive an American car and let your hair down (free of shiny synthetic additives) . . .

They're back!

Yes, it's the '80s, packaged for your enjoyment by Corporate America, the same people who brought you shallow '70s nostalgia, '60s mythology and those happy-daze '50s.

I know what you're thinking: "I'm just now getting through the '70s for the second time, gosh darn it." But while you're out there buying that disco compilation, the suits on Madison Avenue are busy anticipating the next logical cycle for the nostalgia industry -- the '80s.

Don't believe me?

Check your local dance club. Chances are it has an '80s night. (People with Swatch watches get in free?) Check your local record store. Mine already has an '80s bin filled with a half-dozen collections from the days of "new wave." Can you say, "Boy George?"

It's just another example of corporate culture taking over pop culture. Will the suits ever step aside and let young people have their own scene? Do we really need to experience Huey Lewis and the News, tapered pants and Hakey-Sacks again? I mean, we're already green in the face from having the '60s and '70s shoved down our throats. (For the longest time growing up, I thought "youth culture" meant old overweight men with sideburns and guitars).

Now we've got EMI's "Living in Oblivion: The 80's Greatest Hits Volume 1" (leading us to believe there's much more to come). It features those poetic classics "Too Shy" (sample lyric: "You're too shy shy/hush hush, eye to eye"), "Turning Japanese" ("I'm turning Japanese/I think I'm turning Japanese/I really think so") and "I Eat Cannibals" ("I eat cannibal/feed on animal").

Rhino Records hit a chord with a series of rap-revival compilations from the '80s -- "Street Jams," "Hip Hop From the Top" and "West Coast Rap" -- that feature break-dance classics like "Dial-a-Freak" ("Hello baby/What's the scene?/Can I come pick you up in my limousine?").

It's only a matter of months before we start streaking our hair, driving "bimmers," and polishing off those Patrick Nagel posters. Yeah, "Poltergeist," "War Games" and "Back to the Future" will be big in the rental stores.

Teen-agers -- sporting early-'80s-era shell-top Adidas and suede Puma tennies -- have already started to revive break-dancing, incorporating it into the breakneck speed of '90s techno music. And it's the kids that fuel real trends. "Generation X" author Douglas Coupland calls their cultural-salad-bar attitude "decade blending." That's grassroots nostalgia -- not some marketing plan.

The problem with corporate nostalgia is that it often goes overboard -- grabbing on to the most-accessible icons of the decade du jour for the hard sell: The '50s become "Happy Days." The '60s become The Beatles. The '70s are John Travolta. The '80s become anemic Brits and weird hairdos. And the decades' true vibes are lost. Truth is, with a little revisionism, we could look past the kitsch to find some good in the '50s, '60s, '70s, and even the '80s -- like the kids already have.

Rock was born in the '50s. 'Nuff said.

As far as the '60s go, forget lava lamps, love beads and LSD. That trivializes a decade that created the best guitar player who ever lived (in my opinion, Jimi Hendrix), a great pop poet (Jim Morrison) and one of the most influential bands in history (Velvet Underground). (Forget the fashion.)

And the '70s? Disco was killed by the very commercialism that has brought it back -- by poseurs like the Bee Gees and greedy producers that wanted to make a disco version of every song that ever was. (Dolly Parton did a disco track, for criminy. Can you imagine what would happen to alternative rock if Dolly went grunge?) Truth is, there was some great disco out there -- stuff put out by the Salsoul label, for example. Liberating stuff that said we're all the same when we're on the dance floor (despite that lime-green leisure suit you're wearing).

And the '80s? Well -- despite my digs, and this young woman named Tiffany -- there was some good music during the Pac-Man era. Rap created new art forms: Rapid-fire poetry, turntable mixing and studio wizardry. The "new wave" revolution -- underestimated by the mainstream media -- made a giant step in weaning a new generation off the dinosaur guitar. It gave them an instrument of their own: The synthesizer.

Respect for the decade that raised Generation X is already starting to trickle in. Notice how groups like the Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode and New Order are starting to get kudos (10 years later) from the music press. They used to be cold-blooded computer-dweebs cranking out blips and bleeps. Now they're visionaries.

What about the '90s? Makes you wonder what they'll say about the '90s. One thing's for sure: In the end, no matter how hard Madison Avenue tries, culture cannot be legislated. It's hip youth that make trends happen. Sort of. In my local record store, there's a bin titled "1990s." It's empty -- so far.

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