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August 1, 2016

So How Good Were the 80s, Really?

Wait.  Should it be “How Good Are the 80s?”  Or is it okay for past tense?  I mean, it is literally the past we’re talking about here.  But we’re talking about it in the present and the context therein soooooooooooo…

Ah, forget it.  I’m done thinking about it already.

So anyway.  I’m pretty sure that if you’ve got a working set of eyes and ears, you know that Ghostbusters has made it back into theaters.  Again.  And as preferable (if not easy) it would be for everyone to just let it come and go, it’s been mired in controversy for months on end thanks to the less-than-ideal trailer and the boat-rocking by some Sony executives -- itself helped by the clash of opinions in nerd culture.  Now that people have actually gotten to see it, results have been “mixed”, as far as I can tell.  It had a good score on Rotten Tomatoes, which implies that a fair number of critics gave it their blessing.  On the other hand, plenty of internet/YouTube personalities have effectively loaded the new movie with bullets.  We’ll see what happens when the dust clears, especially in terms of money-making power (which is probably why Ghostbusters has been trotted out again in the first place).

But I’m not here to talk about Ghostbusters, because everyone else already has.  I have a more important question in mind.  Any guesses as to what it is, person who read the title of the post?

It’s no secret that the media bigwigs are more than willing to mine the past for attempts at success.  Sometimes it seems like no matter where you look, you’re bound to find remakes, reboots, reimaginings, and the like -- and sequels tack on a whole new wave of unoriginality.  It’s not exactly a situation worth envying, considering that it’s way too easy for productions to go off the rails like a greased-up locomotive with rocket boosters.  But we’ll probably keep getting re-entries for a while yet; if nothing else (and that’s a generous spin), they garner attention.  Any publicity is good publicity, as they say.

Still, there’s something that’s been on my mind lately.  The original Ghostbusters came out in 1984, meaning that (sequel aside) we’re getting a new entry more than 30 years later.  That’s a hell of a gap, even if you use the argument of “it’s been dormant for ages”.  Still, it’s not the only one.  Transformers is also in its 30s, but that didn’t stop Michael Bay and crew from pumping it with gas back in 2007.  RoboCop and Jem and the Holograms have come and gone.  The original Indiana Jones came back to snag a crystal skull, but that’s basically a mulligan since there’s another installment on the way.  That’s by no means a complete list, but you get the idea.  Brand recognition, ho!

It’s easy to pin all of the re-entries on nostalgia fever.  After all, I’ve heard that there’s a cyclical element to entertainment -- i.e. those in charge of deciding what we see in the future have no problems looking to the past, especially 20 years ago, for “inspiration”.  But anyone with a basic understanding of math knows that we’re a ways away from the 80s.  I guess the next step is to start mining the 90s for content (see: the new Power Rangers movie), but these days I can’t help but wonder about the mindset behind these re-entries.

Maybe I’m overthinking things, or being too naïve.  Maybe it’s all just a matter of bringing back stuff from the past that people liked, and hoping it’ll translate to sales.  And yeah, I guess that’s a major factor.  Still, I’m curious.  Is it really just about doing a bit of necromancy on some old properties and hoping for the best?  The optimist in me is starting to have doubts.  Could it be that there was some secret to the 80s -- something truly magical about them -- that led to some of the highest-quality content we’ve ever seen?  Are the revivals simply a way to relive the good old days, or is there a legit reason to bring them to the present?

If you’re reading this, you probably already have a clear answer.  I certainly don’t.  I was barely a concept in that decade, and didn’t become fully cognizant until 2011.  Plus, it’s not like there’s any easily-accessed tool for finding all the information I could possibly want.  So my experience with the 80s is horrifyingly limited.  Most of what I have to go on is hearsay and passing jokes/comments.  Big hair!  Shoulder pads!  Bright colors!  Synth sounds!  And so on.  Really, my impression of it is that it was a silly decade full of rational people doing stuff that would become cringe-worthy the second the clock struck 12 and rung in January 1st, 1990.

Thinking about the 80s brings up all sorts of questions about the decade.  I prefer to look at art based on its merit and particulars, but I know that sometimes said art and its context are born from the circumstances of the times.  A cursory look at TV Tropes is quick to note that America was still in the Cold War, and the world was starting to get into computers (and gaming!).  The people of the era also had to deal with AIDS, its relationship with LGBT individuals, huge crime rates, and literally all of the drugs.  I know the phrase “the good old days” gets tossed around a lot -- I just used it a little while ago -- but as I’ve said before, they only become “the good old days” in hindsight.  Every era has its issues, and even the rosiest of rose-tinted glasses can’t mask them.

Maybe that’s why some people cling to the art of the time.  Granted some of those people were probably too young to know about the world’s problems, but still.  In a lot of ways, art is a respite -- a chance at some soothing escapism -- that protects us from the harshness of reality.  That’s true of any era, past, present, or future.  Now, I’m not saying that we needed stuff like Transformers or Thundercats to ease fears of the big bad world, especially since it’d be all too easy to scoff at certain productions -- like Transformers being derided as a toy commercial, for example.  But I think it’s a disservice to think of anything and everything from that era as A) just a merchandise shill, B) a chance to make money off unsuspecting masses, and/or C) products whose only worth would be nostalgia decades down the line.

Confession time: even though this post started out by talking about the new Ghostbusters -- yet again continuing the trend of products that have the same name as the original for hyper-confusion -- there’s an ulterior motive in mind.  A secret impetus.  As it so happens, I’ve been listening to the radio more; I’m bummed by the fact that, near as I can tell, there’s no dedicated metal station.  (Well, maybe on one of those XM Radio stations, but I’m a filthy plebeian.)  In exchange, I went for the next best thing: a station that plays no shortage of tracks from the 80s, with hour-long segments dubbed “I Love the 80s”.  And based on what I’ve heard, I kind of love them too.

Okay, I’ll be fair.  Unless it’s Aerosmith or Journey, I couldn’t tell you the name of the song, the name of the band, the album, the release date, or even a fair number of the lyrics.  But I’ve been enjoying the crap out of the songs that pop up, to the point where I’m legitimately eager to pop over to YouTube and try to hear them again -- and maybe think of a few of them as the theme songs of my characters/stories.  “Wild Boys”, “Living on a Prayer”, and “Dreams” are some personal favorites, standing shoulder to shoulder with a giant like “The Final Countdown”.  I wouldn’t fault anyone for saying that those songs -- and more of them, I bet -- are cheesier than a block of cheddar stacked as high as the Empire State Building, but for me that’s part of the appeal.  The music is cheesy, but I can feel the passion.  The energy.  And in turn, I feel the heat rise inside my heart.

Maybe that’s the key to art from the 80s.  Back then, its creators didn’t have to depend so heavily upon nostalgia-baiting.  I’m not saying that it didn’t happen, but in a modern-day context where it seems like execs are just pulling names out of a hat, it seems like the past had an advantage.  Rather than rely on brands and name recognition, brave men and women had to make their own brands.  As they should.  And they did.  Were there decade-specific gimmicks being used?  No doubt.  But for an outsider looking in, it doesn’t take much to see the passion, creativity, and ingenuity being used to craft the best works possible.  It’s no wonder people try to play to that nowadays.

Good art is made with passion, and can help bring out the passion in others.  Sure, there are probably tons of people out there who still have their Transformers on-hand at this very moment.  (Not that I’m judging them, since I’m the same way with some Gundams.)  But think about it: even if they have those toys because of some glorified commercials, would they have had their parents buy them if not for the delight offered by the TV show or movie?  On a different axis, would “Spielberg” have become such a hallowed name if not for the sheer power of his movies?  Would Guns N’ Roses have received the highest honor of being referenced throughout Mega Man X5 if not for some rockin’ tunes?

I can’t spew any absolute truths, but based on what I’ve experienced with the radio, I have a theory.  A hypothesis of sorts; maybe the appeal of the 80s (and probably the 90s in a little bit) isn’t some perceived purity of the good old days, or a bile-spewing reaction to the productions of the present.  Maybe it’s just about accepting and embracing the passion of yesteryear.  We’re talking about a time where men grew out their hair and screamed like banshees, while armadas of children fell in love with a bunch of pizza-munching warrior reptiles.  But guess what?  Despite the weirdness, and despite the snark-worthy nature, those pieces of art worked.  The talent helped, but so did the passion behind them.  The courage to put something out there, no matter how easily-derided it could be, helped them build a legacy that’s endured for decades.

I know it’s easy to laugh about them, but considering just how much stuff has been revived, it seems pretty obvious who’s getting the last laugh, doesn’t it?

Like I said, though, that’s my theory.  Probably not a very good one, if I had to guess.  So that’s where you guys come in: how good were the 80s, really?  An era of boundless nobility, or a chance to shake your head and go “What the hell were they thinking?”  Were the products of the era truly amazing, or simply acceptable in hindsight?  Any reason why we see so much nostalgia-baiting these days?  Tell all, because…uh…hold on, let me find some fitting lyrics.

Oh yes, here we go.  These will do nicely!

Buddy you're a young man hard man
Shouting in the street gonna take on the world some day
You got blood on yo' face
You big disgrace
Wavin' your banner all over the place

Yeah!  Wait, I think I got that wrong somehow.  Well, I’m sure it’s fine.

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